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Arctic Climate Change

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Issue: 24 Section: Original Peoples Geography: North Topics: Indigenous, climate change

December 19, 2004

Arctic Climate Change

The fight to preserve the Arctic Way of Life

by Kim Petersen

arctic_boat.jpg
A warmer climate will open the arctic to shipping, but will play havoc with the region's delicate ecosystem, say scientists. photo: NOAA

In 2002, the ablation of the over three-millennia-old Ward Hunt Ice Shelf off Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Artic provoked the scientific community to higher awareness of the threat posed by climate-change processes. The erosion of the glacier resulted in the dissipation of almost all of the freshwater from the Arctic's largest epishelf lake (a freshwater layer that sits atop salt water).

These monumental changes presaged the pronouncements that emanated this month from the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) in Iceland. Scientists warn, "The Arctic is extremely vulnerable to observed and projected climate change and its impacts. The Arctic is now experiencing some of the most rapid and severe climate change on Earth." The scientists pointed to the burning of fossil fuels as the primary cause of global warming that imperils the traditional northern way of life.

The Artic thaw will likely have far-reaching ramifications for the land, sea, weather, flora and fauna, and people inhabiting the earth's northern regions.

Geological and Meteorological Change

Increasing temperatures will result in the melting of glaciers and ice covering the Arctic Ocean. The ice-free seas will further exacerbate the melt, as the reduced reflection of light will result in the dark seas absorbing more warmth. Rising sea levels and an inundated coastline are the predictable outcome.

Not all the changes concomitant with a warming environment might be construed as negative. The thawing tundra will, some speculate, enable forms of agriculture previously impossible. Loosened soil will permit the northward creep of the treeline. Since forests absorb more heat than tundra, the cycle will feed upon itself.

Melting permafrost would also increase the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Global warming is also implicated in increasingly erratic arctic weather patterns. Increased precipitation and freezing rains will, say scientists, become more common. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) predicts that once rare phenomena such as thunderstorms would become more prevalent in the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

Threat to Arctic Wildlife

Wildlife dependent on the northern ice will be affected. The word Arctic means "land of the Great Bear." Yet the northern warming endangers the predator at the top of the Arctic food chain, the polar bear. Polar bears must consume large amounts of food to survive the harsh northern winters, and seal hunting on the frozen seas is the primary mode of fattening up for a long hibernation.

The loss of the polar bear would impact Inuit hunters, such as those in areas of Nunavut, who still depend on sustainable hunts of polar bears to maintain their culture and well-being.

Sea creatures will also be affected. Seals, walruses, and birds will lose breeding areas and fish species will be susceptible to sea changes such as increased temperature and decreased salinity.

The ACIA finds, "Not only are some threatened species very likely to become extinct, some currently widespread species are projected to decline sharply."

Nunavut journalist Jane George has reported on an Inuvialuit man from Sachs Harbour, John Keogak, who traveled for days to be in Iceland for the ICC. Keogak, of the Inuvialuit Game Council, is a witness to the effects of a warming Arctic climate. He has seen sporadic fish catches, and described the ghastly spectacle of thousands of musk ox dying from hunger or drowning after attempting to cross a sheet of ice in search of food on another island because frozen rain had hindered their normal foraging patterns. Foraging caribou are likely to be similarly affected if their means of sustenance is trapped under ice. The encroaching treeline also threatens to reduce areas of tundra that caribou depend on for foraging.

Threats to the Inuit and Northern Inhabitants

Some coastal villages are exposed to the seas by the lack of ice.
Keogak was unique. No one from the Government of Nunavut, Nunavik, or Labrador attended the ICC. ICC chair Sheila Watt-Cloutier noted the lack of Inuit and Arctic Canada politicians and civil servants at the conference, which discussed the massive changes to the Arctic ecosystem. The ACIA cautioned: "Warming is likely to disrupt or even destroy their hunting and food-sharing culture as reduced sea ice causes the animals on which they depend to decline, become less accessible, and possibly become extinct."

Climate change is impacting on Inuit culture. Travel over regions of shifting ice is fraught with greater risk, making access to traditional food sources more difficult. Inuit, who are dependent on seasonal migrations of caribou, have reported not encountering the tundra foragers when expected.

Some coastal villages are exposed to the seas by the lack of ice. The village of Tuktoyaktuk is situated on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. Its beautiful location is now vulnerable to the ravages of coastal erosion.

"Strong near-term action to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions is required to alter the future path of human-induced warming." Northern residents must also begin to adapt to the changes that have already occurred.
The health of people in the Arctic is more and more susceptible to the climate changes. Longer exposure to sunlight and UV radiation can lead to an increased incidence of sunburn, skin cancer, immune-suppression-related disorders such as stress, and the introduction of new diseases to the Arctic by pests such as mosquitoes.

Dr. Chris Furgal of Quebec's Nasivvik Centre for Inuit Health and Changing Environments said, "In regions where we do have the projections of cooling and more temperature extremes, where we'd see more cold or hot days, there's potential thermal stress on individuals who are already compromised, [such as] elders or people that have respiratory problems."

The shareholders in petroleum and gas companies are the winners in the Arctic thaw, a thaw precipitated in large part by the burning of these fossil fuels. Groups that profit from the causes of global warming will stand to benefit from its effects as well. The residents of the sparsely populated Arctic, it seems, will reap only the consequences.

Warmer weather will ease access northern resources, and the opening of northern sea routes will ease transportation of the cargo. The increased tanker traffic in the northern sea passage will increase the likelihood of pollution and pose a challenge to Canadian sovereignty over waterways that it claims.

Industrial activity facilitates the release of toxic mercury into the environment. Mercury thereby gets into the food chain and jeopardizes the health of northern inhabitants.

As for solutions, the ACIA concluded, "Strong near-term action to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions is required to alter the future path of human-induced warming." Northern residents must also begin to adapt to the changes that have already occurred. In addition, the report pointed out the need to be ready for "surprises."

The US, which is responsible for the release of approximately a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases–gases which fuel global warming–was singled out for censure by Watt-Cloutier. The George Bush administration in the US refuses to ratify the Kyoto Accord that limits the emission of greenhouse gases to below 1990 levels. Watt-Cloutier denounced this selfishness: "The short-term economic policy of one country should not be able to trump the entire survival of one people."

"Climate change is not just about weather or sea ice conditions," said Watt-Cloutier, "It's a fight to preserve a way of life."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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