At sea, the summer sea ice has melted and thinned, leaving open waters. Last year saw the biggest loss of summer sea ice since satellite tracking began in the 1970s. At the height of summer, less than a quarter of the Arctic was under ice.
Scientists have been revising their estimates of when the Arctic will be ice-free. Only a few years ago, most scientists put that date off until mid-century or beyond. They are now converging around a date of 2030 for an ice-free Arctic in the summer.
The Arctic will still freeze over every winter, but the remaining ice will be thinner, 2m or less, compared with older layers up to 4m deep. After years of record melts, barely 5 percent of the ice in the Arctic has lasted for four or more summers, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. The remaining ice, which is thinner, is more susceptible to melting.
The retreat has left large areas of coastline without ice barriers to blunt the impact of storm surges and larger areas of open water produce bigger waves. Those changes have invaded indigenous Alaskan villages as well. Floodwaters engulf village boardwalks during spring break-up. Extreme storms make it unsafe to go out hunting or trapping. Nobody feels safe or secure.
Then there is the erosion that has hit so many indigenous Alaskan villages. Coastal erosion rates in the Arctic are among the world’s highest because of increased wave action from the Bering Sea. In some areas, erosion rates have doubled since the early 2000s, according to a report by the department of interior.
“The truth is that almost all of our communities will at some point or at some period of time experience some problems associated with climate change,” Alaska Native Science Commission Director Patricia Cochran said.
“We are the first populations that are really seeing the immense changes that are occurring. It certainly takes a toll ... It’s in your face every day and it’s not something you can run away from,” she said.
Since the time Alaska’s governor decided the state no longer needed to plan for climate change, Bernice and Tom John have lived through two spring floods and two ferocious autumn storm seasons.
In that time, Newtok has lost sewage lagoons and its water supply, which was contaminated by salt water and sewage. A few families have scrapped their traditional ice cellars, buried in the permafrost, after melting made them unreliable as food stores.
The Johns watched the Ninglick River rip the land out from under them. The couple hope Newtok’s move to the new village site at Mertarvik will take place before it is too late. Whatever lies in store for the village, it will not be long now, Bernice figures.
“We’ve got about two years, that’s what I think,” she said.
The villages on the front line
Almost all of Alaska’s indigenous villages are learning to live with the dramatic changes in the far north: the thinning sea ice and the melting of the frozen sub-soil known as permafrost. However, for some villages the consequences of climate change are a direct threat to their existence.