By STEPHANIE EBBS, GINGER ZEE, LINDSEY GRISWOLD and JON SCHLOSBERG, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Arctic sea ice has melted to the second-lowest level in 42 years, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, a trend experts say shows how climate change is impacting the vulnerable ecosystem and the people who rely on the ice there.
Sea ice in the Arctic is actually frozen seawater, as opposed to glaciers or ice that covers land like in Antarctica. Even though there is evidence the Arctic was actually tropical hundreds of thousands of years ago, scientists that study the area now say the warming is faster than any natural trend.
“There isn’t a natural cycle that we are currently in that could explain this rate of change we are experiencing today: the warming of the Arctic, the loss of sea ice areas, the thinning of the sea ice. It’s just there’s no natural cycle that would line up to give us this rate of change,” Zachary Labe, a climate researcher at Colorado State University, told ABC News.
Areas of the Arctic are feeling the impacts of climate change faster than other parts of the world, both on land and in the ocean. Alaska climate specialist Richard Thoman works at the International Arctic Research Center and said most of the greenhouse gas emissions are absorbed into the ocean, which then melts ice from below. And when ice that has been there for a long time melts, the ice that replaces it is weaker.
While the most infamous image associated with climate change and the Arctic is the polar bear, Thoman said the changes could have even more serious consequences for communities in remote parts of the Arctic that could lose sources of water, places to hunt or even infrastructure if too much ice melts or is broken away by storms.
“We certainly have communities in Alaska that are imminently threatened with not being able to be there. And when I say imminently threatened, I mean there they are one storm away. If everything, all the ingredients come together and everything goes wrong, those communities will not be inhabitable as they are now,” he said.
Approximately 150,000 people live in the Arctic, most of whom are part of Indigenous tribes in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Denmark. Elders from tribes in northern Alaska said in the Arctic Report Card issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year that they face reduced access to the species they hunt and fish to feed their communities, and disappearing land from coastal erosion and melting permafrost.
Roberta Tuurraq Glenn is from Utqiagvik, Alaska. She’s now studying geoscience and coastal erosion as a graduate student at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Glenn said her community relies on whaling for food and trade year-round, but that declining sea ice has made it more dangerous and unpredictable.
“What we’re seeing in our spring whaling is that the sea is not as stable, the sea ice is not as predictable. There are some seasons where we’ll start out spring whaling and we actually won’t be able to get any wind crews out on the ice until at the very end of the season because the sea ice conditions are just too dangerous. And if we’re not able to practice, if we’re not able to go out whaling, then we’re not able to feed our communities,” she said.
National Geographic Explorer In Residence Enric Sala spent time with these communities in Canada and Greenland while working on his new documentary, The Last Ice.
“It started as an environmental film; we wanted to see what was the effect of the loss of ice on the animals, but it ended up being a film about Indigenous rights, about the livelihoods, the culture, the traditions of the Inuit of Canada, in Greenland, and how climate change is affecting them,” he said.
The documentary also focuses on the growing push to increase shipping, drilling for oil and other industrial activity now that there is less ice in the Arctic.
“Now, the Arctic is melting and you see these meetings of big powers and big companies, they are rubbing their hands,” Sala said. “They know, ‘Wow. Now, there are new fishing grounds that are opening up. Now that our new shipping routes that we’re going to use, and there is no more ice, we will be able to drill for oil in some areas.”
“So everybody is seeing the Arctic as the new source of profit,” he added. “The problem is that that does not respect the traditional cultures and Indigenous rights, and also the environmental consequences in the Arctic, of any accident, would be horrible.”
But despite the challenges, Glenn said her community will be able to adapt and survive, especially if climate researchers and government officials listen to their expertise and their needs.
“The environment is changing and our people are intimately familiar with that change, our livelihoods depend on being able to navigate these changes every day. And that’s what we do and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” she said.
“I don’t believe that our people are going to be, you know, our culture is are going to die out, just because, you know, are experiencing these changes, I don’t believe that our, you know, our languages are going to die because I, I believe that we are resilient people here in Alaska. And we’ve been able to make it this far and I believe that we’ll be able to keep going,” she added.
The Walt Disney Company is the parent company of National Geographic and ABC News. The National Geographic documentary “The Last Ice” premieres on National Geographic Channel in October.
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