In September of 2007, I had the pleasure of being a member of a team that traveled above the Arctic Circle to document evidence of climate change. Organized by InMER.org, the survey was meant to be a precursor to a larger, winter expedition and so much of the data collected was anecdotal, gleaned from interviews with Inuit Indian tribal elders and government officials, and from our own observations.
The summer was also the season when the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported the lowest summer sea ice in recorded history, and we had the opportunity to fly over some and see it's cracked and patchy appearance - quite a difference from the solid sheet it was supposed to be.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other environmental research organizations continued to study the sea ice conditions, and in subsequent years it would fluctuate, showing some signs of improvement one year only to shrink drastically the next. 2011 has turned out to be not a very good year.
"This year’s end of summer ice extent was the second smallest in the 32-year satellite record," says Don Perovich, a geophysicist with the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL).
NOAA issues a report each year, its Arctic Report Card, and as they have had enough years to study the ice to establish a baseline for comparison, NOAA is now saying that the Arctic is definitely showing signs of change. With an overall trend of increasing temperatures and thinning ice, there are some definite shifts taking place. Nature is adjusting.
However, that does not mean that a new norm will be a good thing for all species of flora and fauna. In essence, nature's drive is to survive in one form or another, and if that means that some plants or animals are lost in the process then so be it. And that can still portend some serious socio-economic impacts on all of us.
The latest Arctic Report Card notes that the trend is toward longer periods of thin summer sea ice and more open Arctic waters. The melted ice and the exposed water is producing changes in the temperature, the salinity, and the acidic levels of the water. This impacts the growth of organisms, like plankton, at the base of the food chain. So, while polar bears and walruses struggle with thin ice that hampers their hunting (7 of 19 identified polar bear populations are in decline), migrating gray whales are finding a more robust food source and are staying longer to feed.
Away from the water, vegetation is beginning to show adaptation to new conditions. Shrubs are now growing further and further north, in areas that once only had mossy tundra. This was something that the InMER team saw on our expedition. People whose families had been living in the Arctic for several generations were reporting the appearance of shrubs for the first time in their lives. Sightings of grizzly bears moving up from the south, and even the first appearance of a bee in the town of Kugluktuk all represent shifts towards a new norm. While shrubs may be expanding their range as a result of climate change, mosses and lichens are withering and so the Arctic's fundamental botanical ecology is in flux.
"The Arctic is clearly experiencing the impacts of a prolonged and intensified warming trend," says Ms. Jackie Richter-Menge of CRREL . "Given the projection of continued warming, it is very likely, indeed expected, that these changes will continue in years to come, with increasing climatic, physical, biological and socioeconomic impact."
As long as we stay committed to dependence on fossil fuels and through that dependence expel vast quantities of carbon emissions into the atmosphere then we will continue to see nature adapt itself in the Arctic and elsewhere with untold consequences for a variety of species, including mankind.
Read NOAA's 2011 Arctic Report Card.
Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service