By Anne L. Herman, Sierra Magazine, May/June 2000
In Alaska, it's hard not to take global warming personally. For Alaskan Natives, with their intimate connection to land and sea, it determines whether there will be seal or caribou to feed the family, plants for food and medicine, or even solid ground to support the ancestral home. "The sea ice is thinning," says Art Ivanoff, an Inupiat from Unalakleet in west-central Alaska. "People can't harvest the traditional animals and fish. People don't want to go on the ice because it's too dangerous." According to recent NASA satellite data, sea ice off western and northern Alaska has decreased almost 10 percent in the past three decades. Retreating ice in the Bering Sea now threatens the health of one of the world's richest marine environments - what Carl Jack of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program calls the "ring of life at the ice's edge," which has sustained people and animals for centuries. The sea's eastern section, roughly the size of California, is home to seals, whales, polar bears, walrus, and millions of migratory birds. But the area is changing rapidly. "There's less and less subsistence food," says Yup'ik Andrew George. "We couldn't harvest enough fish to feed our village last year."
Climate change, warns Larry Merculieff, the Aleut coordinator of the Bering Sea Coalition, "could be the single most important factor in changing rural people since 'the great deaths' " of the 19th century, when measles and other exotic diseases killed up to 70 percent of Native peoples in some areas. Temperatures in the Alaska Arctic have risen more than 4 degrees in the past 30 years, twice as much as in the rest of the world. At this rate, a century from now arctic temperatures could be almost 15 degrees warmer. (If temperatures were to fall 15 degrees, we'd be in another ice age.) Even at the current rate, the consequences of arctic warming will likely include melting permafrost, destruction of the boreal forest - and mounting disaster for those adapted to ice and frost. In the far north, for example, polar bears prowl the pack ice of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas searching for ringed seals, which account for more than 90 percent of their diet. Seals depend on the pack ice for resting and raising their pups, while polar bears patrol it to hunt the seals. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Scott Schliebe, half of Alaskas Beaufort Sea polar bears also den on the ice--which recent studies show is thinning in many places from an average of eight feet to only four. Scientists calculate that the pack ice could melt completely in the next two centuries. University of Washington climatologist Richard Moritz says the process could take as little as 50 years.
Global warming also threatens enormous changes to Alaska's landmass. Permafrost underlies more than 80 percent of the state, but it's now starting to thaw. Many areas are 4 to 7 degrees warmer than they were 50 to 100 years ago; some sections of permafrost south of the Brooks Range are within 4 degrees of thawing completely. By trapping what little rain falls, permafrost nourishes a variety of plant life. Without it, much of the Arctic would be lifeless desert. "There is an intimate connection between permafrost and arctic ecosystems," says Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. If the permafrost continues to melt, he says, the boreal forests that grow over it could be replaced by dry steppe. The boreal forest that covers nearly a third of Alaska is already drier and thus more at risk. In the past eight years, says Glenn Juday of the university's Forest Sciences Department, spruce bark beetle infestations have claimed over 2 million acres of once-healthy forest, the greatest recorded incidence of insect destruction in North America. Worse yet, dead trees leave these areas highly vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.
Melting permafrost could also dry up the tundra, Romanovsky says, which would force caribou and musk ox, living links to the last ice age, to forage for less-nutritious vegetation. And thawed permafrost releases additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Permafrost also serves as the foundation for most rural Alaskan homes. Already the villagers of Shishmaref and Kivalina are contemplating the difficult decision to move from their ancestral lands, which have been nearly destroyed by melting permafrost and Bering Sea wind erosion. If dramatic action is not taken soon, many scientists fear, the effects of global warming may be irreversible. "We might be looking at a future without polar bears if we donÕt do something now," says Margie Gibson of the conservation group Arctic Network. An Arctic without sea ice could mean the loss not just of polar bears but also of the life-sustaining riches at its edge. And that could spell the end of the ancient way of life for many of Alaska's Native people.