What Climate Change Looks Like

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CLICK MAP TO ENLARGE. The route traveled by the Northwest Passage Project in July and August, from Greenland through the Canadian Arctic. YALE ENVIRONMENT 360

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A polar bear in the Barrow Strait. As summer sea ice disappears in the High Arctic, polar bears are losing crucial platforms on which to hunt and rest. ED STRUZIK/YALE E360

You have seen the images, in which polar bears look lost or otherwise in peril. The one from this story, taken by its author, illustrates the central theme of ice receding in the locations highlighted in the map above.

Climate change is at work, 24/7, creating the sense of loss, peril and worse that we have not been shying away from in our pages. We are leaning in to try to understand what changes we can make, and promote, to live and work and play more responsibly. Thanks to Ed Struzik for both the words and images of this article:

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The icebreaker Oden sails through first-year ice in Lancaster Sound in the Canadian Arctic last month. COURTESY OF TOMER KETTER

A Northwest Passage Journey Finds Little Ice and Big Changes

After decades of travel in the Far North, E360’s Arctic correspondent joins a voyage through the Northwest Passage and witnesses a world being transformed, with ice disappearing, balmy temperatures becoming common, and alien invaders – from plastic waste to new diseases – on the rise.

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An abandoned Hudson’s Bay trading post on Somerset Island that was shut down in 1948 because supply ships could not get through the thick sea ice. COURTESY OF TOMER KETTER

Elwin Bay is carved into a steep, flat-topped mountain range along the northeast coast of Somerset Island in Canada’s High Arctic. For as long as anyone can remember, hundreds of beluga whales show up every year on an annual migration from Greenland through Canada’s Northwest Passage. Their fidelity to this site is remarkable given that 19th-century whalers killed more than 10,000 of them there – 840 during one notably gruesome, 17-day stretch – between 1874 and 1898.

Helicoptering over the bay earlier this month with members of a U.S. National Science Foundation-sponsored research expedition, we saw too many belugas to count accurately in waters riddled with rapidly disintegrating sea ice. Five hundred? Eight hundred? None of us could estimate with certainty. All we knew was that there were likely equal numbers of whales congregating in similar bays and estuaries, such as Cunningham Inlet, which we sailed past a few days earlier.

Polar bears were there as well — a female and cub in this case, homing in on a dead beluga that had presumably swum too far up the shallow estuary before the tide turned and trapped it.

I had joined the Northwest Passage Project on its 18-day, 2,000-nautical-mile icebreaker journey from Greenland through the high Canadian Arctic. Scientists and students aboard the ship were conducting oceanographic experiments to better understand the profound changes occurring in the Arctic Ocean as summer sea ice disappears and as alien invaders — from microscopic plankton and exotic fish species to large quantities of marine plastic — pour into this once-frozen region.

For me, having spent 40 years traveling extensively in the Arctic, the voyage was another unsettling reminder that the region has gone well beyond a climate change tipping point and is now “transforming into a new state,” as a Queen’s University geographer put it. This upheaval was evident from the record warmth and melting we saw in Greenland, to the widespread lack of sea ice along much of our route, to the stories of ecological disruption recounted by the Inuit who joined us aboard the Swedish icebreaker, Oden. I repeatedly found myself thinking about numerous prior explorations of the Northwest Passage in which expedition after expedition was blocked by sea ice — an obstacle that is fast disappearing.

As the hundreds of beluga in Elwin Bay showed, the Arctic is still a region teeming with marine mammals and abundant birdlife. It was thrilling to see other whale species such as tusked narwhal diving and giant bowheads blowing water 20 feet into the air. Watching long-tailed jaegers ceaselessly bullying kittiwakes to force them to disgorge a meal of fish was spellbinding.

That I didn’t see nearly as many polar bears as I had observed on similar expeditions in the past was not surprising given the paucity of ice. It may be only a matter of time before the fat, healthy bears we saw on this trip suffer the same fate as those in the southern Beaufort Sea, where numbers declined as much as 40 percent from 2001 to 2010. In a recent study, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that as sea ice declines, the bears are traveling farther and finding it harder to find seals.

The influx of contaminants such as mercury and plastics, which this expedition found in multi-year sea ice, is further testing the resilience of these and other animals at a time when unprecedented warming is not only melting sea ice but also thawing permafrost and providing southern animals — even grizzly bears — with opportunities to expand their range northward. Scientists are concerned that the arrival of new species may usher in alien diseases such as marine phocine distemper, which many Arctic marine mammals have no immunity to…

Read the whole story here.

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