How unsustainable habits impact communities in the Arctic Circle

There are no other inhabited environments as harsh, unforgiving and bitterly cold as that of the mysterious tundra of the Arctic circle. Winters are arduously long, with temperatures dropping to -50°C and below. Often, the nearest town or village can be up to 100 kilometres away, meaning access to food supply and emergency services is very limited.

Despite the ruthless environment, communities continue to live nomadically in these unforgiving and isolated environments due to their ubiquitous beauty, their community’s unique culture and intimacy, and their abstemious way of life. For the indigenous Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia and Inupiats of Northern Alaska, the ever-changing global climate is having detrimental impacts on food supply and migration patterns.

Many believe the main cause of this changing climate is anthropogenic climate change, which suggests that increasing greenhouse gases produced by human transportation and industry absorbs more heatfrom the sun than the earth reflectsback out to space, thus raising global temperatures. Despite this, it is essential to understand that changing global climate is a natural phenomenon which occurs in cycles, but anthropogenic activities have exacerbated this change.

Climate change is a term seldom fully explained to the general public, thus many confuse it with global warming. Fundamentally, climate change is the long-term change in global climate and weather patterns, which can be an increase or decrease in global temperature, whereas global warming is the increase in global temperatures due to increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Global warming this very minute is warming oceans, melting ice sheets, increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, as well as decreasing predictability of global weather patterns. As a result of this, Arctic sea ice is declining at a rate of 13.2 per cent per decade, increasing the global area of open water, which in turn absorbs an increasing amount of solar radiation, increasing global temperatures further, causing a domino effect known as a positive feedback mechanism.

On the tempestuous Northern coast of Siberia, Nenets resiliently work seven hours a day outside in freezing cold temperatures. Evidently their hardworking, hospitable and cheerful qualities help them survive the merciless environment. Many resources that are essential for the survival of Nenets, such as soil systems and river banks have been damaged due to warmer temperatures thawing permafrost. Permafrost is perennially frozen ground from a few feet to more than a mile below the earth surface in the Arctic circle, of which the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) predicts 20-35 per cent will melt by the mid- 21st century. Globally, permafrost holds 400 gigatons of methane, a greenhouse gas, and the release of which will exacerbate the speed and intensity of global warming.

Thawing permafrost has resulted in the forced migration of Northern Alaskan Inupiat community. For example, the village of Shaktoolik situated between the Tagoomenik River and Bering Sea could lose 45 acres by 2057. The community has built a seven-feet mound of driftwood and gravel in order to reduce theflooding, however the strip of land thevillage resides is narrow, therefore the likelihood of forced evacuation is very high. Shaktoolik is only one amongst the 31 Alaskan towns and cities at imminent risk of destruction. The cost of moving a village of 100 or more people can be up to US$200 million, therefore communities are reluctant to move unless the danger becomes imminent.

Similarly, the Nenet population on the Yamal Peninsula is becoming more vulnerable to storms, as the Kara Sea is eroding six metres per year due to a reduction in seasonal sea ice which acts as a buffer against harsh winter storms.

Siberian Nenets retreat with their reindeer to the North in summer to avoid mosquitos, whilst going to the South during the winter to enable their reindeer to give birth in the forests near the Ob River. Nenets rely on reindeers for their food, clothes and as active companions on their travels. Therefore, any problem for reindeers, creates an issue for Nenets. For example, increasing temperatures is makingthis migration difficult, as the muddyearth makes transportation of sleds problematic and depletes foraging grounds for reindeer.

In Northern Alaska, Inupiats eat caribou and fish, for clothes they use caribou fur and seal skins, whilst seal blubber is used to make seal oil, which is marketed as a fish oil supplement. The Inupiat rely on Bowhead whales as a major source of food for many families, however, the sea ice is no longer thick enough to support the weight of these whales, therefore the community has lost a great source of food and will have to look elsewhere for an animal they can catch with a similar amount of meat available.

In Alaska’s northernmost city, Barrow, there have been observations of alien species of fish from warmer waters, which could impact the food web, and eventually the food sources of Inupiat people. There have alsobeen frequent observations of fliesthat make caribou sick, new species of birds and spruce bark beetles, insects which are rare for the area and kill trees.

On the coasts of the Yamal Peninsula and Northern Alaska, the reduction in available sea ice and the unpredictability of breaking sea ice has meant polar bears have to explore further inland, and these bears can be violent.

Due to the nomadic and subsistence nature of the Nenets’ livelihood, they rely on predicting climate changes in order to affectively time migration and grazing times for their reindeer. However, global weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable and extreme in nature, reducing food security for all respective communities.

In the local language, Yamal Peninsula means the ‘Edge of the World’, a suitable phrase illustrating the isolated nature of the Peninsula itself, and other environments in the Arctic circle, including Northern Alaska. The existence of indigenous tribes in these environments should remind mankind of the extraordinary strength humans have, both physically and mentally, to survive in such conditions with very basic resources.

Although none of these communities have contributed to anthropogenic climate change, the Arctic is still warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, proving that climate change is an issue affecting all corners of the earth. The obstacles global warming is creating for these communities are fundamentally threatening their livelihoods and are becoming more complex and intense each year.


Image credit: Christopher Michel via Flickr

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