Arctic Dreams is an investigation and celebration of many aspects of the Arctic, from its landscape and wildlife to the people who live there and the people who have explored it, always with an eye to the response of the human imagination to these encounters. Lopez examines the imaginative relationship with massive blocks of ice, with twenty-four-hour daylight or endless dark, with highly specialized Arctic species, with deep cultural differences. And while he and his fellow visitors are exploring the region, they are also impacting it.
Lopez mentions a number of issues that were already of concern in 1986, when the work was published: pollution, industrial development, irresponsible resource extraction, failure to protect wildlife habitat, dismissiveness toward natives and their cultures. These problems have not gone away. But they have been joined, and even overwhelmed, by newer concerns that were only beginning to be spoken of at that time.
In 2007 the Arctic summer sea ice shrank to what was by far the smallest extent ever observed by humans. It didn’t recover its previous extent; that year and the three that followed became the four record holders for least ice, and predictions for an ice-free summer in the Arctic moved up from a decade away to as little as two years. This is only the most dramatic aspect, perhaps, of the changing global climate; while there will be many severe impacts on all parts of the planet, the changes to the Arctic will be far greater, and are happening much faster, than in more temperate zones.
Ice loss alone is having far-reaching consequences for the region. Numerous wildlife species, including some of those Lopez focuses on, are already faced with critical challenges to their survival. A recent survey of High Arctic species found an average drop of 26% in population numbers between 1970 and 2004,1 and that was before the most recent dramatic loss of ice.
The plight of polar bears is well-known: Ice is their hunting ground, and as it vanishes, so does their access to food. Mothers are unable to feed their cubs and are forced to abandon them, or are too poorly nourished to produce them at all; bears swim long distances searching for ice and often drown.
Less attention has been given to the walrus, which is equally dependent on the near-shore ice, as a platform on which to leave their young while they dive for the shellfish on the Continental Shelf that make up much of their diet. With the summer pack ice no longer anywhere near the Continental Shelf, they must leave their young on shore, where they are preyed on in their mothers’ absence. In 2007 an unheard of 40,000 walruses had hauled out on Russia’s Arctic coast, and many abandoned calves were seen swimming far from shore, where there was little hope they would survive.
The food supply for marine species is suffering major upheavals, as plankton and krill, the tiny plant and animal species at the base of the marine food chain, bloom as much as 50 days earlier due to the absence of ice covering the water. But the migratory fish, seals, and whales that feed on them do not arrive until later, when this feast is no longer available.
The tundra and its species are also seeing tremendous changes. The treeline is heading northwards, and many scientists believe that by 2100 it will be some 300 miles farther north on average, resulting in the loss of more than half of the present tundra.2 It’s also moving up mountainsides, leaving alpine species with nowhere to go. Much if not most of the Arctic permafrost may melt in this century, releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases and leaving wet ground where once it was dry, altering the vegetation and disrupting migration corridors – Lopez’s “third great migratory spectacle,” where caribou stretch “from horizon to horizon.” Shrubs, ferns, and flowering plants are replacing the lichens, mosses, grasses, and sedges that caribou and other species rely on, and already several caribou populations have declined dramatically. And the warming temperatures, reduced precipitation, and appearance of shrubby vegetation have already increased the incidence of fire, releasing yet more carbon.
More southerly species are moving north with the vegetation and the climate, creating new competition for their more northerly relations. Red fox are suddenly threatening the smaller Arctic fox, and the grizzly is moving in on the polar bear.
The advent of ice-free shipping lanes will also bring more industrial development to the Arctic. Oil and gas development is likely to proliferate, despite the fact that oil spills are especially devastating in Arctic seas. The broken ice that chokes the sea endangers workers and complicates the cleanup; spilled oil in this environment is not dispersed efficiently because wave action is inhibited by the ice; low temperatures slow its evaporation and low light hinders its decomposition by UV radiation. Spills that affect tundra destroy the lichens and mosses that are so important to the food supply. Arctic ecosystems are exceptionally fragile and slow to recover from damage, whether from oil spills, dumping, or disturbance from heavy machinery.
Pollutants like PCBs and mercury also break down more slowly in the Arctic, concentrating in the higher order animals and in humans (one-sixth of Greenlanders already have dangerous levels of mercury in their blood), and impairing reproduction in species like polar bears, whose numbers are already reduced. And new shipping lanes and industrial facilities will fragment habitat and further disrupt migration routes for species such as the bowhead whale. These are only a few of the looming threats to this vulnerable environment.
Unlike Vegas, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The decrease in snow and ice means less of the sun’s energy will be reflected and more will be absorbed, contributing to the warming of the planet. Changes to Arctic Ocean circulation resulting from ice loss will alter the circulation patterns of all the world’s oceans, further affecting climate. Methane released from thawing permafrost will greatly increase the carbon in the atmosphere, ratcheting up all of these processes.
Though governments, businesses, and citizens have been slow to recognize the threats and respond meaningfully, they are beginning to perceive the imminence of trouble. A number of initiatives were put in place in the mid-1990s to promote international cooperation in the management of Arctic resources, including the United Nations Fish Agreement and The Arctic Council, the latter of which guaranteed the participation of indigenous peoples in the management of their lands. One of their current projects is a Pan-Arctic Monitoring Plan for Polar Bears.3
Despite such efforts, a recent report4 estimates that fish catches in the Arctic between 1950 and 2006 were 75 times higher than those reported to the UN. As more fish stocks move toward the Arctic in response to climate change and the region becomes more accessible to trawlers, and nations differ in their goals and approaches to numerous other issues, organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund urge nations to negotiate a binding international treaty to protect the Arctic. In the meantime the U.S. has placed a ban on commercial fishing in its Arctic waters until the effects are better understood.
Other initiatives are helping gather a better picture of what’s happening in the Arctic, such as the Arctic Report Card, a project of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is updated annually with a report distributed in October (http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/reportcard/). With change occurring so rapidly, “The Arctic we see today is very different from the Arctic we saw even five years ago,” says Jackie Richter-Menge, one of the 2009 report’s chief authors.5 An international group of scientists working on the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, a massive project to be completed in 2013, released an interim report in 2010 that follows trends on several fronts (http://www.arcticbiodiversity.is/index.php/en/home). These projects and others will enable policymakers to begin to address the vast challenges of the Arctic.
Ultimately the Arctic will not return to what it was when Arctic Dreams was published, nor stay as it is today. The manifold changes already underway will continue and progress. But with a great deal of well-informed management, and a stepped up sense of urgency, it may be possible to retain much of the extraordinary landscape and biodiversity of this region.
1 McCrae L, Zöckler C, Gill M, Loh J, Latham J, Harrison N, Martin J, & Collen B. 2010. Arctic Species Trend Index 2010: Tracking Trends in Arctic Wildlife. CAFF CBMP Report No. 20, CAFF International Secretariat, Akureyri, Iceland.
2 International Polar Year – Oslo Science Conference. “Rapid changes for Arctic flora and fauna.” Science Daily 14 June 2010. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100609094134.htm.
3 Vongraven, D and Peacock, E. Development of a pan-Arctic monitoring plan for polar bears: background paper. Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Programme, CAFF Monitoring Series Report No.1, January 2011, CAFF International Secretariat, Akureyri, Iceland.
4 Zeller D, Booth S, Pakhomov E, Swartz W, & Pauly D. “Arctic fisheries catches in Russia, USA, and Canada: baselines for neglected ecosystems.” Polar Biology: Online First (29 Jan 2011).
5 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Changing Arctic affecting air, ocean, and everything in between.” 22 Oct 2009. http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2009/20091022_arcticreportcard.html .