Arctic People: Climate Change Impacts

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Arctic People: Climate Change Impacts


Two regions on Earth are showing much more rapid climate change than the rest of the world—the Western Peninsula of Antarctica and the Arctic. The Arctic is often considered to include all land and sea from the North Pole southward to the Arctic Circle at 66° 33' north latitude. This region has warmed at about twice the rate of the rest of the planet, causing many disruptions to natural and human patterns. Unlike the South Pole, where the polar ice cap is extremely thick and rests mostly on solid ground, the ice in the Arctic has two major components: the land-based Greenland ice cap and the polar ice proper, a skin of ice floating on the ocean above and around the Pole. The floating polar ice has recently retreated at a rate that has surprised scientists. Warming and sea-ice shrinkage are having numerous impacts on the peoples of the Arctic region and have implications for the course of global warming around the world.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Archaeological research shows that human beings have lived in the Arctic for many thousands of years. These peoples have evolved traditional ways of life adapted to the extreme cold and scarcity of plants, usually basing their livelihoods on hunting and fishing. Although these ways of life have already been widely changed by technology—snowmobiles having largely replaced dog teams in Canada and Alaska, for example—many Arctic groups continue to depend on whales, seals, caribou, fish, and other Arctic animals for their livelihoods.

Arctic sea ice grows and shrinks on a seasonal cycle, reaching its greatest coverage around the end of March and its minimum in September. In 2007, scientists were astonished by the unprecedented melting of the Arctic sea ice. Arctic climate researcher William L. Chapman described it as “simply incredible.” As of early August 2007, Arctic sea ice had already reached its minimum extent in recorded history. The 2007 melt was also unique in that the sea ice showed unprecedented shrinkage in all sectors, that is, all around its perimeter and even its central region, not just in the north Atlantic Ocean or Bering Sea.

Over the last 50 years or so, temperatures in much of the Arctic—that is, in Alaska, western Canada, and eastern Russia—have increased by 4–7°F (2–4°C), twice the global average warming. Over the next century, temperatures are predicted to rise by another 7–13°F (4–7°C).

The effects of climate change in the Arctic are not likely to be all bad, and the Arctic peoples are not likely to be wiped out by climate change. A reduction in cold-related deaths is probable, for example. In Finland, deaths from cold-related disease and injury each year outnumber deaths from heat and car crashes by about a factor of 10. Respiratory disease rates also are expected to decrease overall for Arctic peoples with warming climate. Early spring melting gives Inuit hunters a longer season in which to hunt beluga whales, and boat travel may be easier with less ice.

However, the bulk of the impacts are likely to be negative. Walruses, Arctic cod, and polar bears are all threatened by climate change. Melting of permafrost destabilizes structures and renders roads impassable by converting them to rivers of mud. Harvesting wildlife on unstable ice is now more dangerous and access to hunting areas is becoming more difficult. As ancestral knowledge becomes rapidly less relevant to present-day conditions, the transfer of skills to younger generations breaks down, weakening social networks.

Impacts and Issues

Impacts of global warming on Arctic peoples have already been profound. Chief Gary Harrison of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, an international group of American and Canadian native peoples belonging to the Athabaskan family, said in 2005, “Arctic indigenous peoples are threatened with the extinction or catastrophic decline of entire bird, fish and wildlife populations, including species of caribou, seals, and fish critical to our food security…. This has the potential for catastrophic damage to millennia-old Arctic indigenous cultures.”

Representatives of Arctic peoples emphasize that their troubles are of global significance. Sheila Watt-Cloutier of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a multinational nongovernmental organization representing the Inuit (Eskimo) family of indigenous peoples, said in 2007: “The Arctic is the early warning for the rest of the world. What happens to the planet happens first in the Arctic …. We must all take what action we can to slow the pace of climate change, while there is still time.” Watt-Cloutier, who has worked to raise awareness of the impact of climate change on Arctic people, was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

But Arctic peoples also emphasize that they intend to adapt to climate change if at all possible. “We won't quit existing,” says Frank Pokiak, an Inuit and chair of the Inuvialuit Game Council in Tuktoyaktuk, Alaska.

Scientific forecasts of global climate change and observed sea-ice melting trends show that the Arctic Ocean may be completely free of ice in summer starting in just a few decades. Or, it could happen sooner, as projections of future change always involve uncertainties and the melting in the Arctic Ocean has recently been more rapid than predicted by computer models. This would be the first time the Arctic has been ice-free in about one million years. Since the Arctic is “the air conditioner of the world,” as global warming scientist Susan Hassol put it in 2004, the seasonal melting of the Arctic Ocean—which absorbs far more solar energy when open to the sun, rather than covered with reflecting ice—could have profound effects on world climate, accelerating global warming and changing weather patterns. In 2007, the U.S. Geological Survey forecast that two-thirds of the Arctic's 20,000 or so polar bears (which depend on sea ice) will be gone by 2050 even under moderate global-warming scenarios.

Primary Source Connection

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. The rapid warming of the Arctic has created quickly changing conditions for native peoples who have been adapted to extreme cold for thousands of years. In this New York Times article, natives of the Arctic describe the changes that global warming has caused to their environment and way of life.


…In Russia, 20 percent of which lies above the Arctic Circle, melting of the permafrost threatens the foundations of homes, factories, pipelines. While the primary causes are debated, the effect is an engineering nightmare no one anticipated when the towns were built, in Stalin's time.

Coastal erosion is a problem in Alaska as well, forcing the United States to prepare to relocate several Inuit villages at a projected cost of $100 million or more for each one.

Across the Arctic, indigenous tribes with traditions shaped by centuries of living in extremes of cold and ice are noticing changes in weather and wildlife. They are trying to adapt, but it can be confounding.

Take the Inuit word for June, qiqsuqqaqtuq. It refers to snow conditions, a strong crust at night. Only those traits now appear in May. Shari Gearheard, a climate researcher from Harvard, recalled the appeal of an Inuit hunter, James Qillaq, for a new word at a recent meeting in Canada.


GREENLAND ICE CAP: Layer of ice covering about 80% of the island of Greenland; second-largest mass of ice on Earth after Antarctica, containing about 10% of Earth's ice, enough to raise sea levels 21 feet (6.5 meters) if it were all to melt. Accelerated melting of the Greenland ice cap was confirmed by gravimetric measurements in 2006.

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: Human populations that migrated to their traditional area of residence some time in the relatively distant past, e.g., before the period of global colonization that begin in the late 1400s.

POLAR ICE CAP: Ice mass located over one of the poles of a planet not otherwise covered with ice. In our solar system, only Mars and Earth have polar ice caps. Earth's north polar ice cap has two parts, a skin of floating ice over the actual pole and the Greenland ice cap, which does not overlay the pole. Earth's south polar ice cap is the Antarctic ice sheet.

SEA ICE: Ice that forms from the freezing of ocean water. As the salt water freezes, it ejects salt, so sea ice is fresh, not salty. Sea ice forms in relatively thin layers, usually no more than 3–7 ft (1–2 m) thick, but it can cover thousands of square miles of ocean in the polar regions.

One sentence stayed in her mind: “June isn't really June any more.”

Changing Traditions

In Finnmark, Norway's northernmost province, the Arctic landscape unfolds in late winter as an endless snowy plateau, silent but for the cries of the reindeer and the occasional whine of a snowmobile.

A changing Arctic is felt there, too. “The reindeer are becoming unhappy,” said Issat Heandarat Eira, a 31-year-old reindeer herder and one of 80,000 Samis, or Laplanders, who live in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and Russia.

Few countries rival Norway when it comes to protecting the environment and preserving indigenous customs. The state has lavished its oil wealth on the region, and Sami culture has enjoyed something of a renaissance. There is a Nordic Sami Institute, a Sami College, a state-sponsored film festival and a drive-in theater where moviegoers watch from snowmobiles.

And yet no amount of government support can convince Mr. Eira that his livelihood, intractably entwined with the reindeer, is not about to change. Like a Texas cattleman, he keeps the size of his herd secret. But he said warmer temperatures in fall and spring were melting the top layers of snow, which then refreeze as ice, making it harder for his reindeer to dig through to the lichen they eat. He worries, too, about the encroachment of highways and industrial activity on his once isolated grazing lands.

“The people who are making the decisions, they are living in the south and they are living in towns,” said Mr. Eira, sitting inside his home made of reindeer hides. “They don't mark the change of weather. It is only people who live in nature and get resources from nature who mark it.”

Other Arctic cultures that rely on nature report similar disruptions. For 5,000 years, the Inuit have lived on the fringe of the Arctic Ocean, using sea ice as a highway, building material and hunting platform. In recent decades, their old ways have been fading under forced relocations, the erosion of language and lore and the lure of modern conveniences, steady jobs and a cash economy.

Now the accelerating retreat of the sea ice is making it even harder to preserve their connections to “country food” and tradition. In Canada, Inuit hunters report that an increasing number of polar bears look emaciated because the shrinking ice cover has curtailed their ability to fatten up on seals. In Alaska, whale hunters working in unusually open seas have seen walruses try to climb onto their white boats, mistaking them for ice floes.

Hank Rogers, a 54-year-old Inuvialuit who helps patrol Canada's Far North, said the pelts of fox, marten and other game he trapped were thinning. As for the flesh of fish caught in coastal estuaries of the Yukon, “they're too mushy,” he said. Slushy snow and weaker ice has made traveling by snowmobile impossible in places.

“The next generation coming up is not going to experience what we did,” he said. “We can't pass the traditions on as our ancestors passed on to us.”

Even seasoned hunters have been betrayed by the thaw, stepping in snow that should be covering ice but instead falling into water. And on Shingle Point, a sandy strip inhabited by Inuvialuit at the tip of the Yukon in Canada, Danny A. Gordon, 70, said it was troubling that fewer icebergs were reaching the bay. It has become windier, too, for reasons people here cannot explain.

“In the summer 40 years ago, we had lots of icebergs, and you could land your boat on them and climb on them even in summer,” Mr. Gordon said. “Now in the winter they are tiny. The weather has changed. Everyone knows it. It's global warming”….


Global climate change is not only affecting Arctic ice, it is also changing many neighboring nation's perspectives on Arctic resources. A warming Arctic has the potential to make valuable resources increasingly accessible. An estimated quarter of the world's undiscovered oil reserves lies in the Arctic. A longer ice-free season in arctic waters has renewed the possibility of a northwest shipping passage. In August 2007, a Russian submarine planted a Russian flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole, symbolically claiming the region and its resources as its own. Canada vowed to begin building military bases in the Arctic. The United States sent Coast Guard ships to explore Arctic waters and map the sea floor. Denmark has also launched polar mapping expeditions.

The rush for potential Arctic resources has made some nations reevaluate their positions on international laws and treaties governing the Arctic region. For example, the United States initially rejected the international Law of the Sea Treaty in 1982. The treaty called for defined borders of national waters and set forth a panel to evaluate new claims of national waters, fishing and drilling rights, and sea floor ownership. President George W. Bush began calling for the United States to ratify the longstanding treaty to improve the government's ability to negotiate new and existing U.S. claims in the Arctic.

A Less Wild Future

One day last summer, the 1,200 residents of Pangnirtung, a windswept outpost on a fjord in Nunavut, Canada's Inuit-administered Arctic territory, were startled to see a 400-foot European cruise ship drop anchor unannounced and send several hundred tourists ashore in small boats.

While small ships have stopped in the Canadian Arctic, visits from large liners are increasing as interest grows in the opening Northwest Passage, said Maureen Bundgaard, chief executive of Nunavut Tourism, a trade association.

Ms. Bundgaard has been training villagers how to stage cultural shows, conduct day tours and sell crafts and traditional fare—without being overrun. “We're not prepared to deal with the huge ships, emotionally or in other ways,” she said.

Inuit leaders say they are trying to balance tradition with the inevitable changes that are sweeping their lands. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents 155,000 Inuit scattered across Canada, Greenland, Russia and the United States, has enlisted lawyers and movie stars like Jake Gyllenhaal and Salma Hayek to draw attention to its imperiled traditions.

The group's leaders hope to submit a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in December, claiming that the United States, by rejecting a treaty requiring other industrialized countries to cut emissions linked to warming, is willfully threatening the Inuit's right to exist.

The commission, an investigative arm of the Organization of American States, has no enforcement powers. But legal analysts say that a declaration that the United States has violated the Inuit's rights could create the foundation for a lawsuit either against the United States in international court or American companies in federal courts.

But some Inuit question the wisdom of the petition. They ask, how can they push countries to stem global warming when the Inuit's own prosperity in places like Nunavut is tied to revenues from oil and gas, which are sources of greenhouse gases when burned?

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the elected chairwoman of the group, said the goal was not to stop development but to make sure that native cultures had a say in how development was carried out.

“It's how we do the business that's more important,” she said. “There are more environmentally friendly ways in which we can do development and still live a certain way, with a way of life and business that can balance both.” While it is the people of the Arctic who will feel the melt and the rush for development most directly, the world, too, will have to give up something—its treasured notion of the Far North as a place of wilderness, simplicity and unspoiled cultures.

In a report on Arctic development, the United Nations Environment Program estimated that 15 percent of the region's lands were affected in 2001 by mining, oil and gas exploration, ports or other industrial incursions. But that figure is likely to reach 80 percent in 2050, it said. The Arctic, then, is probably making the same transition that swept the coastal plains of the North Slope of Alaska starting 38 years ago when the first oil was struck in Prudhoe Bay, said Charles Wohlforth, an Alaskan and author of “The Whale and the Supercomputer,” describing Arctic climate change.

Since then, a lacework of pipelines and wells has steadily spread west and east from that central field, ending the sweeping sense of emptiness that defined the Arctic landscape through the ages.

“Even if you support oil development and think it makes sense, there's a point at which it becomes West Texas or the Gulf of Mexico and is not really the Arctic any more,” Mr. Wohlforth said.

Steven Lee Myers, et al .

myers, steven lee, andrew c. revkin, simon romero, clifford krauss, and craig duff. “old ways of life are fading as the arctic thaws.” the new york times. october 20, 2005: a (6)1.

See Also Africa: Climate Change Impacts; Arctic Melting: Greenland Ice Cap; Arctic Melting: Polar Ice Cap; Asia: Climate Change Impacts; Australia: Climate Change Impacts; Europe: Climate Change Impacts; North America: Climate Change Impacts; Small Islands: Climate Change Impacts; South America: Climate Change Impacts.



Parry, M. L., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


Ford, James D., et al. “Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Arctic: A Case Study from Arctic Bay, Canada.” Global Environmental Change 16 (2006): 145–160.

Scheiermeier, Quirin. “The New Face of the Arctic.” Nature 446 (2007): 133–135.

Serreze, Mark C. “Perspectives on the Arctic's Shrinking Sea-Ice Cover.” Science 315 (2007): 1533–1536.

Web Sites

“Arctic Indigenous Peoples Unveil Statement on Climate Change” (news release). Arctic Athabaskan Council, June 12, 2005. <> (accessed September 16, 2007).

Handwerk, Brian. “Arctic Melting Fast: May Swamp U.S. Coasts by 2099.” National GeographicNews, November 9, 2004. <> (accessed September 16, 2007).

“Study: Arctic Warming Threatens People, Wildlife: Eight-Nation Report Faults Fossil Fuels; U.S. in Wait-and-See Mode.” MSNBC, Nov. 8, 2004. <> (accessed September 16, 2007).

Larry Gilman

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