In the Warming Arctic Seas – Subhankar Banerjee

Following is an excerpt from the article, “In the Warming Arctic Seas,” published in the Summer 2015 Issue “Climate’s Cliff” of the World Policy Journal. To read the full article click here.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

I was standing in the back of the sled when it broke through the ice, plunging into the frigid water of the Hulahula River. Just in time, Robert yanked the machine. The heavy sled, instead of falling on me, gradually moved out of the shallow water. It must have been about 40 degrees below zero. I began to settle into hypothermia. Robert Thompson and his cousin Perry Anashugak quickly set up the tent and lit both burners of the Coleman stove. Inside a sleeping bag, I began to warm up. That day, I escaped death, barely. “The river is supposed to have solid ice on the surface in November, not fragile like this,” Robert lamented. That was 2001, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in northeast Alaska.

These incidents constitute a starting point, showing how varieties of environmental changes have arrived in a rather short time, since the turn of the 21st century, in a particular place—each representative of the many significant climate change impacts that affect the human communities and the nonhuman biotic life in the entire circumpolar Arctic. When land and sea are going through rapid changes, inhabitants of the area are usually the first to witness it. In 2002, the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, in cooperation with the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian Institution, pointed out that the indigenous peoples “are already witnessing disturbing and severe climatic and ecological changes,” even though “the majority of the Earth’s citizens have not seen any significant climate changes thus far.” Thirteen years later, a majority of the world’s people are experiencing significant impacts of climate change. In the Arctic, the changes have only accelerated.

Consider the following as an example.

Coastal Erosion

Iñupiaq conservationist Robert Thompson and his wife Jane live in Kaktovik, a small town of about 300 residents on Barter Island. “Waves are bigger, now that the pack ice is so far out,” Robert says. Thomas Gordon and his son, Simon, from Kaktovik were washed away by waves while they were onshore camping during a hunting trip about 30 miles west of the town. Robert attributes these two deaths to climate change. Storms are also becoming more violent with rapid Arctic warming. The aggregate impact of a reduced expanse and duration of sea ice, combined with stronger waves, intense storms, thawing of permafrost, and a rise in sea level is rapid coastal erosion. During March and April 2002, Robert and I camped along the Beaufort Sea coast at Brownlow Point on the Canning River delta in the Arctic NWR, 60 miles west of Kaktovik. Of the 29 days we were there, we had only four calm days. The rest of the time, blizzards blew steadily with peak wind speeds of 65 miles an hour and temperatures of 45 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, bringing the windchill down to minus 110 degrees. The spot where we camped has now been washed away by the sea.

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