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Pair of Canadians detail effects of a warming Arctic on humans and nature

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 10, 2015

Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic

By James Raffan; HarperCollins Canada; 400 pages; 2014

Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge

By Edward Struzik; Island Press; 216 pages; 2015

It's no secret the Arctic is changing. Owing to warming temperatures, sea ice is receding, land is eroding, permafrost is melting, numerous plant and animal species are struggling for survival, and new flora and fauna are taking up residence.

Meanwhile human activity is expanding. Arctic nations are racing to obtain newly accessible resources; shipping through the Northwest Passage has become viable for a few months of the year; and governments and indigenous peoples are trying to resolve who owns what. Climate change is driving it all, and no place on Earth is seeing the impacts of global warming as dramatically as the far north.

Two prominent Canadian authors have published recent books about climate change in the Arctic, the first focused on the human side and the second on the natural world. Combined they offer substantial insight into where things stand and where they might go.

In "Circling the Midnight Sun," James Raffan went looking for the human angle. While polar bears are the symbol of climate change, he tells us, residents of the Arctic are largely ignored. "Occupants of the middle latitudes are worrying about climate change and looking north," he explains. "Northerners are worrying about their very survival and looking south. They don't need sympathy. They need to be heard."

Icelanders doing best

With this in mind, Raffan takes a circumpolar journey through the Arctic nations to understand the current state of affairs for indigenous people of the North. Starting in Iceland he works his way through Scandinavia and across northern Siberia followed by Alaska, Canada and finally Greenland.

Icelanders, Raffan reports, are generally faring well with their strong democratic tradition. The Sami people of Norway, Sweden and Finland meanwhile have some rights but still struggle against bureaucracies that are largely indifferent to their interests.

Things get uglier in Russia where a wide range of indigenous groups are scattered through Siberia. Decades of communist rule brought forced assimilation, but when the Soviet regime collapsed, residents were left to their own devices. Under Vladimir Putin they now find themselves overrun by rampaging development. Still, efforts at re-establishing traditional cultures are underway, while on the local level some good leadership has emerged.

In Alaska, Native corporations have brought a measure of wealth, but often at the expense of traditional customs, while in Canada the establishment of Nunavut has given Natives considerable autonomy. Only in Greenland though are indigenous Arctic residents in full control of their affairs.

Raffan finds the commonalities of most northern cultures are stratospheric rates of suicide, substance abuse, unemployment, domestic violence and school dropouts. Almost all regions are heavily dependent on subsidies from governments based far to the south. With a host of social problems, few indigenous residents that Raffan meets are concerned with the rapidly changing climate. They simply don't have time to think about it.

Unfortunately, they will have to think about it because drastic change is already underway. In "Future Arctic," veteran journalist Edward Struzik travels through various regions of the far north -- mostly in Canada -- meeting with scientists and reporting on what they are seeing.

Effects on caribou

The news isn't hopeful. In the Peace-Athabasca and Mackenzie deltas, water levels are quickly dropping due to shrinking glaciers and reduced snowfall upstream. Meanwhile, increasing industrial development is pulling additional water from the already-depleted source waters. This is impacting both marine and avian life.

The Arctic Ocean itself is rising as sea ice melts. The warming that has occurred in the ocean is shifting currents so much that Pacific salmon have been caught as far east as Greenland while arctic cod are losing range. The open water is causing more turbulent weather as well. This is resulting in a steep uptick in major storms in the Arctic latitudes, a region of the world where they were once exceedingly rare. The storms and rising sea levels are bringing much higher storm surges than the Arctic has historically seen, leading to costly damage from erosion and flooding in coastal communities. Meanwhile, drier conditions inland coupled with the northward expansion of vegetation mean wildfires are now an Arctic concern as well.

Wildlife is also being hit. Polar bears have been the subject of much media coverage and Struzik devotes a chapter to them. Less remarked upon, he tells us, are major declines seen in many of the polar caribou and reindeer herds. The reasons for this are complex and appear to have less to do with changing climate than with oil and gas development on calving grounds.

Birds are seeing mixed results, with some suffering from climate shifts and others capitalizing on it. New diseases are arriving both on land and in oceans, though, and this is cause for concern. Other animals are hybridizing with close species, which might be the direction evolution takes.

Struzik concludes with an examination of industrial development -- particularly oil drilling -- and notes that it is rushing well ahead of the international agreements and infrastructure needed to ensure it can be done safely.

Current residents may place climate concerns low on their priority lists, but the changes Struzik documents are going to force responses. Subsistence lifestyles will be altered, while economic opportunities won't always be there for indigenous peoples who have long been ignored by outside interests looking to exploit the Arctic for gain. They have a tightrope to walk, as do we all.

Struzik sums up the present situation well in his introduction: "The end of the Arctic that has existed for all modern time is on us today. What it will look like in the future depends in part on the policies we choose to help shape what we -- peoples from the south and peoples of the north -- would like it to be."

David A. James is a writer and critic who lives in Fairbanks.

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