As the Arctic becomes a central focus of conversations about climate change, how can understanding its complicated history help scientists, policy makers and the people of the Arctic make the best decisions for its future? A Q&A with Professor Andrew Stuhl.
In this edition of Bucknell Answers, Stuhl explains how understanding the Arctic's complicated history gives critical context to scientists, policy makers and others involved in its future.
Question: We're hearing more and more about the Arctic region in the news today. Why?
Answer: The Arctic has become a symbol of the issues of global warming and climate change in the U.S. and around the world. Ecologically we know that due to the way air and ocean patterns circulate, the Arctic collects the world's greenhouse gas emissions. That means that the Arctic is actually warming faster than most places on the planet. During the last 20 years, the region of the Arctic I study has warmed between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius (5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit). The average global increase in temperatures over this time is around 1 F.
Question: What does the Arctic region tell us about global warming?
Answer: What they say in the news is that the Arctic is "the canary in a coal mine" of global warming. What that means on the ground is retreating sea ice. The Arctic is a basin of water that is surrounded by land masses — Alaska, parts of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia all surround the Arctic Ocean. That ocean is frozen for most of the year and some parts regularly melt during the summer. But, because of warming, we're witnessing more summer reduction than has ever been recorded.
One of the reasons that the Arctic is such a potent symbol is because we can't really see carbon dioxide in the air, and our bodies can barely detect temperature increases over 30 year periods. But we can see ice melting. Between 1979 and today, there's been a 40 percent reduction in the sea ice pack. If you take all of that ice and combine it, it's the size of all of the states east of the Mississippi River. That's the amount of ice that's been lost.
Question: What impact do these changes have on the people who live there and the animals that depend on the ice pack for sustenance?
Answer: The effects are complicated and not necessarily linear or even negative. The icon of the region is the polar bear. For most of its waking hours it feeds by using ice packs as platforms to reach into the water and get seals, so as the ice retreats it affects where they go and how they catch seals.
There has also been a shift in plant vegetation regimes. Warmer springs mean that ice and snow melt earlier, and warmer summers mean that the tundra dries out earlier, which has resulted in an increase in the rare event of tundra fires in the North American Arctic. If vegetation burns, that impacts animals like caribou who eat those plants, which in turn affects human communities who rely on migrating caribou for a portion of their diets and also for a cultural rite of passage.
There are also surprising responses from people outside the Arctic. As the ice pack becomes smaller, there is now an open lane between the coast and the ice pack, for longer periods of time. Some companies and countries around that basin are eyeing those as shipping lanes for global commerce and there are many perspectives on whether this is positive or negative.
Question: What effect do you think new shipping routes through the Arctic may have on the environment?
Answer: Increased shipping makes people worry about the possibility of things like a major oil spill and marine pollution. These are threats to the Arctic region and the global environment, but it's important to recognize them as downstream effects. Global consumption drives those ships to move around the world in any case. I resist the idea that the Arctic should be the only region where we concentrate our environmental concern. The conversation about what's best for the region needs to happen with people who live in the Arctic and nation-states that have territory there. Meanwhile, those nations that contribute most to Arctic warming can start to take environmental action by curbing their emissions.
Question: How can understanding Arctic history inform the future?
Answer: In the American tradition of wilderness appreciation and environmental thought, there's a pattern of people trying to section off nature to protect it as a wild space, tourist attraction or sacred space. I think we often do that with the Arctic. We think of it as untouched — having no history and few connections with the outside world — but the Arctic has always been tied into global politics and ecology. Scientists and environmentalists in the United States need to consider that while the Arctic is an important source for environmental research, if we section it off, we undercut the value of interacting with the people who live there.
History is a reservoir of experiences. It doesn't tell us what to do exactly, but it does remind us what mistakes were made, what successes were achieved and what elements were central to both of those outcomes. Over the last 150 years, people from the outside have been deciding what's best for the Arctic. If we agree today that's socially unjust, then history will guide us toward the moral principle of having indigenous people of the Arctic at the table. Inuit representatives, elected officials, scientists, industry representatives, environmentalists and others will determine what's best through democratic decision-making, which is arduous, but more just than a colonial approach. This has got to be how we address the global issue of climate change.
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