In the summer of 2004, a record 4.2-million hectares of northern forest burned in fires that swept across Yukon and Alaska. Smoke from those fires could be detected all the way to the east coast of Canada and throughout many parts of contiguous United States. Traffic on parts of the Alaska Highway was shut down for days at a time. Alaskans suffered for 15 straight days when air quality in cities such as Fairbanks was deemed to be hazardous to health by Environmental Protection Agency standards.
A year later, the Ayles ice shelf -- 14 kilometres long, 4.8 km wide and 36 metres thick -- collapsed off the north coast of Ellesmere Island. Scientist Warwick Vincent likened the collapse, the largest recorded in the Canadian Arctic up until that time, to a cruise missile hitting the shelf after it registered as a small earthquake at a station 160 km away. Big as it was, the fracture paled in comparison to the icebergs that broke away from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland in 2010 and 2012. Those chunks of ice measured 160 square-km and 74 square-km respectively.
Dramatic as this all was, no one in the south really began to appreciate that the climate is changing in the Arctic until hundreds of milk white birds with luminous yellows eyes and wing spans of up to 1.5 metres began descending on airport runways, farmer's fields, and beaches throughout southern Canada and the U.S. in the winter of 2013-14. Traditionally, snowy owls spend most of the time in the Arctic and sub-Arctic feeding on lemmings. But every four years or so, when lemming populations routinely collapse, many of the younger, inexperienced birds fly south rather than starve to death. No one, however, had seen an irruption like this -- which was, remarkably, the second in three years. At one point, the owls were colliding with planes at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports, where Port Authority officials shot them until public outrage and a lawsuit stopped them.
Memorable as these climate-related events have been, Canada's prime minister hasn't been paying attention. Stephen Harper, who has had yearly excursions to the Arctic for the past eight years, has not uttered the phrase climate change during any of those visits.
Harper's vision of the Arctic emphasizes selling oil and gas leases in biological hotspots, expanding Canada's military presence to assert sovereignty in places where no one is seriously challenging it, and encouraging foreign ships to transport coal and other resources through a Northwest Passage that lacks, as Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand recently noted, updated navigational aids and sufficient icebreaking capabilities.
The Harper vision is in sharp contrast to President Barack Obama. On Jan. 25, Obama's administration moved to set aside more than 4.8-million hectares in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness. That means that no one can drill for oil and gas or mine for minerals. It is another example of how the U.S. understands, much more than Canada does, the need to better manage an Arctic that is warming twice as fast as any other region of the world.
President Obama's evolving vision includes the economic development that Harper is so busily promoting. But it also involves expanding ANWR, permanently removing 3.9-million hectares of ecologically important Arctic marine waters from oil and gas leasing, ordering a moratorium on commercial fishing in a 300,000 square-km area off the coast of Alaska, and empowering the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with local governments, universities, tribal organizations and non-governmental organizations in better understanding how climate change is driving rapid changes in the Arctic's ecosystem.
Planning a future Arctic
Important as these initiatives are, they are only a modest start to the monumental challenge of planning for a future Arctic. Contrary to what many people think, biodiversity in the region is not as simple as it is often made out to be. Against a backdrop of boreal forest, tundra, permafrost, polar deserts, glaciers, ice caps, mountains, rivers, deltas, sea ice, polynyas, swirling gyres and open ocean, there are thousands of pieces to the puzzle. They include the 21,000 cold climate mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants and fungi that we know at least a little about, as well as the untold number of microbes and endoparasites that remain largely a mystery.
They also include the nearly four million people -- 118,000 in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut -- who live there. Most southerners don't know what northerners want because few people are listening.
What we do know in addition to the fires of 2004, the collapse of the ice shelf in 2005 and the fracture of the Petermann Glacier that same year, is that climate-driven events in the Arctic are accelerating and dramatically changing the world they live in.
In 2006, the year Harper became prime minister, we learned of the world's first wild polar bear/grizzly bear hybrid, (a sign that southern animals are moving north and breeding with Arctic animals that are, in some cases, already threatened) of further increases in relatively warm Pacific water flowing north through Bering Strait, of gray whales overwintering in the Beaufort Sea instead of migrating back to the California coast, and news from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) that sea ice had declined by approximately 8.59 per cent per decade, or 60,421 square-km per year.
The following year brought even more surprises. Sea ice retreated to another record low, convincing many scientists that September's ice might be gone by 2040. (More than few are now suggesting 2020.) A rare tundra fire in Alaska accounted for 40 per cent of the area burned in the state that summer. Avian cholera, a disease that is common in the south, but largely absent in the eastern Arctic, killed nearly one-third of the largest population of nesting eiders in the region. For the third year in a row, beluga whales and narwhal made the mistake of staying in the Arctic longer than they should have because there was still so much open water in September. Inuit hunters ended up shooting more than 600 of them when it was clear that the whales would have otherwise drowned as plummeting temperatures shrunk the small pools of water they were trapped in.
We also learned that between 2005 and 2011 three storm surges along Alaska's Yukon- Kuskokwim Delta sent waves of saltwater more than 30 km inland where millions of birds nest each year and where Pacific salmon spawn. Another in 1999 sent a similar surge of water into the Mackenzie Delta.
In 2012, we got an ominous sign that there is more of this to come. A powerful cyclone tore through the central Arctic that summer, churning and breaking up sea ice cover that was already heading to another record low. Coming at a time of year when weather in the Arctic tends to be benign, this storm was remarkable in lasting nearly two weeks. Not only was it the most powerful Arctic summer storm on record, it proved to be as intense as all but 13 of the worst winter storms seen in this part of the world. The Arctic was so free of ice that year that Pacific salmon were caught by Inuit fishermen in the eastern Arctic and by scientists off the coast of Greenland.
We are already seeing the effects of some of these changes ripple through various ecosystems. Lemming cycles are collapsing in some parts of the Arctic. Capelin, not Arctic cod, is the dominant fish in Hudson Bay; killer whales, once stopped by sea ice, are now preying on narwhals and beluga whales throughout the Arctic Ocean; polar bears at the southern end of their range are getting thinner and producing fewer cubs than they have in the past; beluga whales in the southern Beaufort Sea are getting slightly smaller. Pacific salmon of all types are moving into many parts of the Canadian Arctic where they have never been seen before; Chukchi Sea walrus are hauling out on land by the tens of thousands, as 35,000 of them did in September 2014 when there was no more sea ice for them to use as platforms.
The changes that are occurring in the Arctic are not, depending on one's point of view, all negative. Receding sea ice is revealing 22 per cent of the undiscovered, technically recoverable hydrocarbon resources in the world. It is opening up shipping lanes that are far shorter and cheaper than existing routes that must pass through the Panama and Suez Canals. And it is giving the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark the opportunity to add vast areas of unclaimed Arctic territory to their boundaries.
There is also evidence to suggest that some sub-Arctic and Arctic animals -- such as the bowhead whale, the musk ox, bison and barren ground grizzly bear -- will likely thrive in this warmer world. We may even see the day when there is a commercially harvestable fish population in the Central Arctic Ocean.
But without a well thought out vision for the future Arctic, this rapid warming world will likely be devastating for the people who live there and for many of the animals they depend on for food security. With sea ice melting, glaciers receding, permafrost thawing, and Arctic storms picking up steam, dozens of low-lying coastal communities that are vulnerable to flooding and erosion, such as Shishmaref, Alaska, and Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, will have to be shored up or moved.
A warmer and shorter ice season will continue to lessen time for increasingly skinny polar bears to hunt seals and more time for mosquitoes and flies to take their toll on caribou. As much as 87 per cent of the tundra and alpine habitat that caribou currently depend on could be overtaken by trees or shrubs by the year 2100.
This explains in part why Sheila Watt Cloutier, the former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, keeps talking about the Inuit "right to be cold."
"It's not that we want to be cold and shivering," she recently said, "it's about what it means for the people of the Arctic to defend our right to make our own choices by protecting our environment and hunting culture which depends on the cold."
Obama's decision to expand ANWR's wilderness and to protect biological hotspots in the Arctic Ocean is visionary in this regard. Among the 24 barren ground caribou herds that are routinely monitored, most populations have been spiralling downward because of climate change, energy and mining developments, overhunting and natural fluctuations that are always at play. The Porcupine caribou herd is one of the few herds that is increasing in number, partly because of restrictions that have been put on hunting and partly because the caribou can give birth to calves on the north slope of the ANWR without human disturbance. Expanding ANWR, therefore, is like adding to an insurance policy for caribou and for polar bears and other animals that thrive in the region.
With some notable exceptions (the Inuvialuit of the western Arctic and the federal government recently agreed to make commercial fishing off-limits in the Beaufort Sea), Canada is moving in another direction. In an effort to expedite oil and gas and mineral development, it is building a road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk that will benefit the oil and gas industry more than it will the Inuit who live there. It is ignoring the fact that Tuk is literally falling into the sea and that the road to Tuk is being built on permafrost that is collapsing.
The Harper government was deaf to Inuit objections to seismic testing in Lancaster Sound until the Inuit took them to court. While millions were being spent on military exercises in the eastern Arctic in 2014, nothing was done to help the town of Iqaluit put out a noxious dump fire that was beyond their control until Harper paid a visit to the community that summer. It has done little to support Arctic science, choosing instead to tell its own government scientists to shut up and to do with less than what the world's other Arctic scientists routinely receive.
These striking differences between Canada's Arctic vision and the vision of the U.S. was highlighted in 2010 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a stinging rebuke to the Harper government for not inviting Sweden, Finland, Iceland and indigenous leaders to an Arctic Summit that Canada hosted that year. Clinton walked away from the meeting before it was over, leaving Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon on stage to do some damage control.
The differences were hammered home once again in 2013 when Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq posted the image of a dead polar bear on her website, imploring the people of Arctic Bay to "enjoy." It wasn't so much the idea of eating polar bears that was objectionable -- that is a basic human right for the Inuit. The issue was Aglukkaq's posting the image, and posting it while she was leading a Canadian delegation at the 40th Anniversary of the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in Moscow, Russia.
Canada could have established some leadership when it took over chairmanship of the Arctic Council nearly two years ago. The intergovernmental forum addresses issues faced by Arctic governments and indigenous peoples.
But instead of steering the agenda towards pressing issues such as climate change, conservation, food security and including non-Arctic countries such as China that have interests in the region, it has put all of its efforts in search and rescue and creating the Arctic Economic Council, a group of businesses operating in the North that is intended to share best practices and encourage economic development.
It's not a bad idea, but it would be a much better one if Canada were to understand what the impediments are to economic development and to better understand how economic development might be undertaken without compromising food security.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. is standing on the sidelines, chomping at the bit, as it prepares to take over the Arctic Council in April. Without mincing words, Admiral Robert Papp, U.S Special Representative for the Arctic, recently promised to put the "put the Arctic Council on steroids," when it follows Canada, whose term was recently described by one expert observer as "riddled with arrogance instead of compromise."
David Balton, the U.S. ambassador for oceans and fisheries, echoed Papp's sentiment in Shanghai in January while he attempted to engage the Chinese and other countries in the idea of implementing a moratorium on commercial fishing in the high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean until the scientific research is done to establish whether there are fish there and whether they can be harvested safely over the long term if they are there.
"We'll have an ambitious agenda when we take over the Arctic Council," Balton told me and others who attended the roundtable on Arctic fisheries in Shanghai. "Whether we can get it all done in two years remains to be seen."
As much as we know about the Arctic, it's what we don't know that should be of concern to the Harper government, and to another government that might follow in 2015. When change happens, as has happened in the past decade and beyond, it happens very fast and often catastrophically.