V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
The shrinking Arctic

The Arctic is not for the meek.

Its inhabitants are creatures of resilience that have managed to withstand the North's test of character: strength and survivor instinct.

But in an unforeseen twist, climate change is pushing their hardy spirit to the brink, throwing a jarring wrench into both man's and animals' way of life, the effects of which are being felt the world over. The annual average arctic temperature has increased at twice the rate as that of the rest of the world over the past few decades.

Canada's Arctic encompasses 40% of the country's total land mass, and is home to 85,000 people. Its inscrutable mythology has been rhapsodized by writers and interpreted by artists.

But the landscape is changing, and scientists have warned for years that the effects of climate change will be felt hardest in the Arctic, while Inuit communities report they are feeling the impacts now.

NOTICEABLE EFFECTS

"It's been a slow pace, getting people to understand and make them aware that climate change is affecting us up here," said Paul Kaludjak from Iqaluit, a lifelong Nunavut resident and president of Nunavut Tunngavik, a cultural preservation group. "You don't notice it in urban areas, don't feel it as much as we do."

According to the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Report -- the first comprehensive report of its kind -- temperatures in the North are expected to rise between four and seven degrees during the next 100 years.

For the past decade, people have been cranking up the car air conditioning in summer, a notion previously unthinkable, he added. "I've never had to do this before."

Glaciers and sea ice are melting at alarming speeds and by the United Nations' estimates, summer sea ice could disappear altogether in the second half of the century.

Thinning ice has claimed Inuit lives, with ATVs falling through what were once indisputably safe passages.

Their skin is leathery, damaged from intense UV rays. It's estimated the current generation of Arctic young people is likely to receive a lifetime dose of UV that is about 30% higher than previous generations.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released Friday, says northern permafrost is projected to decrease by up to 35% by 2050, which could collapse buildings, roads, pipelines and require substantial rebuilding.

Shrinking sea ice will reduce marine habitats for polar bears, seals and seabirds, pushing some toward extinction, shifting Inuit consumption patterns and threatening tradition.

Snow density has also changed, Kaludjak said. Previously, hunters used to be able to identify snow patterns and rely on packing snow to build igloos. But it's become increasingly unpredictable, leaving many stranded on land.

Arctic warming is expected to increase warming around the world and cause sea levels to rise, eroding shorelines and coastal cities.

That's the view from the top.

-- -- --

  • Global warming could melt almost all of the Artic ice in the summer months by the year 2040. The September rate of sea ice decline is now apporximately 9.6 per decade, or 60, 421 sq. km per year
  • Because of its white colour, snow-covered sea ice reflects most of the incoming solar radiation -- part of why it is so cold in the Artic region
  • If the snow and ice melt, and are replaced with the darker surface of water, much of the energy will be absorbed, leading to warming.
  • Heated ocens will lead to further melting of snow and ice.
  • Threats: Sea levels could rise between 10-90 cm, endangering the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples. Several species -- including the polar bear -- could become extinct.
  • Possible benefits: Greater biodiversity, easier access to untapped oil and gas reserves. Trans-Artic shipping lane possible in time.
  • Artic temperature will rise 4-7 degrees C by 2100
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