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Climate change: the Inuit now have a word for ‘robin’

Photo: Amy Huva 2011

Those of us who live around the 49th parallel don’t often think about it, but Canada is an Arctic country. The Arctic coastline is 67 per cent of Canada’s coast and is longer than both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts combined. But when you live in the city, other than watching polar bears on webcams, the Arctic seems a long way away.

But the Arctic is changing, rapidly. On Monday night at the Vancouver Aquarium, two researchers from the ArcticNet group reported on the changes they’ve seen and the research they’re doing to figure out the future of the Arctic.

Dr. David Barber, who is the Canada Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba spoke about the dramatic changes he’s seen over his career in the Arctic. In the 1980s, he wasn’t sure what climate scientists were talking about when they were warning of climate change, but today in the Arctic, the rapid spiralling of sea ice loss in the last decade has led to changes so fast the researchers can barely keep up with it.

Last summer, Dr Barber was in contact with a German research group  studying the sea ice around the North Pole. The research group was unable to find sea ice solid enough to land the research group, and all their research had to be conducted from the boat, which is a remarkable change from only five years ago when the British TV show Top Gear drove an SUV to the North Pole.

Dr. Barber believes that not only will there be an ice free summer in the Arctic in the next decade, but a central polar shipping route will open up additional to the already open Northwest Passage. As he described how the Greenland ice sheet is currently melting 600 per cent faster than models predicted (no, that’s not a typo, 600 per cent) with enough ice to raise sea levels by six metres, he asked how many people lived within 6 meters of sea level.

When he was greeted with blank looks, his response was ‘too many’, which means I must be the only person who runs the sea wall at high tide mentally imagining what an extra metre of sea level rise would look like.

It’s not just the cute polar bears we have to worry about; it’s the additional repercussions from the loss of sea ice. No multi-year ice (the ice that stays frozen even through summer) means that all the phytoplankton, zooplankton and other microbial organisms that live just under the surface of the sea ice will be homeless, and not have time to adapt to having lost their habitat over only a five to 10 year span (normally these things take tens of thousands of years). This will pull the bottom out of the Arctic food chain meaning the polar bears, seals, whales, walruses and other animals that eat those organisms will go hungry, with the consequences being felt all the way up the food chain.

Algae growing under sea ice (photo: Chris Fritsen)

The sea ice also regulates the jet stream we all see on the weather report. No summer sea ice will slow down the jet stream meaning our weather will move more slowly – droughts will last longer, the rain will last longer (sorry Vancouverites) and will mess with our agricultural growing seasons having repercussions for human food security.

This is the thing about the Arctic – it’s the climate change canary in the coal mine. What’s happening in the Arctic now is what will be happening to us in the next few decades as we watch the natural world around us change rapidly. Because when we live in a planetary ecosystem, saying that I live in Vancouver (far from the Arctic) doesn’t matter. Physics doesn’t negotiate.

This means that something is happening rapidly now to our habitat, rapidly enough that it can be observed by a researcher over one career.

It’s happening so quickly that Inuit communities are creating words for animals never seen in their area like robins. It’s happening so quickly that researchers still haven’t worked out whether the carbon cycle in the Arctic will be a net carbon sink or carbon source with climate change.

And if that’s not terrifying enough already, that’s before we even start talking about the possibility of ocean floor methane hydrates bubbling up to the surface of a warmer, more acidic ocean. If this sounds apocalyptic, that’s because it is. The last time methane hydrates de-gassed into the atmosphere was around 251 million years ago at the Permian Extinction, when 95 per cent of all species on the planet went extinct.

The climate change stakes are truly this high, and the time to act boldly is now. 

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