Kissing the Arctic Goodbye

It's not just foreign nations that will suffer. To our north lies a threatened place that holds the key to the world's climate, the Arctic.

What is going to happen to the Arctic, home of the polar bear, the Inupiat people, and countless dreams of adventure? "I think it will all be gone in the next century," says one who is in a position to know,

Dr. Carol Bitz, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington. "It is melting rapidly now, and 80 percent of the summer ice will have disappeared by 2040 and the remaining remnants by 2080."13

After extensive research she knows why as well: "The Arctic is suffering two major blows right now. First, it is absorbing huge amounts of solar radiation because as the ice melts, the dark sea absorbs about five times as much energy as would the white ice. Second, we have now found that as the sea ice retreats, it draws warmer ocean water into the Arctic. Maybe the Arctic could survive one blow, but it cannot survive both."

Dr. Bitz has spent her professional life creating computer models to predict the consequences of the continued rise of CO2 on the polar ice cap. To do that, she uses the most powerful computers in the world, including the ones also used by the U.S. Department of Defense to model nuclear explosions. Her team's report in December 2006, incorporating the latest information and predictions about the Arctic, rocked the world. "We found that the polar ice cap will be essentially gone during the month of September by the year 2040," she says. Forty years later, it will be completely gone.

The context of Dr. Bitz's research is even more frightening. Her research was triggered by findings in the Greenland ice core showing enormous changes in world temperatures taking place in extremely small time frames during times past. "We saw swings of 10°F in just a decade or so. This means there are mechanisms in the system that can change the whole world climatic system in the blink of an eye. Given that we are expecting 5° changes just in the next century, this is terrifying news. The whole climate could change overnight in a sense."

"It's not just the polar bears who are going to suffer," she says. "When the polar ice cap melts, so will a lot of people's expectations of what their lives were to be like." A World Bank map shows that just a one-meter rise in sea level would inundate half of Bangladesh's rice land. And rising sea levels could create millions of climate refugees in Asia.14 Such events could make Hurricane Katrina's warmup act appear as child's play.

Dr. Bitz's concern has only grown in the last few years. "The new information keeps coming in with bad news," she says. These projections must be disturbing for the very reason that we know how plastic, how dynamic, the world's climate has been. About 25,000 years ago the upper half of the North American continent was covered with an ice sheet 9,000 to 12,000 feet thick. Dr. Bitz does not mince words. "The polar ice cap is a central factor in the world's climate. When it goes, the whole world is going to change."

The small world of one American community has already turned upside down. For thousands of years, Americans known as the Inupiat have lived by hunting seals on Shishmaref, a barren island five miles off the coast ofAlaska's Seward Peninsula. Theirs is a survival on the edge of human existence, sustained through the polar night and unbelievable cold, their metabolisms powered by seal blubber. For eons their village has been protected from winter storms by thick buttresses of pack ice. But in the early 1990s the Inupiats began to notice that the ice was thinning, even becoming slushy. The Inupiat's transportation director, Tony Weyiouanna, describes this as "slush puppy" ice, and says its appearance caused great alarm among the Inupiat. The weakening of the ice cut them off from reaching their hunting grounds and stranded hunters on the seas as they pursued the ringed seal, threatening their very way of life. Describing his reaction when he saw it, Weyiouanna says, "Your hair starts sticking up. Your eyes are wide open. You can't even blink."15 You can trust him to know his ice; his people have been tuned to ice like a maestro to his violin for centuries and have at least three words for it: sikuliag, young ice; sari, pack ice; and tuvag, landlocked ice.

More important to the survival of the village, the thinning of the buttress of ice began to expose the villagers' homes to the ravages of the surging Arctic sea. Storms began to breach the barriers in the mid 1990s. In 1997 a storm washed away 125 feet of the town, taking with it several homes.

With the protection of the ice wall gone, with the tundra melting beneath their feet and seals becoming impossible to reach, the villagers

The first American homes to be destroyed by global warming have already been lost to the sea in Shishmaref, Alaska.

decided it was time to go. In 2002 they voted 161 to 20 to relocate to the mainland and try to find a way to live there. It was not easy. Many elders felt that away from the sea they would be cut off from a life force that had sustained them. As one elder explained, "It is so lonely." In December 2006 they chose a site, Tin Creek, thirteen miles south of their present location, for their new home. "We don't know exactly where the $180 million will come from to move," says Tony Weyiouanna, "but we don't have a choice." Luci Eningowuk, chairperson of the Shish-maref Erosion and Relocation Coalition, knows the transition will be hard for many but can say only: "Our children need a place to go. Our home is gone."

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