By Edward Struzik
In the winter of 2013–14, hundreds of milk-white birds with luminous yellow eyes and wingspans of up to 5 feet descended on beaches, farmers’ fields, city parks and airport runways throughout southern Canada and the United States.
Traditionally, snowy owls spend most of their time in the Arctic and subarctic regions. But every four years or so when populations of lemmings — among the owl’s favorite foods — cycle downward, a small number of young, inexperienced birds that are less adept than their elders at hunting will fly farther south than they might normally rather than starve to death. No one, however, had seen an irruption as big and as far-reaching as this one, which was the second major such event in North America in three years.
By the first week of December, the big birds were spotted from North Dakota to Maine and from Newfoundland to Bermuda. At one point, owls collided with five planes at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports.
Snowy owl irruptions are not in themselves a sure sign that something extraordinary is happening in an Arctic world that is warming nearly twice as fast as the global rate. But given the rapid-fire fashion in which similar, unexpected events have been unfolding throughout the circumpolar region, it’s clear that the Arctic we know is coming to an end, and that a new and very different Arctic is taking over.
What happens in the Arctic matters. The ecological, cultural and economic shifts that are currently underway will not only alter the lives of the Inuit, Gwich’in, Nenets and other aboriginal people who live there, they are likely to affect mid-latitude weather patterns, the migrating birds we see, the air we breathe, the fuel we burn and the way in which we transport goods from one continent to another. The question then becomes, how do we understand and manage the end of the Arctic as we know it so we are prepared to deal with the new Arctic that is unfolding?
A Picture of Change
The past 10 years paint a dramatic picture of climate-related changes at the top of the world. First there were massive forest fires that torched a record 4.2 million hectares of trees in the Yukon and Alaska in 2004. Smoke from those fires could be detected all the way to the east coast of Canada and throughout many parts of the contiguous United States. Parts of the Alaska Highway were shut down for days at a time. Alaskans suffered for 15 days when air quality in cities such as Fairbanks was deemed to be hazardous to health by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Then it was the collapse of the 9-mile-long, 3-mile-wide, 120-foot-thick Ayles Ice Shelf off the north coast of Ellesmere Island in 2005. Scientist Warwick Vincent likened the collapse, the largest recorded in the Canadian Arctic, to a cruise missile hitting the shelf after it registered as a small earthquake at a seismic station 150 miles away.
In 2006 we learned of the world’s first wild polar bear–grizzly bear hybrid, of further increases in relatively warm Pacific water flowing north through the Bering Strait, of gray whales overwintering in the Beaufort Sea instead of migrating to the California coast and — from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center — news that September sea ice was declining 8.6 percent per decade or 23,328 square miles per year. At the time, some scientists scoffed when NSIDC research scientist Julienne Stroeve predicted that the Arctic Ocean would have no ice in September by 2060. But when Arctic sea ice retreated to another record low a year later, many suggested September ice might be gone by 2040.
Then came 2007 — the year in which it became crystal clear that winter’s freeze was losing its ability to keep up with summer’s melt. A rare, extraordinarily large tundra fire on the north slope of Alaska accounted for 40 percent 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 nesting female common eiders at East Bay, home to the largest colony of the species in the region. It was so warm that summer that the Inuit of Grise Fiord, the most northerly civilian community on the continent, were forced to stockpile sea ice for drinking water because runoff from a nearby glacier dried up.
For the third year in a row, hundreds of beluga whales and narwhal made the mistake of staying in the Canadian Arctic longer than they should have because there was still much open water when summer came to an end. In Lancaster Sound alone, Inuit hunters shot more than 600 belugas that would have otherwise drowned as the small pools of open water they were trapped in shrank to nothing over a 10-day period.
But what really made the big melt of 2007 an eye-popping one was the absence of ice in areas where it almost never thaws. The so-called “mortuary” of old ice that perennially chokes M’Clintock Channel in the High Arctic of Canada virtually disappeared that August. The “birthplace” of a great deal of new ice that is manufactured in Viscount Melville Sound to the north was down to half of its normal ice cover. “The ice is no longer growing or getting old,” said John Falkingham, chief forecaster for the Canadian Ice Service. More....