Canary 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 grim reality...
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 derogatory. Inuit originally came from Asia across a land bridge (which no longer exists) into northern NorthAmerica (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 2,500 years! 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. But the Inuit people, like most other traditonal communities around the world, are bound to their land. They prefer to remain secluded from the rest of the global community. Since the 1970s their leaders have been campaigning for greater rights and asserting their territorial claims.
Their world is melting! And with it, their way of life and their culture. Here climate change is a reality and not a distant threat. 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 northern oceans. 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 hunting.
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 Alaska.
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.
As traditional 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. Robins, barn owls and hornets, previously unknown so far north, are arriving in Arctic villages.
The 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)!
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 2030! 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!
The Arctic is the clearest manifestation of mankind’s impact on the global climate. The Inuit are its main victims! Is there any solution in the hands of humans now? Have we reached the “tipping point” with global warming? Has the countdown begun?