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 then.
In 2007 the Arctic summer sea ice shrank to what was, at that time, by far the smallest extent ever observed by humans. It didn’t recover in the following years. By 2016 the summer sea ice extent had not only decreased by some 50% since 1980, the volume – since it is also thinning – was estimated to have lost 75-80%1. With it went the ability of the Earth to reflect much of the sun’s incoming energy, leaving in its place the heat-absorbent dark surface of the open water. The spectre of an ice-free summer Arctic Ocean, with all its global ramifications, became a near-term inevitability.
This is only the most dramatic aspect, perhaps, of the changing global climate. While there are increasingly severe impacts on all parts of the planet, the changes to the Arctic have been far greater, and are happening much faster, than in more temperate zones.
Ice loss alone is having far-reaching consequences for the region. The Arctic is home to over 21,000 wildlife species, and many of them, 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 20042, 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, especially the cubs.
Less attention has been given to the walrus, which are 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. They are also trampled in walrus stampedes, which occur when hungry polar bears come along looking for something to replace the inaccessible seals. In 2007 an unheard of 40,000 walrus 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. This situation has become recurrent, with similar incidents in Alaska in 2011 and 2014.
The food supply for marine species too 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 the 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.3 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, and while it unloads its carbon into the atmosphere, it will also be leaving leaving wet ground where once it was dry, altering the vegetation and disrupting migration corridors. Shrubs, ferns, and flowering plants are replacing the lichens, mosses, grasses, and sedges that caribou and other species rely on, and already several caribou and muskox populations have declined dramatically.
More southerly species too 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. Species like the rock ptarmigan and the Arctic hare, which change their coloring from brown or gray in the summer to snow white in winter, are now showing up bright white against the brown and snowless winter tundra. And the warming temperatures, reduced precipitation, and appearance of shrubby vegetation have already increased the incidence of fire where it was previously unknown, releasing yet more carbon.
The advent of ice-free shipping lanes will also bring more industrial development to the Arctic. The potential for oil and gas development has generated considerable interest, despite the fact that oil spills are especially devastating in Arctic seas. Besides being exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to clean up, spills are ruinous to marine species. Those that affect tundra destroy the lichens and mosses that are so important to the food supply of terrestrial species. Arctic ecosystems are exceptionally fragile and slow to recover from damage, whether from oil spills, dumping, or disturbance from heavy machinery. And new shipping lanes and industrial facilities will fragment habitat and further disrupt migration routes for endangered species such as the bowhead whale.
As worrisome as these disruptions to the ecosystem are, the even greater issue may be the potential release of massive amounts of methane from the Arctic sea floor. Methane is a greenhouse gas that in the near term is far more potent than CO2. Only recently has it become evident that these deposits may be beginning to become destabilized, thanks to ice loss, deep ocean warming, sea level rise, and changes to the Gulf Stream, all of which alter the temperature and pressure regimes that have prevented disturbance until now. The sediments on the Continental Shelf to the north of Siberia, for instance, are believed to contain some 200 times the amount of methane currently present in the atmosphere.4 The amount that escapes annually, while double what it was thought to be in 2010,5 is not believed to be making a critical difference to total atmospheric methane at this time; but a variety of near-term scenarios, such as increasingly stormy Arctic seas – a likely result of climate change – could alter that abruptly and dramatically.
Though governments, businesses, and citizens have been slow to recognize the threats, 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 Arctic Council, which guaranteed the participation of indigenous peoples throughout the Far North in the management of their lands. The Arctic Council recently released the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment6, a massive project detailing the condition of a broad array of Arctic wildlife species and the effects on them of climate change and other human impacts. It is intended to provide a guide to policymakers and others to save what can still be saved and avoid many of the worst impacts on biodiversity. According to Hans Meltofte, chief scientist for the ABA, “If we do not act now we may lose the incredible assets and fascination that Arctic biodiversity offers us all."7
Other initiatives are also 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 October8. Yet despite efforts to responsibly manage the Arctic fisheries, a recent report9 estimates that 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.
In the meantime, December 2016 saw a joint resolution from the U.S. and Canadian leaders to put the vast majority of the North American portion of the Arctic off limits to offshore oil and gas drilling – indefinitely for the U.S., and in Canada’s case, with the option of reviewing the decision every five years. President Obama cited both the need to protect “a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on Earth”10 and the fragility of the region and vulnerability to extreme damage in the case of an oil spill. Time will tell whether this plan will survive the very different priorities of the successor Trump administration.
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 Wadhams, Peter. “The Global Impacts of Rapidly Disappearing Arctic Sea Ice.” Yale Environment 360, 26 Sep 2016. http://e360.yale.edu/features/as_arctic_ocean_ice_disappears_global_climate_impacts_intensify_wadhams
2 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.
3 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
4 Gustafsson, Orjan. “Methane bubbling from thawed subsea permafrost in Arctic Siberia.” Stockholm University website, 2 Dec 2013. http://www.su.se/english/about/news-and-events/press/press-releases/methane-bubbling-from-thawed-subsea-permafrost-in-arctic-siberia-1.157230
6 Arctic Biodiversity Assessment. Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), Arctic Council. 2013. http://www.arcticbiodiversity.is/
7 “The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment released at Arctic Council Ministerial.” 15 May 2013. http://www.arcticbiodiversity.is/index.php/press
8 Arctic Report Card. Arctic Program, NOAA. http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card
9 Zeller D, Booth S, Pakhomov E, Swartz W, & Pauly D. “Arctic fisheries catches in Russia, USA, and Canada: baselines for neglected ecosystems.” Polar Biology (2011) 34: 955. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00300-010-0952-3
10 “Statement by the President on Actions in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. 20 Dec 2016. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/12/20/statement-president-actions-arctic-and-atlantic-oceans