Global warming is changing the face of the Arctic
In Alaska, it's hard not to take global warming personally. For Alaskan Natives, with
their intimate connection to land and sea, it determines whether there will be seal or
caribou to feed the family, plants for food and medicine, or even solid ground to support
the ancestral home.
"The sea ice is thinning," says Art Ivanoff, an Inupiat from Unalakleet in
west-central Alaska. "People can't harvest the traditional animals and fish. People
don't want to go on the ice because it's too dangerous." According to recent NASA
satellite data, sea ice off western and northern Alaska has decreased almost 10 percent in
the past three decades. Retreating ice in the Bering Sea now threatens the health of one
of the world's richest marine environments--what Carl Jack of the Rural Alaska Community
Action Program calls the "ring of life at the ice's edge," which has sustained
people and animals for centuries. The sea's eastern section, roughly the size of
California, is home to seals, whales, polar bears, walrus, and millions of migratory
birds. But the area is changing rapidly. "There's less and less subsistence
food," says Yup'ik Andrew George. "We couldn't harvest enough fish to feed our
village last year."
Climate change, warns Larry Merculieff, the Aleut coordinator of the Bering Sea
Coalition, "could be the single most important factor in changing rural people since
'the great deaths' " of the 19th century, when measles and other exotic diseases
killed up to 70 percent of Native peoples in some areas. Temperatures in the Alaska Arctic
have risen more than 4 degrees in the past 30 years, twice as much as in the rest of the
world. At this rate, a century from now arctic temperatures could be almost 15 degrees
warmer. (If temperatures were to fall 15 degrees, we'd be in another ice age.) Even at the
current rate, the consequences of arctic warming will likely include melting permafrost,
destruction of the boreal forest--and mounting disaster for those adapted to ice and
In the far north, for example, polar bears prowl the pack ice of the Chukchi and
Beaufort seas searching for ringed seals, which account for more than 90 percent of their
diet. Seals depend on the pack ice for resting and raising their pups, while polar bears
patrol it to hunt the seals. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Scott
Schliebe, half of AlaskaŐs Beaufort Sea polar bears also den on the ice--which recent
studies show is thinning in many places from an average of eight feet to only four.
Scientists calculate that the pack ice could melt completely in the next two centuries.
University of Washington climatologist Richard Moritz says the process could take as
little as 50 years.
Global warming also threatens enormous changes to Alaska's landmass. Permafrost
underlies more than 80 percent of the state, but it's now starting to thaw. Many areas are
4 to 7 degrees warmer than they were 50 to 100 years ago; some sections of permafrost
south of the Brooks Range are within 4 degrees of thawing completely.
By trapping what little rain falls, permafrost nourishes a variety of plant life.
Without it, much of the Arctic would be lifeless desert. "There is an intimate
connection between permafrost and arctic ecosystems," says Vladimir Romanovsky of the
University of Alaska at Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. If the permafrost continues to
melt, he says, the boreal forests that grow over it could be replaced by dry steppe.
The boreal forest that covers nearly a third of Alaska is already drier and thus more
at risk. In the past eight years, says Glenn Juday of the university's Forest Sciences
Department, spruce bark beetle infestations have claimed over 2 million acres of
once-healthy forest, the greatest recorded incidence of insect destruction in North
America. Worse yet, dead trees leave these areas highly vulnerable to catastrophic
Melting permafrost could also dry up the tundra, Romanovsky says, which would force
caribou and musk ox, living links to the last ice age, to forage for less-nutritious
vegetation. And thawed permafrost releases additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,
accelerating global warming. Permafrost also serves as the foundation for most rural
Alaskan homes. Already the villagers of Shishmaref and Kivalina are contemplating the
difficult decision to move from their ancestral lands, which have been nearly destroyed by
melting permafrost and Bering Sea wind erosion.
If dramatic action is not taken soon, many scientists fear, the effects of global
warming may be irreversible. "We might be looking at a future without polar bears if
we donŐt do something now," says Margie Gibson of the conservation group Arctic
Network. An Arctic without sea ice could mean the loss not just of polar bears but also of
the life-sustaining riches at its edge. And that could spell the end of the ancient way of
life for many of Alaska's Native people.