The latest news and perspectives on the climate crisis, subsistence rights, and protecting our precious natural resources

Study After Study in the Arctic Point to a New Climate Regime

photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife

September 15th marks the date when Arctic sea ice reached its minimum for the year before expanding in response to shorter days and cooler temperatures. This year’s minimum is the second lowest expanse recorded in 42 years of data collection, at 3.74 million square kilometers, bested only by the 2012 record of 3.41 million square kilometers. This is only the second time the sea ice minimum has dropped below 4 million square kilometers, and it’s worth noting that the minimum in 2012 was aided by a late-season cyclone which broke up the remaining ice. New research published in the journal Nature Climate Change points to the beginning of a new climate regime as increasing air and water temperatures, coupled with more rain rather than snowfall, and the continued decrease in sea ice are speeding this rapid change. Sea ice has contracted by about 31% since records began in 1979 and decreased in thickness by about two-thirds, with far less multi-year ice than in years past.  This leads to greater expanses of open ocean which absorb more of the sun’s infrared rays leading to more warming of the ocean in an accelerating feedback loop. Researches are now projecting that arctic waters will be ice free in the summer within the next 10 to 20 years. 

Meanwhile, research focused on the Bering Sea indicates that winter ice cover hit record lows during the winters of 2018 and 2019. Using satellite data and sediment layers from peat cores to quantify ice extent, researchers determined  that winter sea ice maximums have declined steeply over the past 40 years, exceeding any prior retreats for the past 5,500 years. Warming temperatures and declining sea ice are also contributing to a shift in ocean circulation patterns.  

But climate change isn’t limited to sea ice, as we’ve clearly seen this year with record fires in Siberia and the western United States, along with a ferocious hurricane season.

About those fires – this summer Siberia’s fire season toppled the record set just last year for greenhouse emissions from arctic wildfires.  An early start to the season was likely due to an extraordinary 100-degree heat wave and “zombie fires”, or fires that smoldered throughout the winter only to flair up again once snow and ice departed. As with melting arctic ice, researchers saw the escalation in tundra fires as an indication of a new fire regime, one they didn’t expect to see until the middle of the century. 

A recent project to map the extent and depth of peatlands (boggy, cold areas where plant decomposition is arrested, thus preventing the release of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane gases) in northern regions found that the world’s peatlands store approximately 415 billion tons of carbon, equal to the carbon found in all the world’s forests combined. As permafrost soils warm, these peatlands will shift from being a greenhouse gas sink to a source. The faster the north warms, the faster these gasses will be released, creating another feed-back loop that will speed the rate of climate change. It’s worth noting that, according to the research, western Siberia, where those record fires took place the past two summers, contains one of the most extensive regions of permafrost peatlands. 

Meanwhile, in Greenland, a 44 square mile chunk of glacial ice broke free from the Spalte Glacier on August 27th, uncorking a bottleneck on mainland ice which can now migrate unimpeded to the sea. This continued deterioration of the Arctic’s largest ice shelf is sped by higher than normal air and water temperatures in northeastern Greenland. 

Finally, as if these findings weren’t alarming enough, a new study, exploring the rate of warming during the last ice age, concludes that the current rate of warming is on par with prior warming periods that lead to abrupt warming events of as much as 15 degrees over a few decades. “This is a warning that we have entered what must be characterized as an abrupt change in the climate,” according to Eystein Jansen, one of the study’s authors. 

 

A Regime Shift is Underway in the Arctic Ocean

Warming waters from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are raising temperatures in the Arctic Ocean and delivering outside nutrients as summer sea ice retreat increases. Near shore wave action in the Arctic is expected to intensify significantly, resulting in more flooding and erosion in coastal communities. In an ongoing regime shift, the Bering and Chukchi seas are beginning to resemble the Pacific Ocean, while the Barents and Kara seas to the east are undergoing Atlantificatioin as warmer, saltier waters from the Atlantic mix with the colder, fresher waters in the Arctic. Productivity in the Arctic is increasing, and it’s no longer due exclusively to sunlight enhancing algae growth under thinning ice. While increased productivity is likely to be a boon to some species, other species struggle to adapt to a landscape once dominated by ice.

Persistence of Summer Sea Ice Will Determine Which Polar Bear Populations Survive

Polar bear survival depends on year-round sea ice which provides the platform from which they hunt, den, and travel. As northern oceans warm, the Earth’s populations of these apex bears will decline concurrent with the loss of summer ice, according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study evaluates projected levels of ice melt and open water based on current rates of carbon emissions and known rates of time nursing bears can forego food and still successfully rear their young. Reproductive rates for bears due to dwindling marine food supply will first impact the Barents Sea and Southern Hudson Bay populations, and soon thereafter, bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea. Already, the Southern Beaufort Sea population has declined as much as 50 percent in recent years. Bears in the Chukchi Sea, which lies over the continental shelf and is highly productive, will hang on longer, until ice no longer persists through the summer months. Ultimately, unless carbon emissions are curtained and climate warming is abated, only the Queen Elizabeth Islands bears in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, where multi-year ice is still regenerative, will remain healthy enough to reproduce and rear their young.

In a recent effort to mitigate impacts to polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a bill before Congress would create a one-mile buffer around polar bear denning habitat. The Polar Bear Cub Survival Act is intended to increase protection for bears. Current protection measures only pertain only to known polar bear dens.

Siberia’s heat wave would’ve been almost impossible without climate change, scientists say

A new study shows that human-induced climate change is driving record-breaking heatwaves in Siberia, leading to unprecedented wildfires burning normally damp, frozen tundra. This year has seen temperatures of 100.4 degrees fahrenheit in Siberia, as average temperatures are up more than 5 degrees celsius. Without climate change, this type of heatwave would only be expected about every 80,000 years, but the researchers warn that they could become commonplace without significant cuts to global emissions. 

Most polar bear populations will collapse by century’s end without emissions cuts, study says

A recent study became the first to predict the rate of survival for all of the world’s 19 polar bear populations in the face of the climate crisis. The study found that, if global emissions continue at the rate they are right now, the vast majority of polar bears will die out by 2080. By examining the patterns of rising temperatures in the Arctic, and the subsequent rapid ice melting, the study predicts the effects these changes will have on polar bears’ ability to find food. The authors then make predictions about reproduction and cub survival rate given the projected decrease in food availability.

The study is the first to use calculations of food availability to estimate reproductive success in polar bears. The authors also highlight the fact that they used conservative estimates both in the rate of ice melt and in the amount of food the bears will need in order to successfully reproduce – the reality could very well be much more bleak.

However, hope is not lost. As the authors point out, polar bear populations would likely fare much better if the global emissions reductions called for in the Paris Climate Agreement are achieved. 

Declining Sea Ice Extent in the Bering Sea Causes Ecological Domino Effect

The following is a synopsis of a LEO Network webinar entitled Rapid Change: The Story of 2019 in Northwest Alaskan Seas and Ecosystem Impacts given on June 23rd by Gay Sheffield with UAF’s Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.

Sheffield’s talk chronicled recent ecological events within the Bering Sea region caused by warmer ocean temperatures and declining sea ice. Among these events, in late February 2018, Little Diomede experienced a big wind event. The village was “slammed by huge waves that would normally have been under ice.” While sea ice extend in the Bering sea has been in decline over the past two decades, “in 2018 it drops off the map.”  

Again, in early 2019 there was very little ice. By April, Sheffield reported, “it was all out of the way.”  People relying on wild seafood had a difficult time hunting safely. During annual NOAA Alaska Fisheries surveys in the southern Bering Sea, “there was no cold water as far north as Norton Bay.” The NOAA survey indicated that predatory cod had moved north, with pollack populations up 5,000 percent. “Pacific cod same thing.” Without cold, icy waters, “there’s nothing to separate the small fatty forage fish in the north from the large fish coming in from the south.” The commercial long-liners between Little Diomede and Saint Lawrence island caught Pacific cod in good numbers for the first time. “Capelin and other small fatty fish were down 70% and arctic cod have gone down 100%. They’re hard to find.” Large numbers of seals washed up in several locations including Shishmaref, Bering Island, and Nome. The animals were in very poor condition. Seabirds died off in large numbers in the region as well, and necropsies indicated starvation as the cause. 

At the 2019 winter solstice, the Bering Strait was still open. Then the weather turned cold and the waters iced up. But in January 2020 there was a storm and the ice crumpled. “We made ice, but we were battling trying to cool off the water below.” The spring maximum ice extent was relatively far south, but the ice was thin and “over the course of the winter it seemed like it was rotting from below” Sheffield continued. “We’re letting the southern Bering Sea ecosystem in. Our seals and seabirds aren’t doing very well. They’re hungry.” The forage fish seals and seabirds depend upon, such as caplin, hooligan, tomcod, blue cod, and arctic cod “may be trying to find cold water elsewhere.” That and “Pacific cod and pollock gobble them up. 

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused the cancelation of the NOAA Fisheries research for the year. That makes local observer data to the LEO Network all the more important. 

This year, sea surface temperatures in western Norton Sound are “running cold because we had ice. But look at us now. Sea surface temperatures are rocketing up because we’ve had such warm temperatures. If we get a good storm it will stir things up – upwelling the colder waters. What’s going on below? We’d love to know, but the surveys that would tell us have been canceled at this point.”

So far, there have been reports of “a few shearwaters and guillemots that are coming in emaciated. Some seals looking a little thin.” Sheffield reported. “Large fishing processors are focused right now on pollock.” Adding that “Russian traffic is earlier and very far north. With the loss of ice, we’re transitioning the whole Bering Sea ecosystem.”

Sheffield summed up the growing concerns about diminishing sea ice, stating “this is a huge health and food security issue for our communities on both sides of our border. We’re watching this unfold. Without the research we’re on our own. We need those individual reports from our coastal communities to help fill in the gaps.”

The Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network shares observations about unusual environmental events as a means of increasing understanding about environmental change. To learn more about the LEO Network, see https://www.leonetwork.org 

Indigenous Groups Work with the Wyss Campaign for Nature 

In the Nunavut Territory of northern Canada, protection was recently secured for two critical marine areas – the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area, and Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area. The combined areas are equal in size to Poland. Working in partnership with the WYSS Campaign for Nature and the Government of Canada, protection opens the door for investment into marine infrastructure and careers in environmental stewardship and wildlife monitoring, while supporting traditional Native subsistence harvests. 

Launched in October 2018 by founder and chairman Hansjorg Wyss, the WYSS Campaign For Nature seeks to conserve 30% of the planet in a natural state by the year 2030. According to the Wyss website, “Indigenous peoples and local communities, in particular, are playing a critical leadership role in developing strategies for conserving lands, waters, and wildlife. Globally, indigenous communities – who make up approximately five percent of the world’s total population – manage or hold tenure over lands that contain 80 percent of the Earth’s remaining plant and animal diversity.”

 

Bracing for Zombie Fires

Wild fires sometimes overwinter in peatlands and forests under a blanket of snow, only to reemerge in the following summer. Nicknamed “zombie fires,” these holdovers are becoming increasingly common as northern regions undergo large-scale warming and drought.

For example, the fires raging in Siberia this spring are likely zombie fires from last year when 37 million acres (an area two-thirds the size of the North Slope Borough) burned. After record winter temperatures, Siberia is once again on fire.

In the past, wet arctic peatlands served as a fire break, but with higher temperatures and increased evaporation, peatlands are drying and increasing the range of fires beyond the boundary of high latitude forests. Large peatland fires release vast stores of greenhouse gases like carbon and methane, further exacerbating climate warming and drought.

 

Melting Permafrost Linked to Russian Oil Spill

In late May of this year, a huge oil tank collapsed in Norilsk, an industrial city in north-central Siberia. An estimated 21,000 tons of diesel fuel spilled into the Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers coating the water with an oily crimson layer. 

One of the largest spills documented in the Arctic, the Norilsk spill has been compared to Alaska’s 1989 ExxonValdez oil spill.  As with the ExxonValdez, the spill occurred during spring migration, poisoning the waters just as fish and birds are returning to their natal grounds. 

Russian mining firms identified melting permafrost as the culprit – destabilizing the soil under the tank. Clearly, as the arctic warms, the potential for lethal spills increases.  Better surveillance of melting permafrost with inexpensive temperature probes would likely have prevented the spill. Despite the up-front costs, preventative measures save hundreds of millions of dollars in clean-up efforts and safeguard wetlands and the wildlife and human inhabitants they support.

 

Shunning virus and Big Oil, Alaska tribe revives traditions

By DAYSHA EATON, Religion News Service  
 
ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska (RNS) — Arriving home on one of the last regular flights before pandemic restrictions went into effect in mid-February, Sarah James got to her house to find two caribous worth of meat in her freezer.
 

Since flights have become intermittent to this indigenous village 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, said James, a leader of the Gwich’in Athabascan people, the store periodically runs out of basics like meat and sugar. Subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering have been more critical than ever.

To ensure that Arctic Village’s population of fewer than 200 have enough to eat, the village council has designated several members to hunt caribou, the Gwich’in’s traditional staple. Someone had also taken time to make sure that James’ freezer was well stocked.

If the pandemic has deepened the sense of isolation for the 8,000 or so Gwich’in, sprinkled across northeastern Alaska into Canada, it has also emphasized the importance of the tribe’s traditions and its profound spiritual connection to the homelands that sustain the caribou and other wildlife on which they depend.

Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought, New Research Finds

In yet another sobering announcement about the ability of nations around the globe reverse the effects of climate change, A new analysis, published Thursday in the journal Science, found that the oceans are heating up 40 percent faster on average than a United Nations panel estimated five years ago. The researchers also concluded that ocean temperatures have broken records for the past several years in a row with 2018 being the “warmest year on record for the Earth’s oceans.”

Because almost all the excess heat absorbed by the planet ends up stored in their waters, as the planet has warmed, the oceans have provided a critical buffer. They have slowed the effects of climate change by absorbing 93 percent of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases humans pump into the atmosphere, which is currently the only thing saving the rest of  the planet from massive warming.

At the same time, the rapidly increasing ocean temperatures are already harming marine ecosystems and causing raising sea levels and destructive storm surges that threaten human health and welfare and critical infrastructure of Alaska Native coastal communities. As the heating continues these impacts will become more destructive.

UK Bank Says it will no longer make controversial oil and gas drilling investments in Arctic oil

It appears that some international banks are pulling out of drilling in the Arctic due to violations of international human rights standards: https://www.arctictoday.com/barclays-says-it-will-no-longer-make-controversial-energy-investments-including-in-arctic-oil/.

According to the article, Barclay’s has adopted “Self-imposed restrictions on investment in fossil fuels which prevent it from financing new oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, including in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” And this recent announcement follows after another one “in May that directs the bank to avoid doing business with clients involved in projects in or near UN World Heritage sites.” Also, “projects singled out in the bank’s guidelines may still be funded by the bank “as long as they pass a tougher vetting process it calls Enhanced Due Diligence (EDD).”

But based on the fact that those guidelines singled out the potential for Arctic drilling to damage coastal and marine environments as a major concern, in particular and the ANWAR an area it described as a “particularly fragile and pristine ecosystem which is central to the livelihoods and culture of local indigenous peoples,” the likelihood of a project being approved is low, according to the bank.

Based on the policy’s pronouncement that “[b]anks have an important role to play in ensuring that the world’s energy needs are met while helping to limit the threat that climate change poses to people and to the natural environment,” Barclays says that the new guidelines will keep it out of “sensitive energy sectors” entirely.

The release of the policy may have also been in response to the Trump administration’s continued push for the expansion of oil drilling on sensitive, federally owned lands in Arctic Alaska, even as a partial shutdown halted the functions of many U.S. government departments, forcing the Department of the Interior to stop regulating existing oil and gas leasing: https://www.arctictoday.com/trump-administration-working-on-arctic-oil-leases-despite-shutdown/.

According to Banktrack, a group that is lobbying for banks to become more socially responsible, Barclays is the 12th major bank to limit funding for Arctic oil and gas exploration.

 

WWF Calls for strong environmental protection, less O&G for Arctic Ocean

Environmentalists warned that it is urgent that the Arctic Ocean be protected and critical that such protections are put in place soon. During a presentation at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway last month, Peter Winsor, Arctic program director at the World Wildlife Fund and an oceanography professor, said “When I started to study the Arctic 20 years ago it was a completely different Arctic,” and that because, “The Arctic is warming and losing sea ice, it is an unprecedented change and the way we deal with that is a big challenge”, in Ten to 20 years, the Arctic will be completely different. 

In order to address the new open ocean coming to the Arctic, the WWF issued a report in 2018, on Blue Economy, calling for the creation of a pan-Arctic, ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas. Many of the strategies in the report have also been discussed as part of the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment working group.

Much of Winsor’s criticism during the conference was directed at Norway’s arctic policies: “The international target for protection of the Arctic Ocean is 10 percent, while Norway has protected only less than 1 percent. There is a disparity here” and pointed out that Russia has been far more active in protecting its Arctic territory.

[Norway wants to fight plastic pollution in the Arctic — and drill for more oil: https://www.arctictoday.com/norway-wants-to-fight-plastic-pollution-in-the-arctic-and-drill-for-more-oil/]

The Norwegian double policy of continued exploitation of the ocean while focusing it’s environmental policy on trash clean-up, is not well perceived by many in the arctic community.
According to Winsor “I would not say that the Norwegians are hypocritical; they are doing a lot of good things. But I am concerned that they still are pushing for development of non-renewable energy and extraction in Arctic”. “There is no way we can reach the IPCC goals of 1.5 degrees if we continue extracting oil”.

Murkowski Trys to Get Alaska to Return to Having A Presence in the Arctic

In an effort to compete on an increasingly international stage that is focused on the Arctic, Alaska Sen. Murkowski is trying to reinvigorating two actions taken by President Obama that President Trump has attempted to quash. Addressing the Alaska State Legislature recently, Murkowski re-introduced the Arctic Policy Act which would put into law parts of two executive orders created by Obama.
First, the Act would codify the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, originally created by Obama to coordinate shipping, energy, science, diplomacy, Coast Guard and other Arctic issues to the forefront. The bill would also transfer the committee’s chairmanship from the White House to the Department of Homeland Security, presumably to prevent the Trump administration from rendering the committee useless by leaving it dormant like it has for the past two years.

The APA would also establish an Arctic Advisory Committee made up of representatives from the country’s eight Arctic regions including Arctic Slope, North West Arctic, Norton Sound, Interior, Yukon-Kuskokwim, Bristol Bay, the Aleutian Islands, and the Pribilof Islands.

Importantly for Alaska Native communities, the bill would bring back a portion of President Obama’s North Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area executive order that called for establishing regional tribal advisory groups, starting with the Bering Sea Regional Tribal Advisory Group. With the support of the Alaska Delegation including Murkowski, in 2016 President Trump rescinded the Obama order, to pave the way for application of his “Energy Dominance” policy in Alaska. Ever since then, Alaska Native groups, including NBITWC have lobbied the delegation to return the NBSRA in it’s entirety.

Finally, the APA bill it would add two Indigenous commissioners to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. Indigenous communities in Alaska have an advanced knowledge of the Arctic and deserve a seat at the table, Murkowski said in December. “In the Arctic, we’ve got an opportunity to show the world here how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and voices into policy and science.”

The Bering Sea is already nearly ice-free, setting up more havoc for its ecosystem and residents

In a similar scenario to last year, the winter extent of Bering Sea ice is shaping up to be the lowest in more than 150 years of records. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Bering Sea lost two-thirds of its ice area since late January. Currently, open water persists across the entire sea, including in the Bering Strait and that narrow strait that normally links Alaska’s Little Diomede Island to Russia’s Big Diomede Island through May.
As in the case of last winter, this year wind-driven waves from unusually powerful storms, have been crashing onto beaches in communities along the Bering Strait pounding melting coastal sea ice into pieces and threatening people and infrastructure. Due to storm surges last month Kotlik was flooded and when the temperature dropped back to normal for a brief period in Shismareff, ice swept onto shore by the wind formed a 20 foot wall that began moving towards the village and stopped just short of the road to the airport.
Experts believe that this winter’s Bering Sea ice maximum was set and passed in late January making it the region’s second-lowest maximum extent on record. With unusually warm weather forecast for the coming week at the start of March, the region’s ice extent is expected to keep dwindling.
This means that Arctic village communities are not only threatened by storm surges and flooding but by impacts to subsistence resources caused by a major shift to the Bering Sea marine ecosystem. The lack of a “cold pool” (defined as colder than 2 degrees Celsius, that until last year, separated northern and southern Bering Sea species),in part contributes to these impacts. Experts doubt whether the ice that briefly appeared earlier this winter but is now gone was enough to regenerate the cold pool this year.
Does this mean the point of no return for the Bering Sea? On a March 5, webinar addressing the alarming lack of sea ice in the Bering Sea for another winter, in answer to my question about whether this marked the beginning of the end of permanent sea ice for the North Bering Sea, Rick Thoman who is a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Fairbanks, said that, in the future, while in some years sea ice may remain to carry over into the next year, it is highly likely that in most years this will not occur.

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