Mon, Apr 23, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Vanishing ice convulses Alaskans’ way of life

The past winter was the warmest on record in the Arctic, putting a lifestyle that has endured for millennia at risk

By Oliver Milman  /  The Guardian, UTQIAGVIK, Alaska

Illustration: Yusha

A few days before Christmas last year, Harry Brower, mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, was at home when he heard a stunning noise — the sound of waves lapping at the shore.

The sound was as wrenching and misplaced as hearing hailstones thud into the Sahara.

Until fairly recently, the Arctic Ocean regularly froze hard against the far north coast of Alaska by October. Last year, it was not until the final few days of the year that the ice encased the waves.

“We’ve had a few warmer days in the past, but there was nothing like the past winter,” said Anne Jensen, an anthropologist who has worked in Utqiagvik, the US’ most northerly town, for the past three decades.

It was so warm that the snow melted on Jensen’s roof, causing it to leak.

“This year’s winter stuck out, insanely. It was crazy. Even the younger people noticed that this is something that hasn’t happened before,” she said.

A certain stoicism is required to live in the North Slope Borough, an area of sprawling tundra larger than 39 of the 50 US states that takes in Alaska’s northern coast.

The native Inupiat population have carved out a life here in the brutal cold of the Arctic Circle for at least 4,000 years, subsisting on bowhead whales, seals and caribou.

Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, is the largest of the region’s scattered settlements and remains a flinty and unforgiving frontier town, despite the arrival of the Internet, buzzy snowmobiles and exotic vegetables — a pineapple costs about US$9.50 at the main grocery store.

However, the past winter, following a string of warm years, points to a pace of change not before experienced by this community.

The winter was the warmest on record in the Arctic, with sea ice extent hitting record lows in January and February, ending up at the second-smallest seasonal peak in the 39-year satellite record last month. The smallest was last year. The Bering Sea, which separates Alaska and Russia, lost a third of its winter ice in just eight February days.

Otherworldly temperatures were felt across the region, with the weather station closest to the North Pole spending more than 60 hours above freezing in February, about 25°C warmer than normal, which is equivalent to Washington spending a February day at 35°C or Miami baking at 51°C. The Arctic was, in spells, warmer than much of Europe.

Utqiagvik, pronounced oot-ki-ahh-vik, or “place where snowy owls are hunted,” reached minus-1°C, about 22°C warmer than normal. In December last year, the temperature readings from the weather station at Utqiagvik were so freakish that it triggered an automatic shutdown of the system to protect the data from “artificial” figures. It temporarily wiped a year’s worth of numbers.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the incident an “ironic exclamation point” to the climate change gripping the Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of the global average.

This winter’s extreme warmth was, in part, driven by an unusual number of storms in the Atlantic that brought balmier air to the Arctic, but scientists say that last year and this year should not be dismissed as mere outliers.

“There’s no reason why this sort of warmth won’t continue. Within the lifetime of middle-aged adults, the Arctic has completely changed,” said Rick Thoman, a NOAA climate scientist based in Fairbanks, Alaska. “The magnitude of change is utterly unprecedented. For a lot of the people who live there, it’s completely shocking.”

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