Rapid development for the exploration and extraction of mineral and petroleum resources in the cold-dominated arctic tundra and subarctic taiga regions of the world has resulted in a series of unexpected potential impacts on the environment, wildlife, and human health and safety.
Surface transportation, especially over low wet-tundra areas in summer, causes long-term changes in vegetation through reduction of insulation to the underlying permafrost. The number of passes over the same track, ground pressure of the vehicle, and speed of travel, affect the degree of degradation. For permanent roads, gravel removed from adjacent stream-beds or hillsides and laid directly on the tundra mat, has provided the most suitable road-bed. These roads, and the removal of gravel, however cause aesthetic and practical problems such as spreading of dust, impoundment of water, behavioural barricading of animals, alteration of river channels, and siltation of streams.
Anadromous fishes constitute a major food resource; alteration of stream channels or siltation of rivers can affect their movement and reproductive success. Oil-spills in aquatic systems, especially in rivers, are harder to control and clean up than terrestrial ones. Recovery of ponds in which oil has been spilled takes several years. The oil-rich outer-continental shelves in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas, now under exploration for oil, are especially sensitive, as they are highly productive and contain unique populations of marine mammals and birds.
Human habitation of the Arctic requires transport of food, fuel, and construction materials for lodging, and disposal of refuse and human wastes which, due to the permafrost-underlain vegetative mat, is difficult in arctic areas. Heating by fossil fuels results in ice-fogs in winter and accumulation of atmospheric pollutants at ground-level during thermal inversions at all seasons.
Perhaps the greatest impact on arctic ecosystems is simply the increased intervention of the human population. Where native people were previously only sparsely settled or nomadic in the tundra, and on coasts where they tended to congregate, now the economic need for resources has resulted in increased pressure overall which will result in decreasing habitats for wildlife, destruction of wilderness areas, and increased access to humans for further exploration and recreation.