Flora and Fauna
The flora and fauna in the Arctic is unique. The Arctic is home to more than 20,000 species of plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms. The area is of paramount importance for global biodiversity. Some animals and plants are found nowhere else but in the Arctic. The high-latitude climate is ideal for forming varieties of individual species of flora and fauna. For example, the Arctic has 25% of the types of salmonids, almost 12% of the species of lichens and 6% of the species of moss.
The unique feature of modern Arctic flora and fauna is in the uneven distribution of species and a sudden change in the number of representatives of a species as the natural area changes. On the Taimyr Peninsula, for example, as you move 700 km to the north, the number of plant species decreases 4 times, birds - 7 times and beetles - 15 times.
The composition of the species of flora and fauna in the Arctic has unique proportions. Only 16-17% of Arctic species are insects, a class which forms half of the species diversity of the planet. The most enduring are Alaska beetles and flies that can withstand temperatures of up to -60 ºC. Mosquitoes and bumble bees pollinate the flowers in the Arctic, where there are almost no honey bees. This goes against the preconceived idea of the Arctic as a region without life.
The Plant World
The flora is unique as it has a mix of Arctic and relatively southern (American and Asian) plants and relict species. There are steppe areas in the continental areas on the southern slopes of Chukotka. Scientists have suggested that all the Arctic was covered in steppes during the period of the mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Floristically, the richest regions of the Arctic are the coast of the Chukotka Peninsula and Wrangel Island, which is the northernmost site of UNESCO World Natural Heritage. 40 species of plants and animals that inhabit the island are found nowhere else on Earth.
Vegetation in the Arctic includes grasses, sedges, polar poppies, willow shrubs, dwarf birch, lichens, liverworts and mosses (including the well-known reindeer moss). The Chaun Bay off the coast of Chukotka, with its thickets of seaweed and a rich fauna, including relics of the warm periods of the past, is considered to be an anomaly of biodiversity.
The plants of the Arctic are the foundation of the life of animals and humans. Arctic cloudberries, fungus, medicinal herbs, and even lichens are used as food. In Iceland people have long since been making flour and baking bread from the lichen Cetraria. It is a natural indicator of a clean environment and a leader in terms of its content of vitamins, minerals, polysaccharides and various lichen acids.
The Animal World
The reindeer is one of the most beautiful animals of the North and the most important animal in the life of indigenous peoples. For the nomadic peoples reindeer means meat, milk, hide and antlers - everything that makes it possible to adapt to extremely low temperatures. 100 grams of venison equals a human’s daily vitamin requirement and is a guarantee against scurvy. Venison, reindeer liver and reindeer blood help in cases of beriberi, metabolic disorders and anaemia.
Humans domesticated reindeer about one thousand years ago, and reindeer herding has become a traditional activity of many indigenous peoples. In North America, on the other hand, reindeer have not been domesticated, the continent's original inhabitants preferred to hunt the American deer - caribou.
The largest population of domestic reindeer lives in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, 665,000 of these animals graze in the area.
The largest Arctic ungulates are musk oxen, which are contemporaries of the mammoth. They are perfectly adapted to the harsh conditions: they have long hair to protect from the wind and they are not particular in terms of diet. These herbivores are listed in the Red Book of Russia. They live only on Wrangel Island and the Taimyr Peninsula, they were brought there in the mid 70s. On the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago the musk ox population is steadily increasing (especially on Banks Island). Until the 20th Century musk oxen lived in Alaska. Scientists believe that the animals could have changed their «place of residence» under the pressure of global warming, because muskoxen are not accustomed to live in conditions of heavy rainfall - their fur rolls up and becomes wet in deep snow. Hunters played a significant role in reducing their population. Under natural conditions, wild deer and musk oxen are threatened by the polar wolf.
The fur trade is traditional for the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, as the Arctic region is inhabited by weasels, true foxes, polar wolves, wolverines and arctic foxes.
An important link in all food chains are rodents and hares. Each day Arctic lemmings eat one and a half times their own weight. Depending on the food supply, the lemming population varies from year to year, from covering vast areas to almost complete extinction.
The Arctic is home to half the world's species of coastal birds. They are an important link between the marine and coastal ecosystems. The Arctic coast would be unimaginable without its «bird rookeries», the largest colonies of northern fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, cormorants Bering, thick-billed murre, glaucous gulls and Arctic terns.
In the short summer season 280 bird species nest along the coastline of the Arctic Ocean. After breeding, hundreds of thousands of rare and common bird species fly to Europe, Africa, Asia and even Antarctica. The Taimyr Peninsula, for example, is considered the homeland for the annual migration of waterfowl and shorebirds. The Arctic is home to 80% of the world population of white geese, their largest colony is found on Wrangel Island. Northern Yakutia is inhabited by one of the rarest birds on Earth - the white crane.
Members of the marine mammal family have become symbols of the Arctic. However, as a result of uncontrolled human actions, some species were completely eradicated. For example, 27 years after the species Steller's sea cow was discovered in 1741, all members of the species had been caught. The initial population estimate made by Steller was: «they are impossible to count, they are innumerable».
Polar bears are considered the main symbol of the Arctic. There are 19 populations of polar bears in the region, numbering approximately 22,000 in total. They lead a semi-aquatic lifestyle and their main breeding grounds are the northern coast of Chukotka, Franz Josef Land and Cape Desire on Novaya Zemlya. On Wrangel Island there are about 400 tribal lairs, which is why it is called the polar bear «maternity ward».
The island also has the largest coastal rookery of walrus in the Arctic. And it is the only place where the animals are not threatened. Hunting polar bears has been prohibited since 1956, but the indigenous peoples of Canada and Greenland have licences which are bought up by poachers. Scientists of the reserve estimate that every year 300-350 bears are killed in this way.
The Inuit of Alaska and the Chukchi also receive an annual quota from the International Whaling Commission. The minke whale and bowhead whale are of particular interest for hunting. Seal hunting is also highly important for the Inuit of Greenland.
The Inuit traditionally hunt walruses. The flesh and fins of walruses are used for food and the tusks and bones are used for making tools. The fat is used for heating and lighting in homes. The meat and fat from one whale is enough to feed an entire village.
Poachers have killed a lot of walruses for tusks and whales for whalebone, which is known to be used to make corsets. The cetacean populations: the beluga, narwhal, bowhead whale and grey whale are constantly on the brink of extinction. These marine mammals and also pinnipeds - seals and walruses - are listed in the Red Book of Russia.
There are a total of approximately 430 species of fish in the Arctic, of which a large number are of commercial value (herring, cod, salmon, scorpionfish, flatfish etc.). It is difficult to distinguish between freshwater and ocean fish species. Incidentally, Arctic rivers are home to Dally fish, which are famous for being able to stay alive for a long time in frozen ice.
The indigenous peoples of the north eat fish raw, fermented and dried. In autumn and winter frozen steaks - slices of whitefish, chira, muksun and salmon - are very popular. Meat, fish and dairy products are the foundation of the northern diet - proteins and fats. This diet is being replaced by products of mass consumption that threaten to disrupt a historically steady metabolism, and is thought to be one of the causes of ill health of the northern population. Doctors are calling for indigenous people to return to their roots and traditional trades. «People from the mainland» are more actively involved in fishing - the poaching of salmon in the estuaries of rivers basins in the Barents and White seas, and also the illegal catching of whitefish and sturgeon on the Yamal Peninsula.
The Barents Sea is key for the official Russian fishing industry. Its waters are very warm and rich in plankton. Some fish, such as Arctic cod, are not of commercial value, but remain an important part of the Arctic food chain. For example, the overfishing of capelin in the Barents Sea in the mid-80s undermined the food supply of harp seals. At the time at least 50,000 of them became entangled in fishing nets and drowned. Over three years of a ban on fishing for capelin in Norway, the population of this species fully recovered, along with the gap in the food chain. Incidentally, one species of seal - the ringed seal - determines whether polar bears are well-fed or not.
According to scientists at the US Center of Biological Diversity, global warming poses a serious threat to animals in the Arctic and threatens them with starvation. In 2010, researchers sounded the alarm, when they linked climate change to the threat of extinction of 17 species of Arctic animals. First on the list were polar bears. Studies have shown that if the ice melts in spring one week earlier than normal, the polar bear loses 10 kg and this causes a shortage of milk for feeding bear cubs.
Scientists believe that the groups at risk are foxes, four species of whales (blue, bowhead, beluga and narwhal), musk oxen, Pacific walruses, caribou, pteropods and some species of seals and sea birds.
If the temperature of Arctic waters increases, plankton migrate to the north, fish change their migration route, the ringed seal, left without food, goes further afield and becomes prey for polar bears, which are at the top of the food chain. Birds flying in to breeding grounds do not recognise in time shores that have thawed. Scientists fear that the animals will be left without food. The entire food chain - from plankton to polar bears - is inextricably linked to sea ice.