NASA Confirms This Year’s Arctic Ice Is the Lowest Ever Recorded: To Nobel Nominee the Consequences Are Real
by Sarah Wyatt
“The Arctic is not a wilderness or a frontier. It is our home. It is our homeland…Our entire way of life as we know it may end in my grandson's lifetime."The once-heated debate about the rapidly shrinking polar ice cap has finally become a major concern and even a source of alarm for scientists from the US to Russia to Australia. Researchers who have worked on site in the Arctic for years have now documented that in 2007, both the summer sea ice and the perennial ice cover shrank so suddenly and so dramatically that levels this low have never before been seen in recorded history. As the New York Times commented, “Scientists are unnerved by the summer’s implications for the future, and their ability to predict it.”
Sheila Watt-Cloutier has been warning the world about the degradation and shrinking of the polar ice for years. She should know: she and her people, the Inuit, live in the Arctic. For them, the situation is far from academic. As she has said more than once, “It is a matter of livelihood, food, individual and cultural survival.” Some 170,000 Aleuts, Indians, Eskimos, Métis and other indigenous people live north of the Arctic Circle in Russia, Alaska, and Canada.
For more than ten years, Watt-Cloutier has been on a crusade to warn nations of what is so obvious to those in the Arctic: the undeniable effects of global warming. In fact, in 2005, together with 62 Inuit hunters and elders from Canada and Alaska, she launched the world's first international legal action on climate change with a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, charging that the volume of unchecked greenhouse gases from the United States’ sources of pollution violated Inuit human rights. Though the petition was rejected, Watt-Cloutier remained undeterred.For her work, Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and was widely described as the second most likely choice after former United States Vice-President Al Gore, who won. However, recently she did receive the prestigious Order of Canada and was chosen as the 2007 recipient of a United Nations Mahbub ul Haq Award for Outstanding Contributions to Human Development. The recognition goes to a "world leader who has successfully put human development at the heart of the national development agenda in his or her country."
For those who are unfamiliar with the importance of the polar ice caps and the impact they have on the planet, there are two kinds of ice: summer ice and the perennial or winter ice. National Geographic reports,
There is no land beneath the ice of the North Pole. The Arctic ice cap is a shifting pack of sea ice some 6.5 to 10 feet thick - floating above the 13,000-foot-deep Arctic Ocean. During the winter the Arctic ice pack grows to the size of the United States. In the summer half of the ice disappears. Arctic ice is always dynamic - increasing during winter and shrinking during summer - during recent decades the ice cap has been shrinking in both area and thickness.And according to NASA, the 2007 Arctic summer sea ice has reached the lowest extent of perennial ice cover on record - nearly 25% less than the previous low set in 2005.
The area of the perennial ice has been steadily decreasing since the satellite record began in 1979, at a rate of about 10% per decade. But the 2007 minimum, reached on September 14th, is far below the previous record made in 2005 and is about 38% lower than the climatological average.
In 2000, Professor Peter Wadhams, of the Scott Polar Research Institute said that between 1976 and 1996, he had measured “a large area of the sea ice, stretching from the North Pole to the Fram Strait between Svalbard and Greenland” and that it had “thinned by 43% during the Arctic summer.” He went on to say:
"People say global warming can't be raising air temperatures enough to melt the ice, because the Arctic winter temperature is around -30C anyway, and a one-degree warming would be irrelevant. But it's the summer temperatures that matter. Arctic summers are getting longer, so there is longer for the warmer air to melt the snow and affect the ice beneath. The other mechanism is the warming of one or two degrees in the water under the ice - enough to increase the bottom melting quite considerably. There is a cold water layer immediately beneath the ice. But that's changing its stability and salinity, because of changes in the distribution of Siberian river water in the Arctic.”
That was seven years ago.Andrew Revkin, a science writer for The New York Times, realized that the “Big Story” regarding the environment was the startling changes in the ice cap at the North Pole. Since 2005, he has done a fascinating series on the subject, “The Big Melt.”
In an article published this month, he explains,
"The Arctic ice cap shrank so much this summer that …overall, the floating ice [also known as the summer ice, which breaks up every year, then 're-establishes' itself in the winter] dwindled to an extent unparalleled in a century or more, by several estimates.
"Now the six-month dark season has returned to the North Pole. In the deepening chill, new ice is already spreading over vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean. Astonished by the summer’s changes, scientists are studying the forces that exposed one million square miles of open water – equivalent in size to six Californias - beyond the average since satellites started measurements in 1979."
Why should the rest of the world care?
In 2005, Revkin summarized the implications: “Bright Arctic ocean ice reflects sunlight, but open dark water absorbs it, warming in the process. As more ice melts, more open water could amplify the warming.”
Will the shrinking Arctic ice have important consequences besides warming? Definitely. Professor Wadhams thinks the Arctic could be virtually ice-free during the summer by about 2080. He points out, "The north-east passage across the top of Siberia is already close to becoming commercially viable”.
About this possibility The New York Times observed, “The world is paying more attention than ever. Russia, Canada and Denmark, prompted in part by years of warming and the ice retreat this year, ratcheted up rhetoric and actions aimed at securing sea routes and seabed resources.”In 2005 Revkin commented on scientists’ view of the future, given the new data: “Many scientists have concluded that the momentum behind human-caused warming, combined with the region's tendency to amplify change, has put the familiar Arctic past the point of no return.”
So how did Sheila Watt-Cloutier, herself not a scientist, become the far-seeing herald of these changes? Now 54, she was born in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in far northern Quebec. For the first ten years of her life she was raised in her home village, like most young Inuit girls, where her mother, known in the community as a skillful healer and interpreter, raised her daughter traditionally. She even used a dog sled as her primary form of transportation. Then at the age of 10, Watt-Cloutier moved to attend school in Nova Scotia. At the elite McGill University in Montreal in the mid-1970s, she took specialized courses in counseling, education and human development. Following graduation, she worked for the Ungava Hospital as an Inuktitut language interpreter.
Then in 1995, Watt-Cloutier was elected President of Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) Canada; she was reelected in 1998. In 2002, she was elected International Chair of ICC and held the position for four years."Every day when I wake up, I know that I am an Inuk woman who gets life from the bay," she says. "There is a living energy that comes from our land."
The Inuit culture is built around a hunting tradition, and she has never stopped being a part of it, no matter how far her fight to preserve her home territory and way of life takes her.
“Without snow, where do the seals make dens for their pups? The caribou can't eat ice-covered lichen, and so they've gone north. We are worried they will be weak, and the calves won't be born healthy in the spring."
The seal, a source of food for the Inuit, has specific calving requirements. Unable to find stable ice, pregnant seals haul up onto islands to give birth. In other areas, ice has become so thin that ice-fishing, a means of sustaining entire communities, is no longer possible.
“So, you see climate change is not just an environmental issue with unwelcome economic consequences,” she says. “It really is a matter of livelihood, food, individual and cultural survival. And it is absolutely a human issue affecting our children, affecting our families, and certainly our communities.”
Some, however, are less complimentary of Watt-Cloutier. A spokesperson for Sea Shepherd Society, who was critical of her support of commercial seal hunting in Eastern Canada by non-indigenous groups said, "Watt-Cloutier’s remarks served the propaganda purposes of the Canadian government. The Canadian government is always trying to link the commercial slaughter with traditional hunting. Sheila played along with this strategy.”
Other critics note that Inuit themselves use fossil fuels and other non-renewable materials and are thus contributing to their own impending extinction. She answers that charge very directly. "Yes, we own airlines, we have skidoos, we have trucks," she acknowledges, "but the reality is, our contribution to this problem is very minute. It's off the radar, whether it's the toxins or the greenhouse gases. These things are coming from afar."
Despite those that criticize Watt-Cloutier’s work, there are more who find her mission essential to the current effort to curb climate change. Niamh Collier-Smith, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Development Program says, "Sheila Watt-Cloutier's dedication and her tireless work with the Inuit people, especially in the face of devastating climate change, [is] a real inspiration."
Watt-Cloutier now lives in Iqaluit, on the remote Arctic tundra. Formerly Frobisher Bay, Iqaluit is the capital of Canada's youngest territory, Nunavut. And though her 2005 petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was rejected, Watt-Cloutier continues to testify in any available forum in an effort to check what she sees as imminent danger to the planet.
About the Author
Sarah Wyatt is a freelance travel and outdoors writer. A native of Iowa and a Native American, she holds a degree in Journalism and English. Wyatt has been a freelance writer for 11 years, with work appearing in Texas Monthly, Mother Jones and Theater Magazine.