As a young girl, Elisapee Sheutiapik never wore short-sleeved shirts, but the weather in the summertime in recent years can reach 25°C in her hometown of Iqaluit, close to the Arctic Circle in northern Canada.
Climate change has also impacted the lives of winter hunters from the indigenous Inuit people in Canada.
“Our older hunters, who go out to the land regularly, are sometimes stuck now, and we are conducting more search and rescue missions,” said Sheutiapik, the mayor of Iqaluit.
Once, a hunter would cross a frozen river knowing months could pass before it would melt. With rapidly changing weather patterns, hunters find their traditional tools to gauge the depth of snow and ice no longer accurate.
“The changes are happening more quickly and we are not prepared,” said Grete Hovelsrud, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Climate Change and Environmental Research in Oslo.
As a social anthropologist, Hovelsrud said she views climate change through the people affected and the communities living near the poles are at the front lines of the new weather patterns.
“The Arctic communities are the canary in the mine,” she said in an interview. “The rate of change there is faster and the magnitude of it is greater.”
Research conducted by scientists as part of the International Polar Year, which was wrapped up at the UN in Geneva on Wednesday, has shown that snow and ice are declining at both the North and South Poles, contributing to rising sea levels and changes in wildlife, vegetation and weather patterns.
The two years of research, by the International Council for Science and the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, at a cost of US$1.2 billion, “took place during a time when our planet was changing faster than ever in recorded human history, especially in the polar regions,” the groups said.
“The new evidence resulting from polar research will strengthen the scientific basis on which we build future actions,” Michel Jarraud, the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization, said.
Warming in Greenland and the Antarctic is much more widespread than previously thought, the research indicated, in one alarming study.
“Women picking berries say they are noticing new vegetation,” said Sheutiapik, adding that bird watchers near the Arctic Circle are also seeing some species migrating farther north than ever before. Fish off Norway’s coast are acting in a similar fashion.
In terms of direct health consequences, scientists say the warming is contributing to an increase in tuberculosis cases and infestations of insects, like tics, into areas that never experienced the creatures before.
The researchers for the International Polar Year have involved indigenous communities from Canada to Russia, not only because they are being heavily affected but also because they have the memories and knowledge scientists need for their studies.
“Arctic residents are involved in monitoring sea life, land life, vegetation,” said David Carlson, the director of International Polar Year, noting that they have a “legacy of understanding” that his researchers required.
The networks set up during the field activities have also allowed the scientists to channel information back to the communities so they can better adapt.
For the Inuit people in Northeast Canada, the rising sea levels are apparent and worrying. Traditionally, residents live near the water but now “the shoreline is eroding,” said Sheutiapik.
A breakwater built just a decade back is no longer sufficient, as water levels near Iqaluit have risen by close to a meter, which scientists say is a result of the melting and the rising temperatures, causing the ocean waters to expand.
The impact of the warming is also affecting island peoples, who see their land disappearing under the oceans.
Furthermore, the never-before-seen pace of change is already intensifying weather patterns around the world, making events that occurred only once in several years annual incidents and increasing the fury of both storms and droughts.
With the global consequences come global solutions, say International Polar Year scientists. While some areas may become drier and less suitable for agriculture, other areas, such as Finland, may be able to grow fruits and vegetables that would not have survived just several years ago in the frigid regions.
Adaptation, warned Hovelsrud, would still not remove the need to take immediate steps to stop the heating of the planet.
“The message is adaptation is inevitable, mitigation is absolutely necessary,” she said.
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