The word unaami from the Alaskan Native Yup'ik language translates broadly to “tomorrow”, and is commonly used with a connotation of change. There is no question that Arctic environments are changing, and not just the climate. There are a host of social, ecological, and economic factors that are transitioning to unknown futures. Given international economic fragility, and the daunting challenge of limiting the impacts of future climate change, we can no longer afford to allow parochial, short-term political and economic interests to determine policy. This article explores Arctic changes unleashed by distant human actions, why scientific data has been ineffective in influencing personal and policy choices, and how we may have to deal with shaping the future history of the Arctic.
Arctic researchers and Indigenous people in the circumpolar north are now confronted with situations that cultural historian and Earth scholar Thomas Berry creatively described as a time between stories. “We are in trouble now because we do not have a good story. The old story sustained us for a long period of time. It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, and guided education. It provided a context in which life could function in a meaningful manner.”1
Caption: The oldest Arctic sea ice is disappearing. Sea ice coverage shown on March 1, 2012.
Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, recently said in a lecture at Dartmouth College, “Traditionally, we care about the environment because we live off the land,” adding that the Inuit are the “guardians of the Arctic.” He also noted that environment is “silently changing,” and Inuits are facing a conflicting desire between combating climate change and embracing the potential for economic growth through foreign investments and commercial developments.2
To most of the global populace, the Arctic represents one of the most desolate and sparsely populated areas in the world, with few economic opportunities and a hostile climate. For the small populations living, conducting research, or exploring opportunities for natural resource developments, the Arctic of the early 21st century is a living laboratory for experiencing unprecedented, large-scale changes in land, ocean, ecosystem, and atmospheric environments. The melting of summer sea ice and glaciers has been widely reported in popular media in recent years and a rapidly growing host of scientific literature is documenting the transformations. In one generation the foundation for all living systems in the Arctic is transforming, in all likelihood, in response to a global climate change that is driven by the actions of seven billion humans living south of the Arctic Circle.
The melting of arctic summer sea ice has also accelerated access to offshore oil and natural gas resources, ice-free shipping lanes, nature tourism, and other commercial opportunities that have been previously restricted by harsh environmental conditions. A result of this increasingly open access is an accelerating international scramble for economic profits.3,4
The beginning of the 21st century finds the Arctic in a state of flux due to at least six factors: the current unpredictability of land, ocean, and atmospheric behavior related to climate change; threats to the traditional cultures of Indigenous populations; economic dependencies on finite energy and mining resources; unsettled issues of international law and rights of coastal states; the role and concerns of domestic and international audiences with sovereignty issues; and the inability of global institutions to reach a consensus on climate change issues.5
A Melting Arctic
The melting of glaciers, warming of permafrost, reshaping of landscape geomorphologies, increasing wildfire frequency, depletion of atmospheric ozone, increased productivity in tundra ecosystems, and acceleration of the hydrologic cycle are some of the most frequently reported environmental changes researchers are documenting. These changes are recorded in an Arctic Report Card published annually by the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).6
Declining summer sea ice cover and volume have significant consequences for ocean and coastal ecosystems. Satellites have routinely and accurately monitored the sea ice extent since 1979. There are two periods that define the annual cycle and are of particular interest: September, at the end of summer, when the ice reaches its annual minimum extent, and March, at the end of winter, when the ice is at its maximum extent.
Walt Meier, NSIDC ice expert, recently commented that “whether 2011 was lowest or second-lowest isn't important in the big picture of climate change. The long-term trend is becoming clearer: sea ice has declined by 12% per decade since 1979, and the last five years have still been the five lowest in the satellite record.”7 In addition, a 2007 extreme minimum in sea ice occurred when a “perfect storm” of atmospheric and ocean conditions contributed to an unprecedented summer ice loss.
In the first comprehensive study of its kind, also using satellite observations, researchers recently measured ice loss from global land ice caps and glaciers from 2003 to 2010. The NASA/German Aerospace Center Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) reported that the total ice mass loss from Greenland, Antarctica, and other Earth glaciers during the study period was 4.3 trillion tons, adding about 12 millimeters (0.5 inches) to global sea-level rise.8
The driving forces of Arctic climate change are not fully understood. What is going on with sea ice does not follow in lockstep with what is going on with surface temperature trends. Recent scientific studies have suggested that the warming in recent decades, along with the sea ice decrease, is influenced by both anthropogenic and natural factors. The challenges for scientists include determining the relative importance of greenhouse gas and aerosols; exchanges of ocean heat between the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans; solar and volcanic influences on the atmospheric heat budget; and the weather and climate interactions that connect the Arctic to global scales.10
Additional significant highlights in the Arctic Report Card: Update for 2011 described events of warming temperatures in the Arctic correlated with unusually low temperatures in some low-latitude regions in Europe and the eastern United States. The unusually cold winter of 2009–2010—which saw massive snowstorms dubbed “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon”—and the frigid start to 2011 have scientists talking about how a warmer winter in the Arctic might contribute to colder winters to the south. Dr. James Overland, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle, Washington, has been studying the changing conditions in the Arctic for 30 years. He is examining the possibility that when the Polar Vortex—a ring of winds circling the Arctic—breaks down, this allows cold air to spill south, affecting the eastern United States and other regions. Recent research also indicates that enhanced arctic warming reduces poleward temperature gradients with changes that favor increases in extreme weather.11,12
Caption: Summer in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, August 27, 2001.
Arctic amplification is an important concept based on observations that temperature variability and trends in the Arctic tend to be more extreme than trends and variability for the Northern Hemisphere or Earth as a whole. This concept has to do with interacting factors that are unique to arctic environments and involve feedbacks between sea ice, snow, water vapor, and clouds. As the area warms in response to climate change, melting ice and snow allow exposed land and water to absorb more of the sun's heat, which melts more ice and snow, and so on. A relatively small amount of initial warming can be greatly magnified by positive feedbacks in arctic environments.
Sea ice has a high albedo that reflects approximately 80% of the sunlight landing on ice back into space. As sea ice melts in the summer, a darker ocean surface absorbs approximately 90% of the sunlight. The warming of the ocean further accelerates sea ice melting and also warms the marine and coastal atmospheric boundary layer. These processes in combination accelerate the decline of sea ice, warming of the atmosphere, and the thawing of frozen soils and sediments. In addition, preliminary evidence suggests that the expanding area of ice-free ocean has resulted in an increase of marine storms that have dramatically increased coastal erosion. The U.S. Arctic Research Commission stated, “Change in the Arctic may play a substantial role in climate change throughout the globe. Yet, the Arctic remains one of the least explored, studied, and understood places on Earth.”13
The arctic amplification concept was suspected early in the development of global climate models by Manabe and Stouffer.14 Several recent publications provide comprehensive overviews of the scientific evidence for the arctic amplification concept and its role and consequences in initiating current and future transitions in arctic environments.15,16 A comprehensive review by Serreze and Barry17 concluded that “periods of arctic amplification are evident from the analysis of both warm and cool periods over at least the past three million years. It may become stronger in coming decades, invoking changes in atmospheric circulation, vegetation and carbon cycle, with impacts both within and beyond the Arctic.”
An Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, first published in 2004 and updated in 2007, has documented a wide range of environmental, ecological, and social changes occurring across the Arctic.18
The summer melting of sea ice has resulted in changes in Arctic Ocean ecosystems;19 growth rates of algae in the Arctic Ocean increased about 20% between 1998 and 2009, mainly as a result of increasing open water extent and duration of the open water season. The greatest increases were observed offshore Russia in areas where sea ice was most diminished and ocean nutrients were enhanced by river discharge.20
Declining summer sea ice also reduced marine habitats for polar bears, ice-inhabiting seals, and some seabirds, with the likelihood that some species or populations will be threatened with future extinction. For example, polar bears and walruses are continuing to lose habitat in Alaskan waters. Throughout the Arctic, seven of the 19 polar bear subpopulations are declining in number, with trends in two populations linked directly to reductions in sea ice.21 Thousands of walruses clustered on the northwest shore of Alaska in mid-August 2011, the fourth time in the past five years they exhibited this behavior, which is theorized to be triggered by a lack of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea. These “haul-outs” result in increased pup mortality rates by crushing and a switch in feeding by walrus from moving sea ice to static shore sites.22
Caribou and other land animals are expected to be increasingly stressed as climate change alters their access to traditional food sources, breeding grounds, and other aspects of ecosystems along their historic migration routes. Species ranges are projected to shift northward on both land and sea, bringing new species into the Arctic while severely inhibiting some species currently present. Northern freshwater fisheries that are mainstays of local subsistence diets are likely to suffer from elevated stream temperatures.
Permafrost degradation results in collapsing of the ground surface, draining of lakes, and toppling of forest trees in susceptible areas. The treeline is expected to move northward and to higher elevations, with forests replacing a significant fraction of existing tundra, and tundra vegetation moving into polar deserts. Disturbances such as insect outbreaks and forest fires are increasing in frequency, severity, and duration, facilitating invasions by nonnative species.6,18
Arctic landscape changes are under rigorous study at several U.S. National Science Foundation long-term ecological research sites in Alaska.23,24 These long-term study sites are sentinels for documenting the impacts and consequences of the warming of landscapes and ecosystems in Alaska, and similar scientific studies are active across the Arctic. This scientific information is urgently needed to address adaptation issues in the rapidly warming high north, national security concerns of Arctic nations, conservation and management of public lands and wildlife, and the expanding commercial activities on land and offshore in the Arctic.
Arctic coastal communities are experiencing the impacts of an increasing number of severe ocean storm landfalls stimulated, in part; by warmer waters and changes in atmospheric conditions.18 Coastal erosion is a growing problem as reductions in sea ice increase the exposure of coasts to storm surges. Communities and industrial facilities in coastal zones vulnerable to storm surge are already threatened or being forced to relocate, while others face increasing risks and mitigation costs.25
Caption: Yukon Delta, Alaska, October 8, 2011.
Circumpolar Arctic communities are also beginning to experience the thawing of permafrost, which will disrupt transportation, buildings, and other infrastructures.26-28 An increasing number of existing buildings, roads, pipelines, airports, and industrial facilities are likely to be destabilized, requiring substantial rebuilding, maintenance, and investment. Transportation and industry on land, including oil and gas extraction and forestry, have increasingly been disrupted by the shortening of the timeframe in which ice roads and tundra are frozen sufficiently to permit travel. Future development will require new design elements and increased investments to adapt to an ongoing warming.
Warming temperatures and environmental changes make living in the Arctic and adjacent boreal forest regions more dangerous and complicated. Nicole Herman-Mercer and Paul F. Schuster, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), along with Karonhiakt'tie Bryan Maracle of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in Fort Yukon, have interviewed residents in outlying Yup'ik villages in the Yukon Delta, Alaska, to understand how current environmental changes have affected their lives.29 Like most of the villages in the delta, the population is Alaskan natives who live a subsistence-based lifestyle. All of the subjects interviewed remarked that the weather has been warmer in recent years, most notably in the winter. Previously, winter temperatures commonly fell to –40°F for days. Now if they sink that low, it is for shorter periods of time. The weather is less predictable and more dangerous.
The Yup'iks also noted that previously they could accurately predict the weather up to a week in advance by looking at the moon, but cannot do so any longer with any reliability. Consequently, it is more likely that hunters could be caught out on the tundra when the weather changes for the worse, particularly during the dark winter months. They also noted a decrease in precipitation, particularly snow. Frozen rivers are the highways that link communities in the winter, and the ice is now almost half as thick as they remember it, making travel more difficult and considerably more treacherous. The growing need for expensive commercial fuels threatens the economics of subsistence living in remote communities.
Caption: North Slope of Alaska, February 19, 2006.
Caption: Arctic oscillation chills North America, warms Arctic, January 26, 2011.
The Inuit have been living in the Arctic for thousands of years, though lately their relatively isolated world is becoming a source of global news and geopolitical discussions and debates. There are many different visions of the Arctic: as a resource frontier, global commons, strategic zone, and last great wilderness in the Northern Hemisphere. Attempts to define the Arctic now and in the future are inherently complex, and outcomes could easily trend toward either anarchy or panarchy. Numerous scenarios of arctic futures, especially those conceived by geopolitical experts, environmental scientists, and commercial interests, are wide-ranging and most typically emphasize doom-or-boom outcomes.30-33
A Russian expedition to the North Pole in the summer of 2007 was a widely reported news event. Artur Chilingarov, a member of Russia's lower house of parliament, descended 14,000 feet in a deep-sea submersible and planted a Russian flag made of titanium into the sea floor. This was clearly political theater that succeeded in raising the ire of Canada, the United States, and other Arctic nations.
Caption: Both routes around the Arctic open at summer's end, September 9, 2008.
Caption: Retreat of Alaska's Columbia Glacier, May 17, 2012.
In 2008, for the first time in the Arctic's modern history, two major navigable routes opened: the Northwest Passage along the Canadian and Alaskan coasts, and the Northeast Passage that Russians usually refer to as the Northern Sea Route.34 For a few weeks that late summer, commercial shipping circumnavigated the North Pole without the risk of entrapment between massive sheets of ice and the shores of northern Siberia or the Canadian archipelago. Summer ice-free coastal ocean conditions are expected to result in an international competition for onshore and offshore natural resources, increasing use of commercial maritime passages, and the intrusion of the modern world into the homeland of the Inuit and other indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Distance savings of up to 50% are possible on shipping trade routes between nations bordering the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.35 A container ship sailing from Western Europe to Japan, for example, could save several thousand miles by using a polar route instead of the Suez Canal.
Offshore oil and natural gas resources are of great interest to Arctic nations and international energy companies. The precise quantities of these resources remain unknown. However, a study conducted in 2008 by the USGS suggests the Arctic may contain approximately 13% of the global mean estimate of undiscovered oil, which is approximately 618 billion barrels of oil (BBO). The North American side of the Arctic is estimated to contain about 65% of the undiscovered Arctic oil, but only 26% of the undiscovered natural gas.36,37
A currently unknown fraction of oil, gas, and mineral resources in the Arctic Basin exists in international waters. An agreement by the Arctic states in 2008 to resolve their disputes through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) framework suggests that the overlapping boundary issues will be settled amicably, although it is likely that they will take some time to be finalized. The United States is the only Arctic nation that has not signed on to the UNCLOS framework.38
Further issues raised by energy analysts relate to the likely efforts of Japan, South Korea, and China to gain access to Arctic oil and gas. These non-Arctic nations are making attempts to gain status in geopolitical venues and through joint commercial agreements with Arctic nations. China in particular has been very active in advancing its interests at the multilateral and bilateral level. President Hu Jintao acknowledged that the Arctic is mainly a regional issue but said that it is also an interregional issue due to the international complexities associated with climate change and international shipping.39
Producing arctic oil and natural gas deposits onshore has been very difficult and expensive. Developing offshore oil and gas will be even more challenging due to harsh weather and other environmental uncertainties. The Arctic Ocean is also one of the most difficult places on Earth to mount a rescue operation or oil spill response. The region has few major roads, ports, or airports. Coast Guard resources are very limited. Hurricane-force winds, subzero temperatures, high seas, shifting sea ice, and long periods of fog and darkness are the norm and could shut down a response altogether.40
Arctic Climate Change as Post-Normal Science
The most challenging questions surrounding the dramatic impacts of climate change, arctic amplification, and related potential consequences for global change center on the social, political, and cultural dynamics of environment–society interactions. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that the climate system can be inescapably influenced by human actions that, in turn, influence weather and climate at specific times and places. Anticipating and forecasting future climate and weather will become increasingly more uncertain. Planning for the future is thus becoming a post-normal science, in the sense that scientific facts and human values are no longer clearly delineated41-45
Caption: A satellite view looking down on the North Pole.
A very important perspective on climate change is Why We Disagree About Climate Change, by Professor Mike Hulme at the University of East Anglia. In this contribution to the discourse surrounding climate change science, policy, and politics,46 Hulme notes that decisions and actions on climate change will be neither made nor implemented without sustained engagement of political and public leaders. He notes that the most important question for every individual is, what will climate change mean for the people and things I care about?
For the indigenous people living in the Arctic, the recent changes in climate, weather, and the ice have greatly diminished their horizon of certainty and reality within which they sustain their life course. Aqqaluk Lynge, Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), addressed the Royal Scottish Geographical Society: “When you think of Greenland, you likely think of glaciers and icebergs, and more generally, of ice. I hope that after this talk you will also think of my people and our intimate relationship with the ice. In the Inuit language, we use the word sila for ice. But sila also means much more than ice. It also means weather, climate, environment, sky, and indeed, the universe. So when Inuit experience changes in the ice, as we are now due to the first effects of climate change, this is more than ‘just’ a change in ice conditions and climate, it is a change in our basic environment and indeed, our universe.”48
Earth scientists have tried to make the task of understanding climate change simple with the use of global temperature trends in simple graphic formats, videos of pulsating Arctic sea ice based on satellite images, and future climate scenarios portrayed in color-coded yellow and red maps. These products of science remain too abstract and febrile to reach broad audiences. Social and cultural scholars often communicate in academic language about ambiguities and emotional responses that reflect human frailties arising from overwhelming environmental change. These efforts also connect with a relatively small audience of devoted scholars and environmentalists.
We need a new narrative about climate change and sustainability—about our appropriation of the environment as a human prosthetic for sustaining the familiar. Social and technological advancement has come to a point where it is no longer possible to understand the earth as independent of human influence, hence the arrival of the Anthropocene.49 After more than 12,000 years of agricultural development, 200 years of intense industrialization, exponential global population growth, and a new trend toward massive urbanization, the human fingerprint is everywhere: on the land surface, in the atmosphere, and in the melting of Arctic sea ice.
The multidimensionality of global sustainability and climate includes issues of poverty, energy security, cultural alienation, climate change, urbanization, armed conflicts, and other factors. There can be no panacea to solve everything at once. Hulme questions whether climate change should be thought of as a problem at all. He suggests that “we can use the idea of climate change—the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discourses, and material flows that climate change reveals—to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic, and personal projects over the decades to come.” Adopting this approach embraces the notions that “we must now accept climate change operating as an overlying, but more fluid, imaginative condition of human condition,” and “at least recognize that the sources of our disagreement about climate change lie deep within us, in our values and in our sense of identity and purpose.”50 Future pathways to sustainability at human scales will inevitably require balancing complex tradeoffs between tradition, identity, and change.
Winners and Losers
Gro Harlem Brundtland, Special Envoy on Climate Change for the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, advocated “serious and strict regulation” and avoidance of a laissez-faire attitude toward climate change in the keynote speech at the recent IPY2012 in Montreal. She also expressed a level of impatience with the pace of global activity to mitigate climate change, pointing out that although we are now 20 years out from the Rio declaration, not much has changed.51
For native peoples of the Arctic there is a clear realization that their homelands are under stress with receding sea ice, eroding glaciers, accumulating pollution, declining wildlife, and diminished wilderness. Coastal Alaska villagers have become climate refugees retreating from the threats posed by melting of permafrost, unprecedented storm surges, and coastal erosion. The critical challenges ahead for numerous subsistence communities in the circumpolar Arctic include preserving human dignity while being confronted largely by threats, uncertainties, and risks generated from afar.
As Arctic nations implement national and international natural resource projects, public expectations for benefits will rise. It remains to be seen how populations in each country will benefit from future oil, natural gas, and mining projects. The finite character of oil, gas, and mineral resources will raise issues known as the resource curse. Who will be the winners and losers when the remaining oil and gas resources are no longer of economic value?
The confusion and disagreements that so often accompany discussions of sustainability often relate to the quality to be sustained. Here we have focused on social justice for the most vulnerable indigenous populations. Success would have to include insuring that Indigenous peoples of the Arctic sustain a clear connection to their lands and waters and retain links to their history and culture. Environmental histories offer little cause for optimism;52 knowing our past failures has not prevented us from repeating them.
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2. Aqqaluk Lynge, “Inuit in the Changing Arctic: A Bright New Future or Fight for Survival?” The Rabbi Marshall Meyer Social Justice Great Issues Lecture, Dartmouth College, 7 February 2012.
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31. Alun Anderson, After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic (New York, NY: Smithsonian Books, 2009).
32. Richard Sale and Eugene Potapov, The Scramble for the Arctic: Ownership, Exploitation and Conflict in the Far North (London, UK: Frances Lincoln, 2010).
33. Charles Emmerson, The Future History of the Arctic. (London, UK: The Bodley Head, 2010).
34. O'Rourke, note 5 above.
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38. O'Rourke, note 5 above.
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40. O'Rourke, Ronald, note 5 above.
41. M. Hulme, “Understanding Climate Change: The Power and the Limit of Science,” Weather 62, no. 9 (2007): 243–244.
42 M. Hulme, “Moving Beyond Climate Change,” Environment 52, no. 3 (2010), 15–19.
43. M. Hulme, “Cosmopolitan Climates: Hybridity, Foresight and Meaning,” Theory, Culture and Society 27, no. 2/3 (2010): 267–276.
44. M. Hulme, “Learning to Live With Re-Created Climates,” Nature and Culture 5, no. 2 (2010), 117–122.
45. M. Hulme, “‘Telling a Different Tale’: Literary, Historical and Meteorological Readings of a Norfolk Heatwave,” Special Issue on Cultural Spaces of Climate edited by Georgina Endfield. Climate Change 112 (2012): 1–17.
46. M. Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
47. Mark Nuttall, “Living in a World of Movement: Human Resilience to Environmental Instability in Greenland,” in Susan A. Crate and Mark Nuttall, eds., Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2009) pp. 292–310.
48. Aqqaluk Lynge, “Strengthening Culture Through Change: Will Climate Change Strengthen Or Destroy Us?,” Address to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society at the University of Edinburgh, October 19, 2009, http://www.inuit.org/index.php?id=280&contUid=0 (accessed 9 December 2011).
49. Eckart Ehkers, and Thomas Kraft, eds., Earth Systems Science in the Anthropocene (New York, NY: Springer, 2006).
50. M. Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, note 46 above.
51. Ingrid Peritz, “Don't be Naive on Climate Change, Norway's Former PM Cautions Canada,” Toronto Globe and Mail (2012). http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/dont-be-naive-on-climate-change-norways-former-pm-cautions-canada/article (accessed 9 May 2012).
52. Sverker Sörlin, and Paul Warde, eds., Nature's End:History and the Environment (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Robert Harriss is a Distinguished Fellow at the Houston Advanced Research Center and Senior Contributing Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He also holds adjunct professorships at Texas A&M–Galveston and the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston.