An Overview of Climate Change And Regional Effects to Polar Regions and Small Island Communities

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Coastal Zone Management

First Advisor

Amy C. Hirons

Second Advisor

Heather Hill


Increased greenhouse gases from human activities, along with natural factors have contributed to an observed atmospheric and oceanic warming trend. This trend, called global warming, is leading to changes in global climate patterns (UNEP 2000). As the climate system warms, impacts to our weather, storm patterns, temperatures (land and sea), and precipitation are anticipated. Many natural systems will be affected, leading to changes in frozen ground, ice and snow, sea level rise, weather and climate extremes, changes to biodiversity and ecosystems, ocean acidification, and fishery collapse.

These changes will have serious and possible irreversible consequences to entire ecosystems which will lead to many biological and social impacts globally (Parry et al. 2007). Sea level rise and weather extremes will affect millions of people in the coastal zone and in densely populated, low lying areas. Poverty, access to resources, diseases, and food insecurity can play roles in increasing regional vulnerability. Highly vulnerable areas exist in low, middle and high latitudes which include low lying coastal areas, polar regions and small island developing states (Nicholls et al. 2007).

Societies can respond to climate change by adapting to its impacts and by reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation), which can reduce the rate and magnitude of the change (IPCC 2007 A). Understanding the regional magnitude of impacts and risks associated with climate system changes is key to the implementation response efforts. While both adaptation and mitigation will be necessary, adaptation measures are essential to address near term impacts, as negation of further impacts cannot be successful even with strict mitigation efforts (IPCC 2007 F). Inadequate technical capacity for planning, weak institutional capacity, and limited financial resources will challenge adaptation and mitigation measures, which will be critical now and in the future (USAID 2009).

In all the world’s oceans, actions are already underway to try to strengthen adaptability and resilience to the changes in the climate system. Adaptive measures in coastal regions include strengthening agricultural and marine resource resilience, water resources, human settlements, infrastructure, public health, tourism, disaster management and armoring of the coastal zone (Cambers 1998).

In the Indian Ocean, the Maldive Islands have developed a comprehensive program of adaptation by not only purchasing land in other countries, but by also relocating residents to lands in their own country which have been built up and strengthened. In the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean community has initiated projects to help residents prepare with dealing with adverse affects from climate change, while focusing on education and sustainable development. A climate change center was created to promote sustainable development of marine resources while focusing on strengthening future energy independence and addressing disaster management.

In polar regions, communities are adapting traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices to be flexible and adapt to climate changes. Protected areas are being created with flexible boundaries to adjust to changing conditions including migration paths and species movement. Human settlements and infrastructure are being rebuilt and strengthened.

In the Pacific Ocean creation of locally managed marine networks provide community management of critical habitats of coral, seagrass beds, mudflats, and mangroves. Islands are addressing harmful fishing techniques and future education efforts focus on sustainable development and use of resources. In Micronesia a challenge was launched in 2006 to conserve near shore coastal waters and terrestrial resources. This included measures to create marine protected areas and promote environmental awareness and education. The challenge to Micronesian nations may have implications for island conservation around the globe (Nature Conservancy 2005). In addition, a national biodiversity strategy and action plan were developed including initiatives to promote environmental awareness and education, protect natural resources, improve waste management and control pollution.

All of these adaptation measures are examples of individual communities which are strengthening resilience. These measures can be costly and future efforts will need to focus on an integrated management strategy using both mitigation and adaptation measures. Efforts will need to be put into assessing risk, prioritizing adaptation options, long term sustainability and better development of strategies to address future changes.

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