Arctic warming


1. Massive melting

2. Warm, warmer, warmest

3. Plants, animals, people

4. Is help on the way?

still of a polar bear
See NOAA's Ocean Explorer Polar bear movie



On an ice flow in the Arctic Ocean.Photo by Ian MacDonald, NOAA Ocean Explorer

Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) Photo: Captain Budd Christman, NOAA Corps NOAA Photo Library


ap of the land masses and icy sea comprising the Arctic. In the Arctic, a large, icy ocean is surrounded by land. Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

Animal house melting
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.

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 Photo Library
mother bear sleeps with cubs

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.

3 bears walk on ice flow

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."

caribou runs across tundraThe 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 get out."

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."

Green, grassy plain overrun with dozens of grazing caribou.The 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

Empty shelves?
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 Photo Librarycloseup of many walrus faces, tusks, flippers

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.

Death of a culture?
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."

Dozens of rotund walruses lounge on a floating block of ice. Do 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. NOAA Photo Library

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 deal with."

Can we do anything about it?

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