SAN
FRANCISCO
— Polar bears have long been the poster children for the woes of
Arctic warming. But climate change isn’t just a danger to wildlife. It threatens
the safety and livelihoods of people across the Arctic.

To put a human face to this problem, an annual report by the U.S. National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is giving voice for the first time to
people in the Bering Sea region of Alaska who deal with the impacts of rapid
climate change in their daily lives.

Indigenous people in this area face shrinking access to fish stocks,
shorelines eroding from under buildings and traditional travel routes along ice
disappearing. “We have
seen change coming.
Now, we know it is here,” 10 elders from indigenous
communities around the Bering Sea write in NOAA’s 2019 Arctic Report Card. “The
Bering Sea is undergoing changes that have never been observed in our
lifetimes.”

This annual report documents air temperature, sea ice extent, snow
cover and other environmental vital signs to track how climate change is
reshaping the Arctic. The 2019 report, released December 10 at the American
Geophysical Union’s annual meeting, confirms that the Arctic is warming
about twice as fast
as the global average temperature rise.

As a result of such high temperatures, old, sturdy sea ice has
given way to newer, more fragile ice. In March 2019, sea ice older than four
years accounted for only about 1.2 percent of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, compared
with 33 percent in 1985, the report says. Other environmental anomalies this
year included an algal bloom in the Greenland Sea in May that was about 18
times as intense as usual.

But the report focused especially on dramatic changes in the
Bering Sea, including testimony from local leaders about how their homeland is
transforming.

Those leaders say the biggest
change in the Bering Sea
is the loss of sea ice (SN: 3/14/19). Satellite
observations have shown that across the Arctic, sea ice is generally declining.
But in the last two years, “the declines that we’ve seen in terms of sea ice in
the Bering Sea have been utterly profound,” says Karen Frey, a polar scientist
at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. She worked on a section of the report
card documenting how algae are responding to sea ice loss. In 2018 and 2019, Bering Sea
ice extent hit record lows
— with the maximum southern sea ice extent only
about 30 percent of the average from 1980 to 2010 (SN: 12/10/19). “Things
have kind of fallen off a cliff,” Frey says.

Sea ice depletion is making it more difficult for indigenous people
to hunt marine mammals, like walruses, that hang out on the ice. And
diminishing ice, along with rising water temperatures, is driving fish like
salmon to colder climes farther north. Climate change is “changing the
migration of our marine resources that we depend on,” Jerry Ivanoff, a Bering
Sea elder from the village of Unalakleet, said December 10 during a news conference.
“It’s definitely going to hit us right here,” Ivanoff said, indicating his
stomach.

ivory gulls
The breeding population of ivory gulls in the Arctic (breeding colony pictured) is declining, particularly in Canada, which has lost 70 percent of its ivory gull population since the 1980s, according to the 2019 Arctic Report Card.Alexey Lokhov

Sea ice loss also makes it more difficult to navigate terrain. In
the remote island community of Diomede, for instance, people who used to travel
on and off the island via sea ice during the winter now must rely on helicopters.

On land, higher temperatures mean less snow and more rain. “Winter
rains coat our runways in ice and prevent the planes from landing in our
communities, the vast majority of which are not connected to road systems,” the
elders wrote in the report. Meanwhile, the thaw of permanently frozen soil,
known as permafrost, is leading to sinkholes and landslides. Stronger storm
surges, thanks to diminished sea ice, lap at coastal roads and buildings,
triggering erosion.

It’s “a great idea” for a report like this to include local
perspectives, says Brendan Kelly, a polar scientist at the University of Alaska
Fairbanks not involved in the 2019 Arctic Report Card. The indigenous peoples
of Alaska “are experiencing [climate change] in very deep, personal ways. You
can’t live in the place where the climate is changing most rapidly on the
planet and not have it affect your energy supply, your way of life, your
foods.”

These on-the-ground observations give valuable information to
scientists, Frey says. “With satellite remote sensing, you can be everywhere,
every day.… When you have boots on the ground, you can only be one place at one
time, but at that one place and one time, you get a wealth of knowledge.”

What’s more, “people’s firsthand knowledge of this gives you a
sense of proximity” to the consequences of climate change, Frey says. “This is
not a conversation about our grandchildren, or our children, even. This is a
conversation about us.”

The Arctic report paints a similarly alarming picture of goings-on
elsewhere in the region.  If it were
grading how well humans are taking care of the planet, “it would certainly be a
failing grade,” Kelly says. “This warming in the Arctic isn’t just an Arctic
problem.”

For instance, in 2019, the amount of ice shed from the Greenland
ice sheet rivaled 2012 — the previous record holder for ice loss. The report
estimates that Greenland is losing, on average, nearly 267 billion metric tons
of ice per year, leading to an average global sea level rise of about 0.7
millimeters per year. Those higher sea levels are expected to contribute to
widespread coastal flooding. 

New measurements also suggest that permafrost thaw due to higher temperatures is now releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than plants in the arctic tundra take up, the report says. That could, in turn, spur even more global warming (SN: 9/25/19). “The big question is,” Kelly says, “how big a [carbon] source is this going to be in the coming decades?”