An article by Tero Mustonen, Snowchange, and Hannibal Rhoades, The Gaia Foundation. Originally published in Intercontinental Cry.

A major new international study has recognised the crucial role Arctic Indigenous Peoples have to play in ecological restoration efforts that help build resilience to major climate-change driven shifts in the distribution of land, marine and freshwater species.

Published in the prestigious journal, Science, the new study highlights the extent of climate change-driven changes in the distribution of species. It identifies the emerging challenges these shifts pose for indigenous and non-indigenous communities and economies from the tropics to the poles.

“Previous studies have shown that land-based species are moving polewards by an average of 17 km per decade, and marine species by 72 km per decade. Our study demonstrates how these changes are affecting worldwide ecosystems and human health and culture in the process,” says Associate Professor Gretta Pecl, lead author of the report, from IMAS and the Centre for Marine Socioecology, Tasmania.

“While some species favour a warmer climate and are becoming more abundant, many others that humans exploit or interact with face depletion or extinction. Human survival depends on other life on earth so the redistribution of the planet’s living organisms is a substantial challenge for people worldwide,” says Pecl.

Bering Straight Sea Ice, 2010. Photo:

The depletion and extinction of species as a result of climate change forms part of a wider pattern. Scientists are broadly in agreement that Earth is currently undergoing a sixth mass extinction event that would take life ten to thirty million years to recover from.

Due to human-induced environmental impacts, globally, species are going extinct at 1-10,000 times the ecologically normal ‘back ground rate’. These drastic losses in biodiversity are reducing the resilience of ecosystems and their ability to cope with ecological shocks, like increasingly frequent extreme weather events caused by climate change.

According to the study, other challenges posed by shifts in species distribution include escalating conflicts over species moving from one ‘economic zone’ to another, as in the case of Iceland’s ‘mackerel wars.’

Livelihoods, employment and profitability in industries such as marine tourism and coffee growing are being jeopardized as primary growing zones shift, corals die, jellyfish infest waters used for recreation, and urchins destroy fish habitats in kelp forests.

Climate change-related species shifts will also have profound consequences for human health. Rising temperatures are encouraging the poleward spread of mosquitos capable of carrying malaria, placing new regions at greater risk of this and other illnesses.

Changes in the distribution of species are also directly impacting the food security and traditional knowledge systems of Indigenous Peoples who rely on subsistence herding, hunting and fishing activities for their physical, cultural and spiritual well-being.

The Arctic is an area of particular concern in the study. With Arctic temperatures recently at 20°C above average and sea ice at its lowest recorded extent, in 2016 authors of the comprehensive Arctic Resilience Report warned that rapid melting of Arctic ice could trigger polar ‘tipping points’ with catastrophic consequences worldwide.

Read the full article in Intercontinental Cry.