The destruction of an Arctic ecosystem heretofore based on ice and snow is now a day-to-day reality in the lives of people who live near or above the Arctic Circle. Their personal stories indicate that the atmosphere is warming more rapidly in parts of the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth. Around the Arctic, in Inuit villages now connected by email as well as the oral history of traveling hunters, weather watchers are reporting striking evidence that global warming is an unmistakable reality. Weather reports from the Arctic sometimes read like the projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on fast-forward. These personal stories support IPCC expectations that climate change will be felt most dramatically in the Arctic.
Addressing a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on global warming on August 15, 2004, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, speaking as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, said, "The Earth is literally melting. If we can reverse the emissions of greenhouse gases in time to save the Arctic, then we can spare untold suffering." She continued, "Protect the Arctic and you will save the planet. Use us as your early-warning system. Use the Inuit story as a vehicle to reconnect us all so that we can understand the people and the planet are one" (Pegg, 2004). The Inuits' ancient connection to their hunting culture might disappear within her grandson's lifetime, Watt-Cloutier said. "My Arctic homeland is now the health barometer for the planet" (Pegg, 2004). Committee chair John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said a recent trip to the Arctic showed him that "these impacts are real and consistent with earlier scientific projects that the Arctic region would experience the impacts of climate change at a faster rate than the rest of the world. We are the first generation to influence the climate and the last generation to escape the consequences," McCain said (Pegg, 2004).
Sachs Harbour, on Banks Island, above the Arctic Circle, is sinking into the permafrost as its 130 residents swat mosquitoes. Summer downpours of rain with thunder, hail, and lightning have swept over Arctic islands for the first time in anyone's memory. Swallows, sand flies, robins, and pine pollen are being seen and experienced by people who have never known them. Shishmaref, an Inuit village on the far-western lip ofAlaska 60 miles north of Nome is being washed into the newly liquid (and often stormy) Arctic Ocean as its permafrost base dissolves.
During the summer of 2004, several Vespula intermedia (yellow-jacket wasps) were sighted in Arctic Bay, a community of 700 people on the northern tip of Baffin Island, at more than 73° North latitude. Noire Ikalukjuaq, the mayor of Arctic Bay, photographed one of the wasps at the end of August. Ikalukjuaq, who said he knew no word in Inuktitut (the Inuits' language) for the insect, reported that other people in the community also had seen wasps at about the same time (Rare Sighting, 2004).
In the Eskimo village of Kaktovik, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean roughly 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a robin built a nest in town during
2003—not an unusual event in more temperate latitudes but quite a departure from the usual in a place where, in the Inupiat Eskimo language, no name exists for robins. In the Okpilak River valley, which had been too cold and dry for willows, they are sprouting profusely. Never mind the fact that and in the Inupiat language "Okpilak" means "river with no willows" (Kristof, 2003). --
The Arctic's rapid thaw has made hunting, which is never a safe nor easy way of life, even more difficult and dangerous. Hunters in and around Iqaluit say that the weather has been seriously out of whack since roughly the middle 1990s. Simon Nattaq, an Inuit hunter, fell through unusually thin ice and became trapped in icy water long enough to lose both his legs to hypothermia, one of several injuries and deaths reported around the Arctic recently due to thinning ice (Johansen, 2001, 19).
Pitseolak Alainga, another Iqaluit-based hunter, says that climate change compels caution. One must never hunt alone, he says (Nattaq had been hunting by himself). Before venturing onto ice in fall or spring hunters should test its stability with a harpoon, he says. Alainga knows the value of safety on the water. His father and five other men died during late October 1994, after an unexpected late-October ice storm swamped their hunting boat. The younger Alainga and another companion barely escaped death in the same storm. He believes that more hunters are suffering injuries not only because of climate change but also because basic survival skills are not being passed from generation to generation as in years past, when most
Inuits lived off the land (Johansen, 2001, 19). --
SURFACE ALBEDO (REFLECTIVITY) SPEEDS WARMING
The melting of ocean ice in polar regions can accelerate overall worldwide warming as it changes surface albedo, or reflectivity. The darker a surface, the more solar energy it absorbs. Seawater absorbs 90 to 95 percent of incoming solar radiation, whereas snow-free sea ice absorbs only 60 to 70 percent of solar energy. If the sea ice is snow-covered, the amount of absorbed solar energy decreases substantially, to only 10 to 20 percent. Therefore, as the oceans warm and snow and ice melt, more solar energy is absorbed, leading to even more melting. "It is feeding on itself now, and this feedback mechanism is actually accelerating the decrease in sea ice," said Mark Serreze of the University of Colorado (Toner, 2003, 1-A).
Changes in albedo (Latin for "whiteness") are among the factors contributing to a rate of warming in the Arctic during the last 20 years that has been eight times the rate of warming during the previous 100 years (Recent Warming, 2003). Recent increases in the number and extent of boreal forest fires have also been increasing the amount of soot in the atmosphere, which also changes albedo.
As high latitudes warm and the coverage of sea ice declines, thawing Arctic soils also may release significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane now trapped in permafrost. Warmer ocean waters could also release formerly solid methane and carbon dioxide from the sea floor. According to David Rind, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, "These feedbacks are complex and we are working to understand them. Global warming is usually viewed as something that's 50 or 100 years in the future, but we have evidence that the climate of the Arctic is changing right now, and changing rapidly. Whatever is causing it, we are going to have to start adapting to it" (Toner, 2003, 1-A).
Study of past climates show that the Earth's climate is remarkably sensitive to relatively small changes in the atmosphere. This sensitivity allows the entire planet to change climate very quickly. One feedback, the "albedo flip," provides a powerful trigger mechanism. James Hansen and other researchers write, "Recent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of our control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures" (Hansen et al., 2007). --
Glaciers were melting so quickly in Alaska by mid-2005 that their anticipated demise was causing some tourists to visit before they disappear. The Travel Section of The New York Times featured the so-called glacier tourists, with the headline "The Race to Alaska Before It Melts" (Egan, 2005). Cities and towns across the entire state (including Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Nome) reported record high temperatures during the summer of 2004. At Portage Lake, 50 miles south of Anchorage, "people came by the thousands to see Portage Glacier, one of the most accessible of Alaska's frozen attractions. Except, you can no longer see Portage Glacier from the visitor center. It has disappeared" (Egan, 2005).
Gunter Weller, director of the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, said that average temperatures in the state have increased by 5°F in the summer and 10°F in the winter in 30 years. Moreover, the Arctic ice field has shrunk by 40
percent to 50 percent over the last few decades and lost 10 percent of its thickness, studies show. "These are pretty large signals, and they've had an effect on the entire physical environment," Weller said (Murphy, 2001, A-1).
Fewer than 20 of Alaska's several thousand valley glaciers were advancing after the year 2000. Glacial retreat, thinning, stagnation, or a combination of these changes characterizes all 11 mountain ranges and three island areas that support glaciers, according to U.S. Geological Survey scientist Bruce
Molnia (Alaskan Glaciers, 2001). --
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