Global Warming? Get Real.

In the high Arctic, climate change isn't an abstract concept

Mar 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

HOT ENOUGH for ya? It is in the far north, where ocean currents are shifting, the polar ice shelf is thinning, and the Inuit are for the first time seeing wildlife—i.e. robins, dragonflies, and salmon—previously only found in far warmer climes. Early signs of the apocalypse? Based on last November's failed United Nations meeting on climate change at The Hague (and the collapse of subsequent emergency talks in Ottawa in December), we should all be investing in boats. The U.S. delegation, headed by Frank Loy, refused to back off on a proposal that would allow emissions credits for pre-existing carbon "sinks," such as forests. Such sinks would significantly offset the nation's 7 percent greenhouse gas reduction goal set under the Kyoto Protocol. Scientists are still split on what's behind the thaw (the planet's natural cycles, or smokestacks) but some are biting their nails: "Regardless of the cause, the change is so extraordinary it needs attention," says Lawson Brigham, an Arctic scientist. Consideringthe indicators below, one has to wonder: Will the next North Pole fashion craze be Hawaaiian shirts?

1 A Robin in Winter One of the more obscure words in the Inuit language of Igloolik is misullijuq—loosely, "rain in midwinter," an extremely rare event. Until recently, that is. According to research conducted between June 1999 and May 2000 by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (a Canadian think tank), residents of Sachs Harbour on Canada's Banks Island are noticing spring ice breakup coming earlier, and, for the first time, thunderstorms. Townspeople also encountered dragonflies and robins, and have had to venture farther out to sea to hunt for seals. The most alarming change: House foundations are beginning to shift as the permafrost melts beneath them.

2 Baja, Canada? In 1942, after a grueling voyage that included two winters locked in the ice, the schooner St. Roch (above) successfully navigated the perilous 1,000-mile Northwest Passage across the top of Canada. Last July, 60 years after the first trip began, the St. Roch II—a 66-foot aluminum-hulled catamaran—made the same trip in only 103 days. The key difference: "No pack ice ever even touched the hull," explains St. Roch IIcaptain Ken Burton. The crew went swimming (without wetsuits) in 40.1-degree-Fahrenheit water between 70 and 72 degrees north latitude, about 1,200 miles from the Pole. "It was surreal," he says. "It looked like Baja."

3 The Floe-Protein Diet Polar bears are not light eaters; North America's largest land carnivores will nosh 43 blubbery seals each year. But shortening Arctic winters are cutting into the feast. The earlier arrival of spring breakup (June, compared to July in decades past) now means fewer floes, which the bears use as fishing platforms from which to secure plump, juicy pups. A recent Canadian Wildlife Service study found that the earlier ice breakup is resulting in skinnier bears (the average body weight has dropped 10 percent) that have 10 percent fewer offspring than they did two decades ago.

4 Into Thin Ice By reflecting up to 80 percent of incoming solar radiation back into space, sea ice acts as a kind of planetary thermostat. Trouble is, the thickness of the frosty mantle covering the Arctic Ocean has diminished by about 40 percent in the last four decades. "Not only has there been a reduction in polar sea-ice thickness but in surface area too," says climatologist Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

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