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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Polar Ice

Air Date: Week of

Scientific analysis of climate changes shows the world is warming up, but not in a uniform way. There are hot spots. And one of the hottest is the western Arctic, around Alaska and the northwest corner of Canada. Temperatures there have risen four to eight degrees Fahrenheit in recent decades. That's three to five times faster than the rest of the world. The people who live in the north are now telling dramatic stories of changes they are witnessing on land and in the sea.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Scientific analysis of climate changes shows the world is warming up, but not in a uniform way. There are hot spots. And one of the hottest is the western Arctic, around Alaska and the northwest corner of Canada. Temperatures there have risen four to eight degrees Fahrenheit in recent decades. That's three to five times faster than the rest of the world. The people who live in the north are now telling dramatic stories of changes they are witnessing on land and in the sea.

MAN 1: We started noticing the changes long before the southern people came up here and did a climate study. Back then was a lot colder, summers were a lot shorter.

MAN 2: There were even no mosquitoes, but now lots of mosquitoes.

R. KUPTANA: I've seen thunder and lightning here, which I never saw before.

MAN 2: The ice is receding quite a bit over the years here. In the summer, permafrost is melting. There are mudslides.

MAN 1: I think something permanent has changed.

CURWOOD: Producer Bob Carty recently journeyed north on a trip across Canada's uppermost reaches, and sent us this report on the impact of climate change on the people, the wildlife, and the way of life in the north.

(Boat engine)

KASSI: We're on the Porcupine River. Back there around the bend by the poplar tree, that's where I harvested four bull caribou this spring when they were heading up to the coastal plains, to feed our families.

CARTY: On an early fall afternoon, Darius Kassi is taking me up the Porcupine River to see where the caribou cross. His rifle is stowed safely at his feet, just in case we get lucky. The Porcupine River here surges through forests of pine trees and fields of tundra flowers as it passes a hamlet called Old Crow. Old Crow was one of the most isolated villages in the top northwest corner of Canada, just 30 miles east of the Alaska border. This is the home of the Gwitchen Indian people, and Darius Kassi is their first native conservation officer. But he's more worried than a young man in his 20’s should be. Darius says the Gwitchen rely in the caribou for food, for clothing, for natural medicines. They call themselves "the people of the caribou." But this year, and for the past half-dozen years, the caribou have not been acting the way they used to.

KASSI: This part of the Porcupine River, we call it caribou lookout. It's been a traditional migration route of the Porcupine caribou herd. They've crossed here for thousands of years, the end of August and September. Sometimes the caribou are crossing with such great numbers and with such great strength that we have to park our boats on the side of the river, because we can't maneuver through. They're so thick crossing. We don't see no caribou today. Our people are tense right now, because we don't know if the caribou are going to come this year or we're going to have food for the winter.

CARTY: Darius Kassi may be worried about the winter. Others are concerned what the lack of caribou says about climate change. Don Russell is the Regional Director of Wildlife Services for Environment Canada.

RUSSELL: What all the scientists say is that really the north will be the canary in the coal mine, because that's the area that's going to see the most dramatic warming. What happens to those environments are a precursor to what may happen in the south. So, the more we can learn about the northern impacts of climate change, the more we're going to be able to say something about the south. And there's no better barometer than these caribou herds.

(Engine stops)

CARTY: Twelve miles up the river, we beach the boat beside a rack of drying salmon. Darius and I climb up the bank and into the camp of a traditional hunter, Georgie Moses.

Have you gotten any caribou?

MOSES: We've seen a few caribou around, you know, stray ones, I guess. So far I've got a couple there.

CARTY: Want to show me?

KASSI: My smokehouse, where we smoke the meat.

CARTY: So where did you get this caribou?

MOSES: Right in front. Right in the front yard. (Laughs)

CARTY: How much caribou do you need to take to get by with your family over the winter?

MOSES: I usually look at five caribou to eat.

CARTY: How many have you taken this summer?

MOSES: This summer? Well, we got three so far.

CARTY: Is that normal?

MOSES: Well, it's not -- the main herd is not here, so….

KASSI: For the past five years now, their migration behaviors have not been consistent from past years. It's raining in December. It's causing a crust of ice throughout the whole country that's affecting all the animals. You know, you see blood trails from the animals cutting their shins, having to walk through this thick layer of ice that's all on the land. Because of the deep snow that the cows have a very hard time crossing the Porcupine River. They didn't even cross it until the ice went, which is very unusual, and the calves weren't able to cross the Porcupine River. So 15,000 calves died.

CARTY: Trails of blood in the snow. The death of thousands of newborn caribou calves. These kinds of events are consistent with climate change, according to Don Russell of Environment Canada.

RUSSELL: With climate change, not only is there predicted warming, but the variability between years is supposed to increase. So this year was just the opposite of warming. It was a very cool spring, very late snow melt period, and animals were forced to remain back on the winter range. They can't change the timing of their calving, so as they move north they were late, they were having calves on migration. I suspect the calves are not being able to keep up, or they have to cross a lot of ice-filled streams and rivers and drown.


CARTY: As we continue our trip up the Porcupine River, Darius Kassi points to other signs of climate change. The riverbanks are collapsing into the water as huge slices of permafrost melt. Water levels are always high in summer, perhaps the result of glaciers receding in the mountains. And people are complaining about insects they've never seen before. Biologist Don Russell points out that insects are one of the most important impacts of climate change, especially for caribou.

RUSSELL: They're blood donors to the mosquitoes, as much as 100 cc’s of blood a week. So that drives them around and keeps them looking for wind and windswept slopes. So they greatly reduce the amount of time they spend feeding, and an increased amount of time they spend walking and standing up on windblown ridges.

CARTY: After two hours on the Porcupine River, Darius Kassi and I still haven't seen a single caribou, where usually there are hundreds, sometimes thousands.

KASSI: Our people are anxious. They're nervous. They're worried that they won't be able to harvest the caribou this year and feed our families. People are having to go farther and farther upriver and downriver to try to get just a few, just a few caribou to feed our people. We feel the effects of climate change now.

(Splashing water; wind)

CARTY: Two hundred miles northeast of Old Crow, there is more evidence of the impact of climate change. This is Tuktoyaktuk, a village on a narrow peninsula looking out into the Arctic Ocean. Here, the impact is not on how people live off the land. It's on the land itself.

KLINGENBERG: My name is Charles Klingenberg. I'm the Land and Development Officer with the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. And we're standing on the coast of the Beaufort Sea and we're standing on the exact spot where the community curling rink used to be.

CARTY: What happened?

KLINGENBERG: It got washed out.

CARTY: It washed out? How?

KLINGENBERG: The bottom got eroded, all washed out from the backwash and storms. The beach where we're standing on, there is maybe about 40 to 60 feet has washed out.

CARTY: As the Land Officer for Tuktoyaktuk, Charles Klingenberg has less and less raw material to take care of each year. The problem is erosion. This summer a severe storm washed away yards of Tuk's Peninsula. It's impossible, of course, to say that any one weather event is proof of anything. But more storms on the Arctic Ocean fit the predictions of climate change, and Charles Klingenberg is not prepared to sit by and do nothing. The hamlet of Tuk is getting ready, building a sea wall.

KLINGENBERG: What we see right now with our beaches, we've got sort of like a limestone rock. Big boulders, and we haul them, we place them on the beach as, like our permanent shoreline protection.

CARTY: How much have you spent trying to put up this rock breakwater?

KLINGENBERG: The last couple years, pretty close to a million dollars.

CARTY: A lot of money.


CARTY: And if there's global warming, have to spend more?

KLINGENBERG: Probably, if we want to save our peninsula.

McDONALD: Tuk does face a big challenge from loss of shoreline. Some of the places around the delta there have had erosion rates in excess of ten meters a year.

CARTY: Rob McDonald is an oceanographer with Canada's Institute of Ocean Sciences. Experts like McDonald say that without massive investments, the peninsula of Tuktoyaktuk will eventually weather away. And it will happen all the more quickly if there is climate change. Partly that's because sea levels here are expected to rise from one to three feet in the next 50 years, according to Canadian government scientists. But it's also because each winter, less and less of the Arctic Ocean freezes over. Rob McDonald.

McDONALD: One thing we do know is that if the water stays open longer in the fall, it gives the opportunity to have more storms over open water. And that's the crucial thing, because when the storm comes over an ice-covered sea, you don't tend to get the waves. And the result is, you don't tend to erode away the coastline. So, if you leave the water open, you could very easily double the erosion rate just by doing something like that.

(Bird calls)

CARTY: Five hundred miles north of Tuktoyaktuk is an example of just how far climate change reaches. This is the village of Sachs Harbor. Population: 120. Just 36 houses on the tree-less tundra shores of an island in the Arctic Ocean. Sachs Harbor is a Inuvialuit community, and today there is a bustle of activity. People are getting ready for winter. Boats are coming in with seal meat and Arctic fish. And Floyd Sidney is fattening up his dogsled team with the meat of the musk oxen he's just shot.

(Dogs bark and whine; a knife is sharpened)

SIDNEY: Yeah, it was a bull musk oxen. Seen the black creature there, to the east of the island, and got the rifle and bingo. One shot, just like in the Clint Eastwood movies when you're hunting for the bad, then the ugly gets in the way, then the good only survives. (Laughs)

CARTY: People here love their way of life, living off the land. And they never expected that way of life could be so deeply shaken by climate change.

SIDNEY: Your seasons become shorter. It will be hard to judge your harvesting times of year for whatever species of mammal you have to go after.

MAN 1: The first effect is going to be the ocean animals. If it's changing too fast, if it's melting too fast, seal pups are going to be really affected by warm weather.

MAN 2: See a lot of thunderstorms. Never had that here before. I see these musk ox, after that lightning crack, the musk ox, you know, they just take off and they don't know where to run. They run one direction, and then the other. It was something else, yeah. They didn't know what was going on.

R. KUPTANA: In the last ten years especially, when we were going to go out hunting and when the geese are supposed to come back, and they don't, that's the hardest part. Uncertainty.

(Goose calls)

CARTY: The behavior of the wildlife is not the only thing people are worried about in Sachs Harbor. There are also the new critters that they've never seen before. The Pacific salmon that recently showed up in the fish nets. And the birds discovered by Roger Kuptana.

KUPTANA: I just happened to be outside working about, and a robin came around. A robin redbreast, I guess. And he started feeding on these flies that were flying around.

CARTY: What's the word in your language for robin?

KUPTANA: I don't know if there is -- in Sachs Harbor I don't think there is a word for robin. None that I'm aware of anyway. So it is a robin. (Laughs) They are so rare here, we don't have names for them.

CARTY: Jim Bruce smiles when he hears the story of Roger Kuptana's robin. Jim Bruce is a Canadian scientist who helped set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He explains that some species will try to move north as southern climes get warmer. But in the long term, he's not sure they will succeed.

BRUCE: The plants, the trees, the plant life have great difficulty moving northward rapidly. They can move over a very long period of time, and they have in the past. But the rate of climate change that we're now experiencing and expect over the next few decades far exceeds what they'll be able to accommodate. How that affects the animals, of course, is that in many cases the animals depend on plant life, and where the plant support disappears, so will the animals.

CARTY: There is an irony here in Sachs Harbor. These people have contributed little to the cause of climate change, though they may be the most affected by it. Yet, one of the community leaders, Rosemarie Kuptana , says no one should feel sorry for her people. They are survivors. They know how to adapt.

R. KUPTANA: We're an evolving culture anyway. We're not living in igloos. I was born in an igloo. (Laughs) You know, like, I've gone from being nomadic to setting up satellite channels for native people. We've just got to do what has to be done, you know? There's nothing that we can do about it. We'll make the best of what we can with what we have.

(Barking dogs)

CARTY: There are really two messages the weather of the western Arctic is giving the world. One is a warning about the extent of climate change impacts, how they can be dramatic and unpredictable. The second message is really a question. People who live in the Arctic already have decades of practice adapting to new environments, figuring out what part of their way of life to discard, what to hold onto. The question for those of us who live in the south is: How well are we prepared to do the same? For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Sachs Harbor in the Canadian Arctic.



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