Arctic Report Card includes indigenous perspective
On Tuesday, Dec. 10, NOAA released its annual snapshot of the state of the Arctic in form of the 2019 Arctic Report Card, comprised of 12 essays that lay out the changes happening in the Arctic system.
The conclusions are dire. Average surface air temperatures over land north of 60°N were the second warmest on record. Mean sea surface temperatures are warming. Sea ice extend at the end of the 2019 summer was second lowest on record and even the winter sea ice extent in 2018 was a record low. Greenland is losing 267 billion metric tons of ice per year and March 2019 saw an exceptionally early snowmelt in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic. “At the center of the changes observed throughout the Arctic is the persistent warming of the surface air temperatures, which began around 1980,” the report card states. What Nomeites will remember as the winter that hammered Nome with nearly 17 blizzards in a time span of six weeks, was summarized by the authors of the report card as a “major Arctic warming event” where monthly temperature anomalies were 4°C above normal. The Northern Bering Sea was particularly warm, and contributed to low sea ice extent.
For the first time the Arctic Report Card contains a chapter “Voices from the front lines of a changing Bering Sea” written to offer an indigenous perspective.
The authors are Carol Oliver from Golovin, Andrew Miller, Helen Bell and Robert Bahnke of Nome, Delbert Pungowiyi of Savoonga, Norman Menadelook Sr. from Teller, Jerry Ivanoff of Unalakleet, Clyde Oxereok of Wales and Richard Slats of Chevak and Jacob Merculief of St. Paul Island.
They state that the Bering Sea is undergoing changes that have never been observed in their lifetimes. “Global climate change is one of the many forces beyond our control that are threatening the entire Bering Sea food chain, of which we are a part,” the introduction states.
Record breaking temperatures, loss of sea ice is impacting the entire ecosystem, with severe consequences. “The evidence exists along our coastlines, in our waters and is revealed through the hardships we face in bringing harvests home to our families and communities,” the authors wrote.
They describe the extreme changes taking place in the Bering Sea region that make travel on unpredictable ice conditions dangerous and hinder access to subsistence resources. “The loss of sea ice has been the biggest change across our region, and with its loss there is nothing to keep our waters cold,” they say.
This loss of sea ice has a cascading effect, spawning other changes. “One of the biggest dangers we face is that we are no longer able to reliably predict the weather, which is less stable now than in the past,” they write. Noting that it rains in winter, when it should snow, and wetter summers interfere with safe travels and fish drying efforts in the summer.
Eroding shorelines, thawing permafrost, coastal landslides, sinkholes and increasing storm surges threaten coastal communities and their infrastructure such as roads, schools, sewage lagoons and runways. “This strikes at the heart of our safety, health and economic well-being,” the report says.
Observation of animals gives the authors great concern. “The ocean is our garden,” they write, and as such, the health of the people is directly linked to the health of this garden. In addition to climate change a legacy of buried toxic military materials, pollution and contamination continues to impact the animals. The authors observed black blisters on tomcod, abnormal odors from the guts of harvested seals, unusual hair loss in ugruks and strangely acting wildlife. “We find plastics as we dissect dead fish and birds found on our beaches,” the authors share.
They observe dramatic changes in fish migrations, massive die-offs of sea birds due to starvation they and find increasing numbers of dead marine mammals washed ashore. “At Wales, we counted 20 dead young ugruks from this past spring that had presumably not enough food. Similarly, on St. Lawrence Island, we observed 50 dead spotted seals and young ugruks along a 15-20 mile stretch of beach.
In what used to be a region abundant in food for birds, fish and marine mammals, starvation is now being observed.
The authors concluded that now that change is here, action needs to be taken. “When we were young, we learned to read the clouds to understand the weather. It is difficult to pass on this knowledge when the subject of our study is changing so quickly.” In addition to the assault due to climate change, cultural changes are compounding the problem. “We are losing so much of our culture and connections to the resources from our ocean and lands. Store-bought groceries and meat, which are flown in by airplane at great cost, are continually replacing our local, fresh and nutritious subsistence foods,” the elders wrote. “Our food security is even more at risk as our young people increasingly face high rates of unemployment with few job opportunities, and are less likely to own a boat for hunting and fishing.”
The elders concluded that in order to take steps to care for the environment and spark real action to address climate change, young people need to participate in “this process of documenting an sharing our observations of change and adaptation across our region.”