The Big Melt Warming Creates Hazards in the Arctic

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The 320 villagers of Newtok, Alaska, are moving.

Situated along the Ninglick River about 400 miles from the nearest road, the isolated Yup’ik Eskimo community already has lost its landfill and landing for barges. State and federal officials now believe worsening flooding will take homes and buildings within a decade, if not sooner. If all goes as planned, however, the denizens of this tiny community expect to be living in their new homes by 2012, when the entire community relocates nine miles south to higher ground.

They may very well become the model for community relocation in the future: Newtok isn’t the only coastal community falling victim to Arctic climate change.

Over the past 50 years, temperatures across the Arctic have risen 4 degrees Fahrenheit on average and as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter – double the Earth’s average. With the temperature rising, sea ice today is thinner and less extensive; in the summer, it is roughly half of what it was a generation or so ago. It arrives later and leaves earlier, exposing coastal communities to intensified storms that hammer away at the weakening shorelines.

Compounding the situation is the loss of permafrost, soil that remains at or below the freezing point for two or more years. In the past, it deterred riverbanks from eroding as quickly and provided a stable foundation on which to place homes, pipelines, and virtually every other structure needed to support modern life and commerce in the region.

The result?

Of Alaska’s 213 native villages, which are located along rivers or the coasts, 184 are experiencing some level of flooding and erosion. Many are literally sinking, as evidenced by the telephone poles that lean at odd angles or the floors of buildings that rise and fall like the sea itself.åÊ Four communities – Kivalina, Koyukuk, Shishmaref, and, of course, Newtok – are in imminent danger and are planning to relocate.

Those moves, however, won’t come cheap. Alaska state officials and others estimate that it will cost as much $200 million per community to rebuild homes, schools, clinics, barge landings, roads, and airstrips to support them.

Change is coming and it’s coming fast

The plight of these small, rural communities only scratches the surface of what’s happening in the Arctic today – a vast region characterized by its icy north, treeless plains, and boreal forests, all sweeping in bands across the territories of eight nations. For the native people whose ancestors settled in this harsh, forbidding environment more than 9,000 years ago and the flora and fauna on which they traditionally relied for subsistence, change is coming and it’s coming fast.

“Changes in climate used to happen at a rate where they might affect our great, great grandchildren. Now they’re happening in our own lifetimes,” says Terry Chapin, a professor of ecology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “This should be something we’re all concerned about.”

He’s not alone in his concerns.

“There are so many instances of global change,” says Patricia Cochran, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, an international organization dedicated to protecting and advancing Inuit rights and interests on an international level. “Our people live closely with the land and we’re more aware.”

Image of he village of Illulisat, located along the coast of Greenland, home to about 4,000 people.

The village of Illulisat, located along the

coast of Greenland, is home to about 4,000 people. Famous for its dog sledding, the community is grappling with the effects of global warming. Photo Credit: Bob Corell

For at least two decades, she says tribal elders have warned of unpredictable weather patterns and the steady encroachment of non-indigenous plants, animals, and insects – all attracted by increasingly warmer temperatures. These days it’s not unusual to experience 100-degree temperatures in the interior of Alaska, violent thunderstorms, and even wildfires that have wiped out thousands of acres.

“If you go into the high Canadian Arctic, you get the same story,” says Bob Corell, vice president of programs at the Heinz Center and the chair of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), a four-year exhaustive study of Arctic climate change and its impact. “The Inuit have no words for thunderstorm in their language because they never experienced them. Now they use the English word.”

Diminishing Sea Ice

Nowhere is the warming more noticeable than in the extent and relative thickness of sea ice, which not only reflects solar heat back into space, but also protects coastal areas from storm surges and provides an important link in the food chain. This sensitive climate indicator has been sounding the alarm for years now.

“Although there’s a lot of variability from year to year, we’ve seen clear evidence of a decrease since 1978, when our first consistent, long-term satellite sea-ice record began,” says Claire Parkinson, a climatologist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “At first, we wondered whether the changes might be part of a cycle of about 10 years, but as the decreases continued, they became more suggestive of a long-term trend.” In 2007, for example, satellite measurements showed that sea ice covered only 1.65 million square miles in September – the month ice cover is typically at its lowest. It shattered the previous record in 2005 by 23 percent. The situation didn’t improve in 2008. Although sea ice covered 1.74 million square miles, the Arctic winter was colder in 2008.

“We had a cold winter,” says Lee Cooper, a research faculty member of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “Given the fact that we had more winter ice to start with, the actual loss in 2008 was even greater than in 2007.”

Now, some climate models show an ice-free Arctic Ocean by the middle of the century – at least during the summer months. Some are even projecting an ice-free Arctic Ocean by the end of the coming decade. “In 2004, our models suggested its disappearance before the end of the century,” Corell says. “In just four years time, our projections have proven dramatically wrong.”

Repercussions: Winners and Losers

What does this mean? That depends largely on one’s perspective, Cooper says. “There are winners and losers in this.”

Marine access to some Arctic resources, including offshore oil and gas and some minerals, is likely to improve, as is commercial fishing, particularly for herring and cod – species now migrating farther north due to the warmer water temperatures. Even tourism likely will benefit. But for polar bears, walruses, whales, and seals – as well as the indigenous people who hunt them for food – the outlook is not as good. The animals depend on the ice for habitat, using these platforms to rest between hunts or to give birth to their young.

In fact, trapped, drowning, and starving polar bears have led scientists to conclude that the reduction of sea ice could result in a loss of two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population within 50 years.

“You hear all kinds of stories,” Corell says. “In Greenland, many of the native people still use dog sleds. But because the ice is gone, they can’t catch the seals and they have been known to kill their dogs because they can’t feed them.” Even the most experienced hunters in other parts of the Arctic have found the weather and ice conditions so unpredictable that they no longer can safely navigate the terrain during hunting expeditions. “We’re losing lives,” Cochran says. “They’re getting lost or their snow machines fall through the ice. We’re hearing more and more instances of this happening.”

Also troublesome are the effects of disappearing ice on creatures that form the foundation of the Arctic food chain, the sea algae and phytoplankton whose cycles begin every spring after the long dark winter when the Sun’s warmth melts the snow and allows enough light to penetrate the ice to spur their growth.

This Inuit family enjoys an outing on the Arctic Sea, which is home to seals and other animals on which they rely for their subsistence. Photo Credit: Bob Corell

This Inuit family enjoys an outing on the Arctic Sea, which is home to seals and other animals on which they rely for their subsistence. Photo Credit: Bob Corell

“One of my concerns is how will the food web change if sea ice continues to retreat and water temperatures continue to warm,” says Cooper, who visited the Bering Sea in March to study the “bottom of the food chain” there. “There are a lot of uncertainties if the ice continues to pull back.” In the northern Bering Sea, evidence already exists that some types of crustaceans and other species that feed off the algae and phytoplankton are disappearing. This could have devastating effects on the animals higher up in the food chain, he says.

Changing Habitats

The story is much the same on land. In 2005, the ACIA report warned policymakers that climate warming would cause vegetation shifts, particularly the expansion of forests into the Arctic tundra, and the tundra into the polar deserts, potentially reducing the breeding area for many migratory bird species and grazing areas for land animals.

That’s happening now.

The tundra, a vast area of stark landscape frozen for much of the year, is thawing, making life more attractive for taller, denser vegetation, including trees and grasses that shade out low-growing lichens favored by caribou, reindeer, and lemming. “We never had trees before,” Cochran remembers of her childhood in Nome, Alaska. “We have many more trees now. We never saw grass before, either, and I actually saw someone mowing a lawn.”

The proliferation of trees and other shrubs has attracted red foxes, which compete with the Arctic fox and the snowy owls for the lemming, a small rodent that also feeds on low-growing mosses that traditionally grew on the tundra.

Beaver have moved in as well – even as far north as Barrow, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea. “The story about the beaver brings in so many pieces of the climate change story,” Cochran says. “That one critter has made a very large difference in how we can live off the land,” she says. The population explosion has damaged critical spawning areas of native fish and introduced harmful Giardia, a one-celled microscopic parasite that lives in the intestines of people and animals, into the waterways, and therefore drinking water.

Pollution Sink

Bob Corell, the chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), an exhaustive study of Arctic climate change and its impact, took these Arctic seascapes during a trip to Greenland in May 2008. The ACIA study projected that the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free before the end of the century. Now, however, he says those projections have proven dramatically wrong. The bird is an Arctic Tern.

Bob Corell, the chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), an exhaustive study of Arctic climate change and its impact, took these Arctic seascapes during a trip to Greenland in May 2008. The ACIA study projected that the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free before the end of the century. Now, however, he says those projections have proven dramatically wrong. The bird is an Arctic Tern.

As the evidence of climate change mounts, scientists have turned their attention to another, perhaps more devastating result, not just to the biodiversity in the region, but for the world as a whole.

Currently, vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is about 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide, are locked in the deep sea and in the frozen soils of Siberia, Northern Europe, and North America. Continued warming could trigger rapid thawing that would release billions of tons into the atmosphere, the United Nations has warned.

“This is one of those risks of catastrophe we can reduce with prompt action,” Chapin says. The world needs to reduce and stabilize the concentrations of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere. “I’m not confident this will happen,” he adds. “We don’t have a good track record.”

The Future

As an advocate of native culture, Cochran’s more immediate concern is how her people will cope with the change that threatens their way of life. “We can’t keep our heads in the sand,” she says. “We have to work on many fronts. We have to look at opportunities for assistance. We need to ask internally, what can we do?”

This spring, native peoples from around the globe will gather in Anchorage to discuss those very topics at the first-ever “Indigenous Peoples Global Summit on Climate Change,” which she is chairing. “We really need to sit down together. We are the communities most impacted by climate change, yet the most marginalized.”

In the end, the survival of these cultures may very well rest on what has sustained the people for millennia. “We are an adaptive and resilient people,” Cochran says. “I have a great belief in our ability to survive. It’s just going to be more difficult living the kind of life we choose to live.”

Lori Keesey is a freelance writer based in Maryland. She specializes in science and technology.