How the Arctic’s poor health affects everyday life

NOAA’s latest tally of the region’s vital signs includes a look at the human impact


NOAA’s 2019 Arctic Report Card details how climate change is altering the Arctic’s land, atmosphere and ocean (two ships in the Arctic Ocean on a survey to map the region’s continental shelf, shown).

Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard

SAN FRANCISCO — Polar bears have long been the poster children for the woes of Arctic warming. But climate change isn’t just a danger to wildlife. It threatens the safety and livelihoods of people across the Arctic.

To put a human face to this problem, an annual report by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is giving voice for the first time to people in the Bering Sea region of Alaska who deal with the impacts of rapid climate change in their daily lives.

Indigenous people in this area face shrinking access to fish stocks, shorelines eroding from under buildings and traditional travel routes along ice disappearing. “We have seen change coming. Now, we know it is here,” 10 elders from indigenous communities around the Bering Sea write in NOAA’s 2019 Arctic Report Card. “The Bering Sea is undergoing changes that have never been observed in our lifetimes.”

This annual report documents air temperature, sea ice extent, snow cover and other environmental vital signs to track how climate change is reshaping the Arctic. The 2019 report, released December 10 at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting, confirms that the Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the global average temperature rise.

As a result of such high temperatures, old, sturdy sea ice has given way to newer, more fragile ice. In March 2019, sea ice older than four years accounted for only about 1.2 percent of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, compared with 33 percent in 1985, the report says. Other environmental anomalies this year included an algal bloom in the Greenland Sea in May that was about 18 times as intense as usual.

But the report focused especially on dramatic changes in the Bering Sea, including testimony from local leaders about how their homeland is transforming.

Those leaders say the biggest change in the Bering Sea is the loss of sea ice (SN: 3/14/19). Satellite observations have shown that across the Arctic, sea ice is generally declining. But in the last two years, “the declines that we’ve seen in terms of sea ice in the Bering Sea have been utterly profound,” says Karen Frey, a polar scientist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. She worked on a section of the report card documenting how algae are responding to sea ice loss. In 2018 and 2019, Bering Sea ice extent hit record lows — with the maximum southern sea ice extent only about 30 percent of the average from 1980 to 2010 (SN: 12/10/19). “Things have kind of fallen off a cliff,” Frey says.

Sea ice depletion is making it more difficult for indigenous people to hunt marine mammals, like walruses, that hang out on the ice. And diminishing ice, along with rising water temperatures, is driving fish like salmon to colder climes farther north. Climate change is “changing the migration of our marine resources that we depend on,” Jerry Ivanoff, a Bering Sea elder from the village of Unalakleet, said December 10 during a news conference. “It’s definitely going to hit us right here,” Ivanoff said, indicating his stomach.

ivory gulls
The breeding population of ivory gulls in the Arctic (breeding colony pictured) is declining, particularly in Canada, which has lost 70 percent of its ivory gull population since the 1980s, according to the 2019 Arctic Report Card.Alexey Lokhov

Sea ice loss also makes it more difficult to navigate terrain. In the remote island community of Diomede, for instance, people who used to travel on and off the island via sea ice during the winter now must rely on helicopters.

On land, higher temperatures mean less snow and more rain. “Winter rains coat our runways in ice and prevent the planes from landing in our communities, the vast majority of which are not connected to road systems,” the elders wrote in the report. Meanwhile, the thaw of permanently frozen soil, known as permafrost, is leading to sinkholes and landslides. Stronger storm surges, thanks to diminished sea ice, lap at coastal roads and buildings, triggering erosion.

It’s “a great idea” for a report like this to include local perspectives, says Brendan Kelly, a polar scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks not involved in the 2019 Arctic Report Card. The indigenous peoples of Alaska “are experiencing [climate change] in very deep, personal ways. You can’t live in the place where the climate is changing most rapidly on the planet and not have it affect your energy supply, your way of life, your foods.”

These on-the-ground observations give valuable information to scientists, Frey says. “With satellite remote sensing, you can be everywhere, every day.… When you have boots on the ground, you can only be one place at one time, but at that one place and one time, you get a wealth of knowledge.”

What’s more, “people’s firsthand knowledge of this gives you a sense of proximity” to the consequences of climate change, Frey says. “This is not a conversation about our grandchildren, or our children, even. This is a conversation about us.”

The Arctic report paints a similarly alarming picture of goings-on elsewhere in the region.  If it were grading how well humans are taking care of the planet, “it would certainly be a failing grade,” Kelly says. “This warming in the Arctic isn’t just an Arctic problem.”

For instance, in 2019, the amount of ice shed from the Greenland ice sheet rivaled 2012 — the previous record holder for ice loss. The report estimates that Greenland is losing, on average, nearly 267 billion metric tons of ice per year, leading to an average global sea level rise of about 0.7 millimeters per year. Those higher sea levels are expected to contribute to widespread coastal flooding. 

New measurements also suggest that permafrost thaw due to higher temperatures is now releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than plants in the arctic tundra take up, the report says. That could, in turn, spur even more global warming (SN: 9/25/19). “The big question is,” Kelly says, “how big a [carbon] source is this going to be in the coming decades?”

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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