Climate change is playing havoc with rare species and a proud way of life
'Eskimo? I must tell you. We are not Eskimos," says Percy Nusunginya, 63, president of the Inupiat tribal council in Barrow, Alaska, northernmost city in North America and home to 4,600 souls, mostly indigenous Alaskan natives, on a dusty gravel strand between vast tundra and the Arctic Ocean. "We are hyperboreans," the weather-beaten whaling captain says proudly over breakfast in tiny Osaka Restaurant. Nusunginya leans slowly forward with a small smile: "It's from the Greek. Hyperborean."
He has his etymology right, perhaps more than he realizes. Dictionaries show hyperborean as the general designation for high Arctic denizens. But the word has even greater resonance for today's environmentalists and scientists. In Greek myth, the Hyperboreans live in a warm, perpetually sunlit polar land beyond the north wind. That notion--of warmth in a polar land--is today becoming uncomfortably close to the truth.
Warmer winters. The Arctic's winter temperature is up 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, twice as much as that of the rest of the Earth, and it is accelerating, Robert Corell, a senior fellow of the American Meteorological Society, told Congress earlier this year. Barrow hit an all-time high of 70 degrees when U.S. News visited the city in high summer. The Arctic regions of North America, Greenland, Europe, and much of Russia are all becoming demonstrably warmer.
Do these changes mean the Arctic as we know it is doomed? A team of 300 scientists led by Corell and representatives of native peoples in eight Arctic nations will try to answer that question in a 1,600-page Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report. A summary will be released next week. This comprehensive look at the Arctic's present and future, four years in the making, describes staggering losses: of permafrost, tundra--15 percent of Arctic tundra has vanished since the 1970s--and sea ice in summer, as well as the further waning of glaciers. The report warns of a grave depletion of signature species, including the caribou, walrus, and polar bear. The main culprit behind these changes: fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, in the view of the report's experts, who add that even the Kyoto pact to control emissions will not significantly slow the warming in the short run.
Good for shipping. In Fairbanks, Gunter Weller, recently retired from the University of Alaska--and the eight-nation report project's executive secretary--told U.S. News that the central Arctic could warm yet an additional 15 to 20 degrees by the end of this century, probably enough for a nearly ice-free summer polar ocean. "That would be good for shipping," he says, "but without ice, how can polar bears, walruses, seals, and so much else of the ecosystem survive?"
This year in Barrow, no ice drifted within sight of shore for days on end, a rarity even in summer. Strange flowers bloom in the tundra, and the permafrost that used to melt down about 6 inches in summer now retreats a foot or more. Once rare thunderstorms fueled by thermal updrafts sweep regularly across the summer sky.