The Arctic contains some of the most iconic and beloved species in the world: polar bear, walrus, narwhal, caribou/reindeer, Arctic char Arctic fox, snowy owl, and more.

But the Arctic also contains thousands of lesser-known species, often having remarkable adaptations to survive in extreme cold and highly variable climatic conditions. In all, the Arctic is home to more than 21,000 known species of highly cold-adapted mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants and fungi, and microbe species.

The Arctic also contains a wondrous diversity of marine, freshwater and terrestrial habitats, such as vast expanses of lowland tundra, wetlands, mountains, extensive ocean shelves, millennia-old ice shelves, pack ice and huge seabird coastal cliffs.

In addition to its intrinsic worth, Arctic biodiversity provides innumerable services and values to people. Among those who live in the Arctic are dozens of distinct indigenous peoples who call the Arctic home. Their ways of life demonstrate the vitality of language and traditional knowledge, key aspects of the human relationship with biodiversity. Biodiversity and a healthy natural environment remain integral to the wellbeing of Arctic inhabitants. They provide not only food, but the everyday context and basis for social identity, cultural survival and spiritual life.

Extremes of cold and seasonality and limited accessibility have kept human influence low, allowing ecological processes to function largely undisturbed. But climate change and an increasing demand for Arctic resources are driving a new era of human activity with subsequent likely consequences for Arctic biodiversity.

The world can no longer take Arctic environmental well-being for granted. We have a unique and urgent opportunity in the Arctic to conserve large, undisturbed ecosystems and the species and cultures they support. Doing so will help protect the integrity of Arctic biodiversity and the sustainability of Arctic communities.

The future of the Arctic and its biodiversity requires an active and decisive approach to conservation and sustainability

What is biodiversity? The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity defines biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems, as well as the ecological complexes, of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems”. Biodiversity includes the multitude of poorly known species, of which there are many in the Arctic, that collectively provide the foundation for food webs and ecosystems. The interactions between humans and their surroundings are also part of the diversity, vitality and sustainability of life on Earth.

Source: Arctic Biodiversity Assessment 2013: Report for Policy Makers

Photo: Reindeer mother and calf | Original photo by Linnea Nordström