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The Unraveling of the Arctic

By Megan McGarrity

This past Earth Day (April 22), a large crowd gathered at City Hall in Ottawa, Canada, to hear from leading Arctic science and policy experts about the impacts of climate change on the Arctic. The Canadian Climate Forum hosted this event in partnership with Arctic21 and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Global Arctic Programme to raise public awareness about the local and global impacts of a changing climate.

Six world-renowned experts summarized the impact of climate change on glaciers, sea ice, permafrost, biodiversity, black carbon, and Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic regions. Dr. Martin Sharp described that glaciers play a critical role in controlling sea levels and provide the potential for release of pollutants entombed in the ice. Since the 1990s, glaciers have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Between 1958-1960 in the Yukon, glaciers occupied 11,622 square kilometers, while in 2006 to 2008 they shrank to 9,081 square kilometers; a loss in area of 2,541 square kilometers. Dr. Sharp emphasized the need for a global solution to the problem of rising ocean levels.

Permafrost has also been seriously affected by climate change. The top or active layer of permafrost freezes and thaws annually; permanently frozen permafrost lies beneath at depths of several inches to several thousand meters. Dr. Antoni Lewkowicz pointed out that permafrost is warming in all parts of the Arctic and is completely thawing in some areas. As the climate continues to warm and thaw, massive stores of carbon will be released into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change trends. Terrestrial stocks are enormous, in the range of 1,330 to 1,580 Pg (petagrams) of carbon in total in northern permafrost areas, which is about twice that in the atmosphere.

Thawing permafrost in the Arctic

Since 1979, Arctic sea ice extent has declined about 10 percent per decade. Dr. Bruno Tremblay noted that while there are annual variations in ice extent, there is a clear and significant decrease in sea ice extent and volume. 2012 revealed a 50 percent loss in ice, and 2014 was declared the year with the lowest level in recorded history. In short, “the amount of very old ice in the Arctic has shrunk to almost nothing,” he said.

In the high Arctic regions between 1970 and 2004, animal populations have decreased by an average of 26 percent. Dr. Risa Smith also pointed out that exploding insect populations are driving southern species to move north. The influx of southern species, like the grizzly bear and the red fox, creates contact with northern species like the polar bear and Arctic fox, causing conflict and in some cases, hybrid populations.

With regards to black carbon and methane, Erika Rosenthal said these “short-lived climate forcers” deposited on snow and ice surfaces are amplifying sunlight absorption, which accelerates melting and warming of ice. In an attempt to reduce the sediments, the eight member nations of the Arctic Council, in collaboration with the Council’s Permanent Participants signed the Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions. This agreement sets targets for emissions inventories from each member nation, outlines action plans on mitigation strategies, and requires national reports to the Council.

Melting ice makes travel for Indigenous populations more dangerous

Terry Audla, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), underlined that “traditional knowledge is inextricably linked to scientific knowledge,” especially in the Canadian Arctic. However, the increasingly unpredictable environment and weather have had serious impacts on the livelihoods of indigenous people. Traditional hunting practices have had to adapt to disappearing snow and ice, often resulting in longer distances to travel and fewer kills. Nearly 70 percent of Inuit households still hunt to feed their families and 90 percent of those who hunt share with others. “Food insecurity in the North is six times what it is for the average southern Canadian family,” notes Mr. Audla.

A warming climate has shifted economic prospects in the Arctic with resource extraction and tourism on the rise. Mr. Audla notes “Inuit people support development, but not at all costs.” However, unemployment rates in the Arctic region remain four times higher for aboriginals than for non-aboriginals.

Weaving stories from his decades photographing and writing about the Arctic, Ed Struzik warned about many threats, including increased shipping and oil spills. He also noted that global actions are needed to control carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Finally, he cautioned that one of the greatest challenges to solutions relates to the jurisdiction over the Arctic. Various nations are claiming jurisdictions over the region for the economic benefits of ice-free shipping, and an abundance of natural resources such as oil and gas.

A Red Fox competing with an Arctic Fox in Alaska

Under the U.S. government’s “One Arctic, Shared Obligations” theme, U.S. Ambassador Heyman optimistically shared the three overarching objectives set for the next two years as the U.S. assumes Chairmanship of the Arctic Council:

  1. A commitment to Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship including assessing the establishment of marine protected areas, a regional seas agreement, and a joint search and rescue initiative.
  2. A strategy to reduce black carbon and methane emissions.
  3. Improving economic and living conditions by increasing the availability and quality of renewable energy, water, sanitation, mental-health, and telecommunications services.

The ‘Unraveling of the Arctic’ event delivered some alarming facts about the unprecedented changes already affecting the Arctic. However, all speakers were optimistic that many of these impacts can be reduced if action is taken soon. As Chair of the Arctic Council,the U.S. government has a long list of initiatives to fulfill in the pursuit of reversing such trends. Meaningful impact will come from continued development of policy frameworks, such as the one recently signed on black carbon and methane, to in turn institutionalize the mechanisms that will guide needed change. What is clear is this is not solely an Arctic challenge, but rather a global one. All nations, particularly major greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, will need to step up at the upcoming United Nations Convention of the Parties (COP) meeting in Paris (December) and commit to ambitious reduction targets. As Ambassador Heyman stated, this is about ‘shared obligations’ and a collective hope for a binding agreement in Paris, and the U.S. government’s success in meeting its goals and objectives as they lead the Arctic Council into a new era.

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Megan McGarrity is the Director of Projects at the Canadian Climate Forum. The Forum’s mission is to promote the exchange and dissemination of evidence-based, climate science knowledge to advance decision-making for the wellbeing of all Canadians.

[Photos by Ed Struzik]

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