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Arctic Fever

CALL OF THE WILD On this remote stretch of tundra, Alaskan husky sled dogs are vital to local subsistence hunters.
In the far north of Alaska, the fragile food web that supports polar bears and humans alike may be starting to unravel

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On a Saturday morning in late November in Kotzebue, Alaska, a village 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, two Inupiat men nursed cups of coffee at the Bayside Inn. They stared out a window at Kotzebue Sound, an arm of the Chukchi Sea at the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean. Outside it was 35 degrees and raining. "Too warm," said one of the men.

His companion let a long silence pass. Then he nodded. "Too much rain," he said. Indeed. In Kotzebue, November temperatures normally hover in the single digits. But these aren’t normal times. This is the time of "the changes" -- a term used by Caleb Pungowiyi, former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and one of Kotzebue’s most respected elders, when talking about the effects of climate change in the Alaskan Arctic. "Some events like this happen occasionally," Pungowiyi told me as we sat looking out at the rain. "But for something to happen that’s this warm, in November, for a number of days -- these kinds of temperatures are not normal. We should be down in the teens and minus temperatures this time of year."

A few days of rainy weather isn’t climate, but it is a powerful data point. You get enough warm, rainy days like this, and pretty soon they add up. This is how climate change happens in the far north: one warm rainy day at a time.

The thawing of the far north is one of the signal ecological events of our time. Global temperatures rose an average of 1.18 degrees Fahrenheit from 1905 to 2005, but that increase wasn’t evenly distributed. The Arctic took the brunt of it, warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Since 1980, winter sea ice in the Arctic has lost almost half its thickness. In Kotzebue, the mean winter temperature has climbed more than 6 degrees in the past 50 years. Permafrost is thawing in patches all over the Arctic. "What we’re doing with climate change," says Brendan Kelly, a former University of Alaska biologist who is now deputy director of the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Sciences Division, "is carrying out a long-term scientific experiment at continental scale."

To get a sense of how that experiment is unfolding, it’s helpful to take a look at one of the most fundamental acts of life: eating, the passage of energy from one living organism to another. Predators and prey form a food chain, plant to insect to rodent to carnivore to apex predator. Those chains interlock to form webs. "To protect Nature," the conservation biologist Stuart Pimm wrote in his seminal book Food Webs, "we must have some understanding of her complexities, for which the food web is the basic description."

Basic is an apt word. Many Arctic organisms are extremophiles -- specialists adapted to thrive at temperatures so low they would kill most other species. It’s a club with few members. Species diversity is low, so Arctic food webs are simple. And in the age of climate change, simple is not a good thing to be.

"The more complicated and interconnected the food web, the less damage you can expect if one or two species are lost," explains Deborah Bronk, a biological oceanographer and specialist in nutrient cycling at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary. "In these very simple food chains, if you lose one species you can really mess up the whole thing." Complexity yields resilience.

Without resilience, there’s risk of a crash. Scientists who study trophic cascades, in which the loss of a single species sets off a reaction throughout the food web, report that this sort of crash generally happens in low-diversity ecosystems, where one or a few species exert great influence.

That describes the Arctic marine and coastal food web.

During the past few years a number of disturbing reports from the Arctic have appeared in scientific journals. Increasingly acidic seawater may be affecting the ability of crustaceans to form their shells. Warmer-water fish are invading waters traditionally inhabited by cold-water fish. More seal pupping dens are collapsing because of earlier springs and diminished snow cover. Starving polar bears have been seen scavenging berries, grass, moss, and goose eggs. As ice disappears, walrus colonies are increasingly hauling out on land, where polar bears -- also on land because of the lack of ice -- have been observed attacking them. Humans, a big part of the Arctic food web, are experiencing impacts as well. Their hunting seasons are changing, their travel routes becoming more dangerous and unpredictable. The resilience of the Arctic food web is now being tested. To paraphrase Brendan Kelly: In an ecosystem perfectly adapted to sea ice, snowfall, and permafrost, what happens when those elements begin to disappear?

Kotzebue seemed like a good place to find out. Its 3,200 residents -- almost three-quarters of them Inupiat -- aren’t mere observers. As Caleb Pungowiyi told me, people in Kotzebue are acutely aware that ice and snow are to the Arctic what soil and rain are to the temperate latitudes.

"We depend on ice freezing up in the fall and the snow accumulating on top of it in fall and early winter" for everything to work, he said. "But now we’re seeing a lot less of both."

It all depends on ice

Standing in the rain on Kotzebue’s Front Street, a gravel boulevard that curves along the shore, Pungowiyi surveyed Kotzebue Sound. The frozen expanse usually buzzed with snowmobiles. On that day it was silent. "Ice should be a lot thicker," he said. "Most folks would be out ice fishing for cod and smelt here on the bay."

What worried Pungowiyi, though, was the action within the ice itself.

NRDC: Managing the Arctic

Lisa Speer

Q&A with Lisa Speer, Director of NRDC’s international oceans program and an expert on the conservation and management of marine biodiversity.

Bruce Barcott talks about the impact of melting sea ice on the Arctic food web. (See "Arctic Fever.") But there are also major implications for human activity in the Arctic.

The disappearance of the ice is opening up the Arctic to expanded fishing, offshore oil and gas development, and shipping, which bring with them the risk of accidents, spills, invasive species, pollution, underwater noise, and impacts related to the construction and operation of pipelines, tanker terminals, and processing facilities. The problem is that the existing fabric of international governance of the Arctic was developed at a time when the cold and ice severely limited human activity. The surge of new activity has exposed the weakness of the current regime and the need for much more robust international arrangements.

Read the rest here.

Arctic sea ice is a living platform. "When the ice forms, it sustains many things in its own food web," he explained. "It harbors nutrients and microscopic things. There’s food in there for tiny organisms and little animals. Krill graze on the ice. The ice becomes a critical part of the productivity of the Arctic Ocean."

What makes that possible are brine channels, networks of needle-thin cracks and tubes that allow hundreds of species of bacteria, fungi, and other single- and multicelled organisms to thrive within the ice. Even during the full darkness of the Arctic winter, bacteria survive by feeding on specks of waste from algae and other organic material trapped in the ice. Sea ice nurtures such a varied menagerie that astrobiologists study it to see how extraterrestrial life might survive in extreme environments.

The real action happens in spring, when the reemergence of daylight triggers a bloom of ice algae, which begins as a thin web and can grow into 10-foot-long strands that sway like curtains from the underside of the ice. If ice is the soil of the polar sea, ice algae are its most important plant -- the organic machine that converts the sun’s energy into food.

The ice algae fuel explosive growth among tiny zooplankton, which feed on them. Larger zooplankton like amphipods, pteropods, copepods, and krill all feed on the algae and the smaller zooplankton. At this lower level of the food web, the shrinking summer ice pack is beginning to change things, but not in the way you might expect. Winter sea ice still forms, but ever later in the season, and come spring the algae strands still grow. What’s changing is the chemistry of the sea itself. In particular, ocean acidification is making it more difficult for shelled plankton to form their shells.

Scientists have long believed that sea ice acts like a giant pool cover, limiting the Arctic Ocean’s uptake of atmospheric CO2. Although some researchers question that assumption, it’s true that as summer ice cover has retreated, Arctic waters have become more acidic. And the process is going to accelerate, because cold water takes up CO2 more readily than warmer water. That’s bad news for creatures like shelled pteropods, an abundant and critical food source in the Arctic, because as the ocean acidifies, it becomes more difficult for them to grow their shells.

On the pH scale of 0 to 14, neutral is 7 -- pure freshwater. Zero is like battery acid. Most seawater is somewhere around 8, slightly alkaline. Pteropods, pea-size mollusks known as "sea butterflies," grow their shells by absorbing aragonite. But as seawater acidifies, it becomes undersaturated in calcite and aragonite, forms of calcium carbonate vital to shell formation.

Several years ago, Victoria Fabry, an oceanographer at California State University at San Marcos, noticed that if you drop pteropods in extremely acidified seawater, their shells would begin to dissolve. In 2008, Steeve Comeau, a researcher with France’s Laboratoire d’Océanographie de Villefranche, scooped up some Arctic Ocean pteropods off the coast of Svalbard, Norway. He maintained a control group at the natural water pH of 8.09 and kept a second group in seawater lowered to 7.78, a level of acidity that climate models predict will occur in parts of the Arctic Ocean by 2029. Over six hours, both groups continued to grow their shells -- but the pteropods in the more acidic water grew 28 percent more slowly.

image of Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction and is the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw and The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. He writes frequently about the outdoors and the environment for such... READ MORE >
Would it be possible for Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Bill Gates to sponsor a prize to support a new machine once a year that would be used to fix one of the growing problems on earth that we face? All of the machines would have one caveat. They would have to run on clean energy, and require little maintenance. They cannot be destructive to the environment that they are placed in. I have several machines in mind: 1. A snow making machine. The machine would be linked in the air over the Arctic, perhaps suspended by either weather balloons or some other apparatus, and they would have to be above rain making clouds, to lower the temperature to create prime snow effect manipulation of the weather. They should be solar powered, and cost effective enough that if you had to take one out of the chain for repair, you could still keep the system going. The machines should have several different override mechanisms in case of catastrophic failure. They would be positioned over the Arctic to counteract the Global change we are experiencing. 2. A machine that mimics what trees do to clean the air of CO2. This would be dual, land based, and sky based, and would have to be solar powered. It would have to be as unobtrusive as possible. 3. A water filtration unit that would clean on the bottom of the ocean, and the top of the ocean, placed at every clean water inlet that ran on Solar power 4. An earth purification system that ran on solar power, that could turn any earth into clean, arable land that could then be used anywhere on earth. The Prize would be used to fund the most viable plan that could be presented, and the work would have to be able to move from conception plan to completion within 18 months after receipt of the prize. A small, working prototype would be necessary with the 10 final entries, at a cost of $50,000 dollars given to the 10 best entries per season. We have spent too much time looking at how to lament over these new challenges. We have the most resources and best minds of this epoch on earth at this point, can we not move on to fixing these problems in a real way, in real time? Cutting back whether by legislation, guilt or war will not fix this problem. The damage has been set in motion, now the emphasis should be on fixing the problem mechanically. Thank you for your time.
Ironic that Kotzebue has had the most brutal winter in recent memory. Not only were cars buried, the garages were also buried.
its ALL do to global warming. Warmer air carries more moisture. it WILL come down - as rain or snow
And it's been warming since the last ice age. Yes, we need to find energy other than oil, but I'd suggest people read "Physics for Future Presidents". It will delineate the issues and lay out the hurdles. I've been an Alaskan resident for 30 years, commercial fishing from Gulf of Alaska to Bering Sea. We've seen changes, such as the explosion of cod and halibut population, some of the best salmon harvests ever recorded. Western Arctic caribou herd was 50,000 in 1970's, to more than 400,000. Populations cycle, weather cycles. Waters off Kodiak actually slightly cooler than 30 year average, if I can believe scientist acquaintance of mine who's spent a career studying Alaskan waters. Ice off Nome has not been thinning, nor has it been particularly warmer there. Don't know what that means but it is fact. Maybe one should also consider googling Akasofu, former head of Arctic Research Institute, or Jack Schmidt, undergrad from CalTech, PhD. in geology from Harvard. They both have valid points of view. Somehow I seem to run into folks who are horribly disappointed at any news that is not catastrophic, almost seems a great lot of people thrive on "bad" news and want nothing to do with anyone who questions, that one who does question must be a shill for the oil companies or funded by strip miners. And I do question the dire forecasts. For instance, we've known for centuries of El Nino, La Nina, events. On average, about every 3-4 years we have an El Nino event. Despite knowing this, observing the phenomenon, no one can reasonably predict the strength or effect of the event. Yet I'm to take at face value someone's prediction of sea level for the year 2100? Just some observatios.
Coal, You can do, think and use many words to hope that anyone will do something about it. It is the BURNING OF COAL we need to stop. Anyone understand that. But No one manager in coal and oil lik to miss the money they earn on it. Not before strong actions are taken against it. For several decades our leaders has talked about it and many promised, in writing, to do plenty. 20%, 30%, or 40% decrease of CO2, in 20-40 years, but no one never look at that paper no more. Instead the building up of more coal-plants rise to numbers no one never could imagine. In China two more Coal-Plants was and still are, starting up every week for the last years. In USA hundreds and hundreds more Coal-power-plants are in progress of building. And the owners seams to do what they want, about the clean air act. As if they was the kings of all and anything. They are probably confused of that, no one press them at all, its the same as always, no one care, No one have the guts, or power, or understands the need of change? And it will never been any change, never. In Europe we are building Coal-plants as if we never know anything else. In India, in Russia or where-ever you look, increasing use of Coal? Not a word of surveying or measuring any progress of shut down any Coal-Plants at all? The consensus of the coal-stokers is now to solve the problem, not by close any Plants, but instead of destroying the atmosphere and the Climate, the Nature and ECO-systems on land, they now try to destroying the oceans faster than ever, by pumping CO2 into the sea-bottoms or in the water-depths, not with any thoughts of what troubles that can cause. The acidification of the oceans are in the danger-zone of destruction and exterminating all lifes in the seas. Stopping one third of our oxygen-production? And change the oceans to some rotten decompose ponds. No signs of any change of anything, for our destiny. Someone need to tell the Stokers how to behave, and close all the Coal-fires down! It is not known that the volume of CO2 will increase with abt.1500 MILLIONS CUBIC KILOMETRES IN 40 YEARS. That volume can be hard to imagine, but will cover the area of Earth in a deadly layer of 20 metres in depth, in year 2050? It is the very End, for sure, if we not close down all Coal-burning-plants by at least 10%, in numbers of plants, every year, starting this year! The stokers will be happy to know, what to do! The progress will be measured, by SAS!