Arctic Environment a Portent of the Future

By Erica Dingman

Arctic issues rarely make it into cocktail party banter. Indeed, I would imagine that few have even considered how the changing Arctic climate has impacted their economy, food networks, or weather systems. After all, the Arctic does not obviously affect the daily lives of average Americans, whose only national bond to the Arctic is through distant Alaska. But as New York City recovers from Hurricane Sandy, now is a good time to consider the link between the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice and the frequency of extreme storm surges. Now, as New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “we have a 100-year flood every two years.”

Of course, the effects of Arctic climate change will hardly be limited to storm surges; changing conditions in polar regions affect the climate in much of the world. For those who have paid attention to Arctic residents, insurers, or climate scientists, none of this should come as much of a surprise.

In 2005, Shelia Watt-Cloutier, then-Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, beseeched global leaders to heed the observable changes in Arctic ecosystems. “[T]he Arctic is the canary in the coalmine, the barometer of the health of the planet. I have said many times, a poisoned Arctic is a poisoned planet.” Cloutier recognized that the troubles climate change had caused her as a resident of the Arctic would soon affect the rest of the world, warning, “all peoples have the right to live safely in their culture. As a shared humanity, we must back away from the precipice.”

The visible changes in Arctic weather patterns may make this precipice more obvious to Inuit than people in other parts of the world. Autumn freeze and spring thaw have recently begun to arrive up to a month late, for example, and global warming is rapidly melting and thinning the sea ice. Many species of fish have declined, and increasing numbers are becoming deformed by contamination. Along with the increasing carbon dioxide in the air, sea ice melt has also increased rates of evaporation, changing patterns of cloud formation that used to be predictable. In the film “Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change,” one Inuk describes this change. Before, he says, weather could be predicted by looking at the sky, but “Now it is different. First they come one way, then they quickly change, telling you a different story.”

Traditional Inuit knowledge is increasingly being seen as a valuable form of observation. Shari Gearheard, a research scientist with the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, lives in an Inuit community of 850 and incorporates their observations into her research. Inuit observation, she says, has already helped to explain wind pattern shifts and other phenomena that have not been explained by Western science. 

Climate conditions in the Arctic have global impact. As a recent NOAA-led study stated, “The recent shift in early summer Arctic atmospheric circulation” suggests that declining Arctic Sea ice may be playing a role in the extreme, fluctuating weather patterns seen around the world, which may become even more aggressive in coming decades. 

The recent record-high temperatures in the U.S. have forced farmers to sell off herds of cattle, since food prices were driven high enough by drought that farmers could no longer afford feed. Collectively, the resulting crop and livestock losses have cost farmers and ranchers in Texas alone an estimated $7.62 billion and have had cascading impact throughout American economy.

In the aftermath of weather-related disasters like Hurricane Sandy and the extreme drought that has plagued the southern United States since 2010, insurance companies are realizing they must readjust their risk prediction models to account for climate change. Peter Hoppe, head of the Geo Risks Research Renter for Munich Re, a global company that insures other insurers, said that climate change “is a big problem and will drive losses in the future." On October 17, Munich Re put out a report warning that North America would face a rising number of natural catastrophes due in part to greenhouse gas emissions. It seems they were right: Just 12 days later, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record slammed into New England.

The melting of Arctic sea ice, seen as an opportunity by some, will cause severe environmental change. A study conducted last April by Chatham House, a NGO focused on international affairs, and Lloyd’s, a global insurance company, warns that more Arctic research is necessary to avoid causing “irreparable damage to the environment.” Governments, the study concludes, have the primary responsibility on this front and need to establish the necessary regulatory frameworks and standards to prevent such damage. Given the fragility of Arctic ecosystems, accidents like an oil spill would have a far greater impact than they would elsewhere and the risk of spills can and should be minimized as much as possible by sensible regulation and bold oversight.

The current attitude toward regulation and oversight neglects the safety and financial well-being of future generations. Just as individuals need to save money throughout their lives in order to retire comfortably, Americans need to invest now to ensure their future standards of living are not compromised by ecological disaster. We need to heed the warnings of the Inuit, of insurance companies, and of climate scientists at NOAA and elsewhere. And we should push for government regulation to mitigate further deterioration of the natural environment.

The environmental changes that are occurring in the Arctic are a good example of what might lay in store for the rest of the world in the future, so citizens and governments alike should pay close attention to this oft-neglected region. Perhaps, just occasionally, the Arctic should be mentioned as a topic of interest at those cocktail party conversations. The more people pay attention to the Arctic, the more people will think seriously about ways to preserve our planet.



Erica Dingman is an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute whose work focuses on the Arctic, Inuit, and Canada/United States relations. She holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School.

[Photo courtesy of cecoffman]

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