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The Living Edens: The Lost World

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Eco-Alert!

Though Nunavut may look like a postcard-worthy vision of pristine arctic wilderness, it faces severe environmental challenges.

First on the list is industrial pollution. Though Nunavut does not contain the industries or oil and gas exploration rigs that can lead to toxic pollutants entering the air, its cold arctic air seals in POPs -- permanent organic pollutants -- blown into the Arctic from warmer climates further south. In the cold air, the pollutants cannot break down rapidly and, instead, linger in the air and water for decades, taken in by seals, whales, polar bears, caribou, and humans. Among the most noticeable offenders are DDT, PCB, dioxins, and flame retardants.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an advocacy group for the Inuit people, has campaigned for years for international agreements to reduce the amount of such pollutants in the Arctic. A 2000 study for the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, for example, found that as much as 70 to 82 percent of dioxin, a POP, at 8 sites on Nunavut came from U.S. sources. The Canadian government has joined the movement with a call for an international treaty that would ban the production of POPs worldwide.

But already, traditional Inuit foods such as seals, whales, and caribou carry high concentrations of POPs. The process starts when plankton, a sea plant, absorbs soluble pollutants from Nunavut's waterways and passes them on to the crustaceans that feed on them. Fish eat the crustaceans and seals and birds eat the fish. These animals are eaten by humans as well as by polar bears.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) recently reported, Inuit hunters have begun to notice physical changes in their prey -- hairless seals, polar bears with less fat, walrus and seals with burn holes. Though a direct connection has not been made between the POPs and these traits, researchers suspect that toxins are to blame.

Meanwhile, researchers are discovering the extent of the Inuit's exposure to these chemicals. The amount of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (the chemical that makes up flame retardants) found in the breast milk of Inuit women has increased by 40 percent in the past 12 years, a study by Quebec City's Laval University recently found, the CBC reported. (Flame retardants are used to reduce inflammability in plastics, electronics, furniture, and other consumer products.) Inuit women carry DDT levels in their breast milk that are 9 times higher than those found in the milk of southern Canadian women, a study by the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has found.

Plagued by toxins in their traditional food sources, the Inuit are also faced by the threat of melting ice. In September 2003, the Northern Hemisphere's largest ice sheet, Ward Hunt Ice Shelf on the north of Quttinirpaaq Island, broke in 2 after 3,000 years as a single unit. Christian Zdanowicz of the Geological Survey of Canada has found that ice caps in the High Arctic -- an area that contains Quttinirpaaq Island -- have been rapidly melting in the past 15 years. In 2001, scientist Warwick Vincent of Laval University published findings indicating that the island's ice shelf had shrunk by about 90 percent in the 20th century.

Within 50 years, even the treacherous Northwest Passage -- an ice-clogged waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Arctic -- could be ice-free during the summer, climate experts told The Los Angeles TIMES in January 2003. That could attract commercial vessels eager to skim 5,000 miles off the alternative voyage through the Panama Canal.

Some outsiders welcome the prospect of economic development that such a major shipping lane would bring to Arctic Canada, but others are urging caution. If the phenomenon repeats itself throughout the territory, melting snow and ice could put human and animal lives severely at risk. Walrus and seals depend on strong ice to give birth to their pups. If these animals decrease in number, polar bears will be deprived of the fatty meat they need to survive. And the Inuit, who depend on many of these animals for food, will have to change the hunting habits -- and the culture -- they have known for a millennium.

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Eco Explorer
Go on adventure to the Arctic.

Arctic Adventure
Discover the animals of the region.

Filming Arctic Oasis
Go behind the scenes with the producer.

For Teachers
Students will learn about the Inuit.

Resources
Find out more about the Arctic.
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