in the Coal Mine
Imagine your world melting away slowly, the land under your feet
becoming lose. Your house close to collapsing with every passing day,and
your daily diet rapidly diminishing.
Stuff that nightmares are made of.. isn’t it? But for the Inuit
communities dwelling in the ice-capped zones of the planet, this is a
Who are the Inuit?
Inuit means “the people” and is the generic name given to indigenous
people of the Arctic. Though the word “Eskimo”, meaning “eaters of raw
meat”, is still used to describe Inuit, it is generally considered
Inuit originally came from Asia across a land bridge (which
no longer exists) into northern North America (now called Alaska). Inuit
are descendants of the Thule people who arrived in Alaska about AD500
and reached Canada in AD1000.
Inuit populations mainly include Canadian Inuit, Alaska’s
Inupiat and Yupik people, and the Russian Yupik.
Take a closer look…
Inuit rely heavily on subsistence fishing and hunting seals, whales,
walrus, salmon, cod, and other sea lives. On land there are caribou and
geese in the summer. During the winter they hunt polar bears, foxes, and
hares. The Inupiats also call themselves the “People of the Whale” since
these people have hunted the Arctic Bowhead whale stocks for at least
But, they are not such a self sufficient, secure group of
people any more. Trouble began in the 1960s, when they were forced to
move out of their homes, and government-subsidised prefabricated
villages along the coast became their shelters.
Their world is melting! And with it, their way of life and
their culture. Here climate change is a reality and not a distant
In the last century, parts of the Arctic have warmed by 10
degrees Fahrenheit - 10 times the global average. Sea ice covers 15
percent less of the Arctic Ocean than it did 20 years ago, and that ice
has shrunk 5 to 10 percent and thinned from an average of 10 feet to
less than 6. The warm season now starts earlier and finishes later. In
spots, the coastline is disappearing. Some villages have lost up to 300
feet of land!
Satellite measurements show the area covered by Arctic
winter sea ice reached an all-time low in March, 2006, down some 300,000
square kilometres on last year (an area bigger than the UK)!
Canary in the coal mine… of Climate Change…
Among the problems the Inuit face is permafrost melting, which has
destroyed the foundations of houses, eroded the seashore and forced
people to move inland. Airport runways, roads and harbours are also
collapsing. This, coupled with rising sea levels, threatens to displace
an entire community. Slumping, the
collapse of land under the weight of newly thawed permafrost, is also
altering the look of the land along the coast. Moreover, fresh water
draining from ice and snow on land is decreasing the salinity of far
changes are so widespread that they have spawned changes in the
Inuit languages that so precisely describe ice and snow. In
Chukotka, where the natives speak Siberian Yupik, they use new
words such as “Misullijuq” (rainy snow) and are less likely to
use words like “Umughagek” (ice that is safe to walk on). In
Nunavut, Canada, the Inuit people say the weather is
“Uggianaqtuq” (like a familiar friend acting strangely)!
Thunder and lightning, once rare, have become fairly common
here. An eerie warm wind now blows in from the south. Hunters who prided
themselves on their ability to read the sky say they no longer can
predict the sudden blizzards.
“The Earth,” one hunter concluded, “is turning faster.”
This change is spelling doom for the wildlife and vegetation as well.
Here are a few instances:
Caribou, long a staple of Inuit diet, are falling
through once-solid sea ice.
Polar bears are losing the floes they need for
Seals, unable to find stable ice, are hauling up on islands
to give birth.
Populations of bowhead whales and walrus are declining too.
They appear sick and undernourished.
Reindeer and Tundra rabbits are becoming scarce.
The organisms essential to the diet of Eider ducks living
on St. Lawrence Island have been in rapid decline, while both the
plants and ducks have moved north.
Many species of plankton, the microscopic plants that form
the essential base of the entire marine food web, are moving north
to escape the warming water on the ocean surface off Greenland and
In recent years, seabirds have washed up dead by the
thousands and deformed seal pups have become a common sight.
Scientists are monitoring a tundra vegetation tree line
that is advancing north as the Arctic warms.
Arctic species move north, new species are moving in:
Grizzly bears have been spotted in territory once dominated
by polar bears.
Salmon, never before caught far north, are making
appearances in fishermen’s nets.
barn owls and hornets, previously unknown so far north, are arriving in
Scientists say that with the recovery of the ice in winter no longer
sufficient to balance the increased melting in the summer, the Arctic
Ocean could lose all of its ice much earlier than expected, possibly by
Warmer weather in the Arctic may drive temperatures to
rise! The dark water beneath absorbs more of the sun’s radiation, and
the frozen tundra is also a huge carbon sink (that is, the soil holds
carbon that could otherwise end up in the atmosphere). With this guard
gone, global warming could quickly run out of control!