Arctic warming
POSTED 18 NOV 2004

1. Massive melting

2. Warm, warmer, warmest

3. Plants, animals, people

4. Is help on the way?

At risk: An ancient way of living in harmony with a harsh environment. Photo: NARA

New report warns of global warming in the Arctic; effects are already obvious.

Past levels of carbon dioxide are compared to surface air temperature. The parallel trends project major planetary melting if greenhouse gases continue to rise.Courtesy Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

Hot times at the top of the world
Global warming -- the environmental threat that looms larger with every passing decade -- has a new face: the Arctic. While scientists must poke and probe to find solid evidence of warming nearer the equator, warming is now painfully clear near the North Pole.

Man and kayak on pebbled shore among snowy hills.

The rapid heat-up is documented in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a plain-English report prepared by 300 experts from the eight nations with Arctic territory. The ACIA, released by the Arctic Council this November, explained how global warming, caused by steady increases of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric greenhouse gases, is changing the environment and economy of the eight northern nations. For example:

Ringed seals, a food staple for many indigenous people, are becoming rare because the ice they live on is melting away.

Hunters are drowning while traveling across thin ice.

Warming has disturbed the timing of caribou migrations, and calves are drowning while migrating across rivers that were normally frozen.

Forests are moving north in the warmer climate, -- and suffering massive insect attacks. In Alaska in 2003, forest fires were as large as Vermont.

Villages, roads, airports and buildings are sinking into melting permafrost, or being inundated by rising seas.

Ice on Greenland's massive ice cap is melting fast. Meltwater and the thermal expansion of warming ocean water are raising sea level, and oceans are attacking coasts around the world. The United Nations has warned that island nations like the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, could drown by year 2100.

Graph shows increase in temp and carbon dioxide concentration. While most of us think about global warming as a problem for the future, considerable warming has already occurred in the Arctic, says Susan Joy Hassol, a Colorado science writer who wrote the new report. "What we found is that the Arctic climate is warming rapidly now, and has been warming for decades, and a much larger change has been projected for the future, twice as fast as in the rest of the world. There is evidence from temperature, retreating sea ice, declining glaciers and shortening of the snow-cover. There is a tremendous amount of evidence."

This land is our land
A key element of ACIA was participation by indigenous Arctic people. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of an umbrella indigenous-people's organization, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, explained what indigenous people bring to the scientific table. "Because we are a people who survive and thrive on the ice and snow, we immediately notice any change to the conditions of snow or ice. We have been witnessing a lot of change in last five to ten years. Ice is forming a lot later in the fall, and leaving a lot sooner in the spring; the ice season is a lot shorter."

Inuits are 155,000 polar people. Sometimes called Eskimo, they live in Eastern Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

Craig Fleener, a wildlife biologist and member of Gwich'in Council International, an indigenous tribe spanning the Canada-Alaska border, also advised the ACIA. "Unlike previous reports, this one was comprehensive, with wide input from the eight Arctic nations, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], indigenous people, a broad spectrum," he says. "They had vastly different viewpoints, but all agree that climate change is a problem now, and could be a worse problem in the future."

Two maps compare warming of Arctic temps between now and 2090.
By 2090, drastic warming is anticipated over the Arctic Ocean. Courtesy Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

The Arctic nations are Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Russia, Canada and the United States.

If you've followed the long debate over global warming, you may remember this warning from the original computer models: Warming will be worst near the poles.

And according to the ACIA, warming is worst near the North Pole.

The future is now
As residents of temperate and tropical regions deny the gathering evidence for global warming -- or hope we can solve it next year -- the people, environment and wildlife of the north have been harmed by gases spewed by the factories, furnaces and vehicles of the industrialized world, thousands of miles to the south.

 Graph of 1000 of increasing temps, CO2 and carbon emissions.
Carbon-dioxide levels in the air closely track temperature records for the past 10 centuries. If they continue to parallel each other, global warming will only get worse. Courtesy Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

The ACIA report is "pretty alarming," says Jonathan Foley, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and environmental studies. "We can talk about the climate change we have seen in the rest of world," says Foley, an interdisciplinary climatologist active on global-change issues. "It's been there, but it's not dramatic, it has not changed the landscape we live in. But in the Arctic, the changes we have seen are quite amazing."Graph shows Arctic temps rose 3 degrees in last century.

Arctic temperature have been rising over the last century. Blue line shows temperature trend. Courtesy Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

The Artic report, Foley says, "Talks about a real single place that we can identify with. It has unique cultures, people, wildlife, and ecosystems, and they are under threat. Global warming has fundamentally changed the way the place looks, where people live, and how they live."

Even if you don't care much about the 4 million residents of the Arctic, Foley sees it as a danger signal. "The Arctic is potentially the canary in the coal mine. The place we have known as the Arctic will not be around in the future. It's very sad, it's irreplaceable, but the alarms should be ringing" in the rest of the globe, Foley says.

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive