Arctic way of life is melting


Eskimos: The tundra and ice they call home are thawing, and that has begun to affect everything from their language to their survival.

April 27, 2002|By Usha Lee McFarling | Usha Lee McFarling,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

YANRAKYNNOT, Russia - The native elders have no explanation. Scientists are perplexed as well. The icy realm of the Eskimo - the tundra and ice of Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland - has started to thaw.

Strange portents are everywhere.

Thunder and lightning, once rare, have become commonplace. An eerie warm wind blows in from the south. Hunters who prided themselves on their ability to read the sky say they no longer can predict the sudden blizzards. "The Earth," one hunter concludes, "is turning faster."

In recent years, seabirds have washed up dead by the thousands and deformed seal pups have become a common sight. Whales appear sick and undernourished. The walrus, a mainstay of the local diet, is becoming scarce, as are tundra rabbits.

The elders, who keep thousands of years of history and legend without writing it down, have long told children this story: If the ice that freezes thick over the sea each winter breaks up before summer, the entire village could perish.

The children always laugh. Here in the Russian Arctic, the ground is frozen nearly year-round. The ice blanketing the winter seas around the Bering Strait is thick enough to support men dragging sleds loaded with whale carcasses.

Even Zoya Telpina, the schoolteacher in this outpost of 350 Chukchi reindeer herders and marine mammal hunters, says that a winter sea without ice seemed like "a fairy tale."

But last winter, when Telpina looked from her kitchen window toward the Bering Sea, she saw something she had never seen in her 38 years: the dark swell of the open ocean. Water where ice had always been.

Telpina's husband, Mikhail, a 38-year-old dog-sled musher, has seen mushrooms on the tundra shrivel and whole herds of reindeer starve. He has cut open the bellies of salmon to find strange insects inside. He has seen willows rise where he has never seen trees before.

The changes are so widespread that they have spawned changes in the Eskimo languages, which so precisely describe ice and snow. In Chukotka, where the natives speak Siberian Yupik, they use new words such as misullijuq - rainy snow - and are less likely to use words such as umughagek- ice that is safe to walk on. In Nunavet, Canada, the Inuit people say the weather is uggianaqtuq - like a familiar friend acting strangely.

What the residents of the Arctic are reporting fits convincingly with powerful computer models, satellite images and recently declassified ice measurements taken by Russian submarines.

In the past century, parts of the Arctic have warmed by 10 degrees - 10 times the global average. Sea ice covers 15 percent less of the Arctic Ocean than it did 20 years ago, and that ice has thinned from an average of 10 feet to less than 6.

A group of scientists who spent a year aboard an icebreaker concluded that the year-round sea ice that sustains marine mammals and those who hunt them could vanish altogether in 50 years.

The U.S. Navy, planning for an ice-free Arctic, is exploring ways to defend the previously ice-clogged Northwest Passage from attack by sea.

Without the stabilizing effect of great land masses, the Earth's watery north is exquisitely sensitive to warming. A few degrees of warmth can mean the difference between ice and water, permafrost or mud, hunger or starvation for the inhabitants of these remote lands.

Yet, explaining the quick thaw and determining its cause - whether human or natural - has eluded the experts.

There are few long-term climate observations from the Arctic: Weather stations in the Far North are just 50 years old. And there is almost no data from places such as Russia's Chukotka Peninsula, only 55 miles from Alaska.

In their search for information, Western scientists are turning to sources they once disparaged. In a rare convergence of science and folklore, a group of scientists is mining the memories of native elders, counting animal pelts collected by hunters and documenting the collective knowledge of entire villages.

These threads, which stretch back generations, may be the only way to trace the outlines of the half-century of change that has resculpted the Arctic and to figure out its cause.

"We have all these people paying very close attention to the animals they hunt and the sea ice they travel on," said Henry Huntington, a scientific consultant in Alaska.

"It's often extremely accurate and far better than anything science has come up with."

The subsistence hunters of Chukotka live in small villages without pickup trucks or snowmobiles, without supply ships or supermarkets. They have 19th-century harpoons, small boats and limited fuel for their hunts.

These villagers, almost entirely dependent on the icy sea for their food, may be witnessing the demise of their ancient way of life.

Caleb Pungowiyi, an Eskimo who works with scientists to record the observations of his elders and peers, put it this way: "When this Earth starts to be destroyed, we feel it."

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