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ALASKA: The Big Meltdown.

"IN THE ARCTIC," SAYS DAN RITZMAN, AN ALASKA-BASED CAMPAIGNER FOR GREENPEACE, "CLIMATE CHANGE IS NO LONGER A THEORY, it's a reality, and it's affecting the wildlife and people which live there." Of course, you might expect Greenpeace to say that. But a growing body of work backs up the claim. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the greatest temperature increases over the last 35 years have occurred in the Arctic and subarctic. In parts of the region, warming has been extreme: as much as seven to 10 degrees F, says the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Several researchers have found that, in Alaska and Siberia, the permafrost--a layer of frozen soil that is almost a defining feature of the Arctic and subarctic--is melting, causing forests to literally sink into the collapsing ground and die. A 1998 report by the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks argues that, in the past decade, climate change in Alaska has resulted in declines in some salmon stocks, an increase in human health problems as new diseases move north and increased forest fires. Massive declines in harbor seal and Steller sea lion populations are believed to be related to rising temperatures and consequent changes in the ecosystem of the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. In 1997 and 1998, over a million seabirds died of starvation in the Bering Sea; scientists believe that warmer sea surface temperatures prompted fish to feed in deeper, colder water where the birds could not reach them.

Warmer temperatures are resulting in population increases in insect pests that are ravaging the coniferous forests of south central Alaska. According to Glenn Juday of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the damage is so extensive that "the question is no longer how many trees will be killed, but what kind of forest will replace the one that is dying out." In the Canadian High Arctic, numbers of the diminutive Peary caribou have crashed from around 24,500 in 1961 to a little over 1,000. Anne Gunn of the Canadian Wildlife Service suggests that harsh winters have led to increased snow, and that the caribou expended so much energy trying to dig through it to get at the food below that "they just ran out of energy and then died."

Perhaps the most compelling evidence in support of Arctic climate change comes from the people who know the Arctic better than anyone: the IOupiat and Yup'ik Eskimo communities along the Bering, Beaufort, and Chukchi Sea coasts of Alaska. In 1997 and 1998, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise visited several villages along these coasts, gathered testimonies from villagers who are seeing changes in the environment and wildlife on which they depend, and collected them in a report, Answers from the Ice Edge.

"There used to be heavy snowfall in the springtime. There was three feet of slush where we walked, and now I don't see it any more," says Jimmie Toolie, the village elder of Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. "About 15 years ago, it started getting warmer. The snow melts faster and faster," adds Benjamin Pugowiyi, also from Savoonga. "I notice that the tundra is not as spongy as it used to be," observes Hannah Mendenhall, from Kotzebue. "Now I can hear it crackle when I walk on it, and it's dry. It's real dry." She adds, "We're also beginning to get insects that are not usually of this climate."

From village to village, the stories are similar: drying tundra, increased storms, reduced summer rainfall, warmer winters, and apparent changes in the distribution, migration and numbers of some wildlife species. More than any other observation, however, villagers make one point over and over: sea ice is thinner, forming later, and breaking up sooner than it used to.

Three scientific studies published toward the end of 1999 endorsed that view. One, based on sonar data from nuclear submarines, argued that the perennial ice cover of the Arctic Ocean is about 40 percent thinner than two to four decades ago. A second, using satellite imagery, concluded that it had also shrunk in extent, by 14 percent from 1978 to 1998. A third combined 46 years of data from five different sources, including ground-based observations and satellite data, and found that total sea ice extent--including seasonal as well as permanent sea ice--is shrinking by about 14,000 square miles, or three percent, a year.

On Alaska's North Slope, researcher George Divoky says diminishing sea ice is contributing to the disappearance of seabirds called black guillemots: "They feed on arctic cod which are found beneath the sea ice," he says. "But the sea ice is retreating steadily north each year, too far for them to reach, and as a result the guillemots are declining." One colony has halved in size since 1990. Ian Stirling of the University of Alberta and colleagues have suggested that, because polar bears hunt on sea ice, shorter ice seasons may be to blame for bears in Canada's Hudson Bay losing weight and having fewer cubs.

IOupiat bowhead whalers from Wainwright had to be rescued in 1998 when the sea ice broke apart beneath them. Sea ice normally protects Eskimo villages from the ravages of winter storms. Without such protection, the gravel spit on which Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island, is built is steadily eroding, while the village of Shishmaref was so badly damaged by storms in 1997 that it had to be abandoned and relocated.

But perhaps nowhere is the reality of Arctic climate change more pronounced than Little Diomede, a remote island in the Bering Strait. Boulders perch precariously above the village below. In recent years, melting permafrost has caused landslides, imperiling its inhabitants.

Anthony Soolook Jr., IOupiat whaler and Diomede inhabitant, looks out at his village from the deck of the Arctic Sunrise and sighs. "I had a dream last night," he tells me. "I dreamed the boulders came crashing down and destroyed all the houses." He sighs again and shrugs. "Our island is falling apart. But who cares? Who will come and help us, all the way out here?" CONTACT: Answers from the Ice Edge: The Consequences of Climate Change on Life in the Bering and Chukchi Seas,

KIERAN MULVANEY is the author of the forthcoming book At the Ends of the Earth (Island Press).
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Author:Mulvaney, Kieran
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:0ARCT
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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