1. Massive melting
4. Is help on the way?
See NOAA's Ocean Explorer Polar
On an ice flow in the Arctic Ocean.Photo by Ian MacDonald, NOAA Ocean
Caribou (Rangifer tarandus)
Photo: Captain Budd Christman, NOAA Corps
In the Arctic, a large, icy ocean is surrounded by land. Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and some
species of seals could go extinct in a century, if warming continues.
Mother and cubs by Captain Budd Christman,
NOAA Corps, NOAA
Warming is already causing problems among Arctic wildlife, according
to the new Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. At the top of the food
chain, polar bears could go extinct if the polar ocean stays ice-free
through the year. These bears eat seals (which also live on the
ice), and when the ice melts away from shore, the bears have a harder
time reaching good hunting.
Once females and cubs emerge from their dens, they need to eat
pronto, which is tough when the ice is distant. Already, the ACIA
found, polar bears in Hudson's Bay, Canada, are malnourished, apparently
due to climate change. The average weight, and the number of cubs,
both declined 15 percent between 1981 and 1998.
Plenty of other animals, including seabirds, walruses, and many seals, may be declining in the warming climate. Of particular concern is the caribou, a mainstay of many inland populations. In winter, says wildlife biologist Craig Fleener, caribou must paw through snow to eat lichen. "When the ground freezes and thaws, it makes a very hard, crusty layer. An animal that eats lichen has a hard time pawing the ice away, it has to run and find another place to eat, or do without."
extra-early arrival of spring can skew migration patterns, says
Fleener. "Animals are on cycles, just like people. Everything is
supposed to [happen] within a small window. In order for the caribou
to be successful, they need to get to the calving ground before
the mosquitoes come out, but if the timing is thrown off, and they
are not capable of adapting. It impacts calving timing, the survival
of calves, when predators will be around, and crossing the rivers.
If the river ice is there, but thin, they can fall through and not
Indeed, Susan Joy Hassol, who wrote the ACIA report, sees warming
harming the Porcupine caribou herd. This herd, the largest in North
America, migrates across the Porcupine River, near the Canada-U.S.
border. "It's a very sad story," she says. "The
herd sustains many indigenous people, they are completely dependent
on caribou, it's their main food source and a huge part of their
culture." Normally, she says, the herd migrates across the frozen
river, toward the calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge. Now that spring comes earlier, the females are also migrating
earlier. During the migration, she says, "Some females are having calves before
they get to the river, and trying cross with newborns, and their
newborns are washed down river and dying."
Porcupine caribou herd is the largest in North America. Arctic warming
is changing the timing of migration, and calves are drowning in
rivers that are no longer frozen. Fish
& Wildlife Service
It is hard for those of us who get our daily bread in supermarkets to understand the critical role of hunting in the North, but Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, insists," We are still very much connected to our hunting culture, we are out there every day, when we can be."
Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens),
Bering Sea island. Photo by Captain
Budd Christman, NOAA Corps NOAA
With so much ice melting, she says, "hunters are having to reroute
themselves from their usual patterns and routes." Some hunters in
Greenland are having trouble feeding their dog teams, she adds.
"Now that the ice is so thin, they are not able to get out to hunt,
and are killing off a lot of husky dogs because they couldn't get
the seals to feed them."
If you can't find Fido's favorite brand of MuttChow, you buy another brand. In the Arctic, imported dog food is out of the question. Instead, you shoot your dog team -- and look for another way to reach the hunting grounds and feed your family.
While hunting feeds people, Watt-Cloutier insists that it is also
critical to Inuit culture. "Hunting is not just aiming the gun and
skinning the seal, it is the wisdom of the land, it teaches young
people to be bold under pressure, to withstand stress, to be reflective,
not impulsive, to be thoughtful, to have sound judgment, which is
ultimately wisdom. ... To say 'no' when under stress, to have sound
judgment, is absolutely necessary to survive in the modern world."
you think these guys all have "I Am The Walrus" going through their
heads? These walruses are taking a rest on a small ice floe in the
Bering Sea for now, but global warming could melt their happy haunt.
And survival may indeed be at issue: As Inuits have started to
celebrate and revive an ancient culture that is under assault by
the global McCulture, greenhouse gases (and airborne
organic pollutants) have begun to threaten that same culture,
says Watt-Cloutier. "Just as we start to recognize these cultural
values, and weave them into government, schools, training programs,
it's extremely sad, ironic, that we are being poisoned from afar.
The very culture that we had high hopes to bring us back may die,
it may be the end of a way of life. That becomes quite a bit to
Can we do anything about it?