Cold environments provide only minimal opportunities for its inhabitants, offering them little else other than the ability to live sustainably off the land through the herding of Caribou/Reindeer. Now, even this is being threatened as the modern world brings new constraints to cold environments, such as the melting of sea ice destroying hunting grounds and the extraction of oil at places like Tar Sands destroying the lands of indigenous people. As well as this, in Greenland the inability of young people to live a comfortable and interesting life has led to Greenland having the highest suicide rate in the world. On the other hand, cold environments provide plenty of opportunities for exploitation, chiefly due to their vast oil, gas and metal reserves and tourism opportunities like ecotourism at the poles or skiing in the Alps. However, there are also constraints on the level at which cold environments can be exploited, due to agreements about conserving the natural environment, which is already melting.
In the Arctic, the environment provides the indigenous people with almost everything they need to survive. For example, in Siberia the Nenets use the Reindeer to survive. Reindeers are used for transport, their furs are used for shelter and clothing and all of their edible meat is either eaten or sold. Whilst these opportunities do appear limited, after all they essentially just provide the Nenets with basic living requirements. However, the fact that many Nenets chose to live as reindeer herders despite having the chance to live a seemingly more comfortable life living a town or city (the Nenets all attended school as children and some have university qualifications), shows that their environment provides them with much more than just necessities for life, it also provides them with links to their culture and heritage (the Nenets have lived in Siberia for over 1000 years) and some of the Nenets have also spoken of how they feel ‘free’ out on the ice, which is a feeling that can’t be provided by crowded and confined city life.
The best part of the opportunities that living on the tundra brings to the Nenets is that the environment can provide for them in a sustainable manner, due to the Nenets never hunting more than they need or harming the environment, as a result of this, the opportunities provided by the Arctic to the Nenets have been sustained for over 1000 years and still remain today. In areas of high altitude, such as the European Alps, the environment allows for substantial ski/snowboard runs, meaning there is the obvious opportunity for local people to benefit from the 100million tourists who visit the region each year. These tourists are responsible for the provision of 80% of jobs in certain areas of the Alps, which shows how the cold environment has led to local people gaining employment opportunities.
There are, however, significant constraints on the lives of people who live in cold environments, partially brought about because the environments are so harsh and unforgiving, but mainly because cold environments are also extremely fragile environments. The fact that these fragile environments are now increasingly being exploited and therefore damaged means that there are great constraints on the ability of local people to live in these areas. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska is a prime example of this. The fact that many local fishermen were so heavily reliant on fish in the Sound such as herring for income, meant that, when in March 1989 the oil spill occurred and the herring were wiped out of the area, 35,000 locals had their livelihoods significantly negatively affected, showing how one of the constraints in living in a cold environment like Prince William Sound is that it is vulnerable to significant damage from oil spills, as it is used so much by oil tankers to transport oil to mainland America.
Sadly, this case of conflicting interests between the local people and huge energy companies ultimately bringing constraints to the lives of the local people isn’t just restricted to Alaska. For example, Tar Sands oil mine in Canada has destroyed the traditional lifestyle of some Gwich’in tribes who used to live and herd caribou in the area but now have no room to do so, meaning they have had to bit the bullet, say goodbye to their culture and work for the oil companies or face poverty. Global warming also causes constraints on people living in cold environments as it is capable of changing the shape of an area. For example, global warming has caused constraints on the lives of the Qanaq people in Greenland, as the sea ice is retreating so they have to spend more money on boat fuel to go out to sea to hunt whales. In the Alps, global warming could potentially mean a large decline of the number of viable ski resorts to (it is estimated that in 20 years all Alpine ski resorts below 10,50m will have to close due to lack of snow (some resorts are already lacking in snow in the early season as shown in figure 1) attract visitors, which would cause tourist revenue to fall sharply.
It is clear then, that the fact that cold environments are melting causes constraints on the local people. In Greenland, the main constraint on the local people is that the cold, unforgiving and empty environment provides young people with nothing to do. This lack of entertainment, coupled along with the rise of television and internet in Greenland, so young people know what they’re missing out on, has led to alcoholism and suicide. Shockingly, recent reports have shown that Greenland’s teenagers are so sick of their boring lives (as compared to the unreachable lives they see on television) that 1 in 5 15-17 year olds in Greenland have attempted suicide. The final constraint to living in a cold environment is that so much of the land is covered in permafrost, which, if built on, can melt from the heat of a structure, causing the structure to possibly collapse as they have no strong foundations, as demonstrated in figure 2.
Cold environments present very significant opportunities for exploitation, especially for energy companies. The fact that the Arctic as a whole holds one quarter of the world’s natural gas supply an Alaska on its own contains more oil than Texas, means that energy giants like Exxon have the opportunity to extract these resources at a huge profit, especially since the world’s dwindling supplies of oil mean that oil is now worth $100 a barrel, so with a total of 90 billion barrels in the Arctic, the magnitude of the economic opportunity which is being presented to energy companies is huge. The extraction of oil from the Arctic also provides economic opportunities for any unemployed individual who has a high school diploma, as jobs at Tar Sands open cast oil mine (figure 3) offer up to £650 for a day’s work and only require minimal qualifications.
Oil and gas are not the only resources which provide economic opportunities in cold environments. The Yanacocha gold mine in Peru (Andes Mountains) is the largest gold mine in the world, and so attracts many new workers to the area as shown by the population of the nearby town of Cajamarca having grown from 30,000 when the mine started to 240,000 in 2005. All of these naturally occurring resources in cold environments are being allowed to be exploited as the environments are so cold that they’re only sparsely populated and almost exclusively with subsistence herders who have little political power to stop an oil giant from destroying the habitats of the animals they depend on, for example, the gwich’ins who were displaced from tar sands.
Another way in which a cold environment can be exploited is through tourism, as previously mentioned, snow sport holidays in the Alps are benefitting the local people there. Other forms of tourism can also be exploited in cold environments, most significantly ecotourism. In Antarctica this ecotourism helps to educate tourists about the consequences of global warming to the continent, without the tourism itself doing significant environmental damage. The final way in which cold environments can be exploited is transport. Global warming is causing the melting of Arctic sea ice, so the viability of ships to travel along the north coast of Russia is increasing, this passage opening up would mean that ships travelling from the Netherlands to South Korea (figure 4) can shave 10 days off their journey time, saving £10,000 worth of fuel in the process.
These opportunities for exploitation of cold environments aren’t without constraints, however. For example, environmentalists lobbied hard for oil never to be extracted from Alaska due to the environmental damage it would (and did) cause. In fact it was only the 1973 oil crisis which persuaded the US government to allow for oil extraction in Alaska. Even now, the companies don’t extract freely, with oil companies still not allowed to drill in certain areas like the Arctic National Wildlife refuge, which covers 78,050.59 km2 of land.
The reason for this area in particular being protected is that it is an area of outstanding national beauty with a lot of biodiversity, in effect it is natural environment which is stopping oil companies from being able to drill for the naturally occurring oil in that same environment. As well as part of Alaska being protected against oil companies, the whole of Antarctica is protected against almost any potential activities (such as the use of Antarctica as a weapons testing site) through agreements like the 1991 Madrid Protocol, which declared that Antarctica only be used as ‘a nature reserve, devote to peace and science.’ The fact that this cold environment is so fragile, but still so untouched, has meant that environmentalists have managed to successfully get these measures through to keep it protected. Finally, exploitation of any non-renewable resources in cold environments is always going to be constrained by the fact that one day the resources will run out, and at the current, unsustainable rate of extraction of oil in Alaska, oil is set to have depleted in the state in the next 10 years.
In conclusion, cold environments can provide a sustainable livelihood for some people (i.e. the Nenets) at the moment, although this ability to support indigenous people is being threatened by the intrusion of energy companies, as shown by the destruction of Gwich’in land to make way for tar sands. Global warming also reduces the sustainability of activities like hunting and skiing due to ice and snow melt. Finally, it seems that exploitation of resources is constrained chiefly through environmental agreements, like the ones which protect the ANWR and the Antarctic.