Dramatic changes are occurring in the Arctic, and although hybrid bears may just be an oddity, they won’t be the last surprise.
Twice in the last three summers, massive chunks of ice have broken away from the Peterman Glacier on the northwest coast of Greenland. Icebergs several times larger than Manhattan Island have begun to float south in “Iceberg Alley” from Baffin Bay toward Labrador and the north coast of Newfoundland.
Satellites are tracking one that broke off two years ago that still covers 60-square kilometres and weighs about four billion tons. Iceberg spotting is great for tourists out for a day trip, but is less fun for fishing boats.
At the end of this summer there was less ice covering the Arctic Ocean than there has been since scientists began monitoring it with satellites in 1979. Both routes of the fabled Northwest Passage have been open and used by tour boats during four of the last six summers.
Thick pack ice has usually made both of them much too dangerous for everyday traffic.
Closer to home, ice shelves along the northern coast of Ellesmere Island, the northern most region of Canada, began disintegrating in the summer of 2002. They’ve been around for about 4,500 years and have been home to small organisms, some of which are now gone forever.
The total area covered by the shelves in 2011 was only half of what it was in 2005.
What is behind these spectacular events? According to the 2011 Arctic Report Card, “persistent warming [of the atmosphere] has caused dramatic changes in the Arctic Ocean and the ecosystem it supports.”
Changes include warmer air temperatures and the wind patterns that send cold Arctic air south and bring warmer, mid-latitude air north. This has already had major consequences for the winter weather in Europe and along the eastern seaboard of the United States.
There have also been dire consequences for Arctic animals and plants. Later freezing of sea ice in the fall means polar bears must wait longer to go out onto the ice to hunt for seals and might have to swim more often and farther, to find food.
Walruses usually rest on the sea ice over the shallow water where they forage for food. Now they are seen lying on beaches because there is no ice. Some animals are benefitting from the lack of ice.
Baleen whales are able to swim from one end of the Canadian Arctic to the other with no ice blocking their way. All of these changes in animal behaviour have had an impact on the hunting lifestyle of the Inuit people.
On land, the flowering plants, shrubs, grasses, lichens and mosses of the tundra are changing. In some places, the tundra is greening up earlier. In others, new species are appearing and shrubs are growing bigger. The permafrost of the Arctic is warming and melting.
Was it Christmas 2006 when there was open water on Lake Ramsey? Will it be 2036 or 2046 when it doesn’t freeze over at all? The Arctic is our refrigerator and we’re unplugging it. There are many more surprises to come.
Want to learn more? Join a conversation on changes in Canada’s Arctic with three scientists at the next Science Café at Science North on Oct. 17 from 7:30 to 9 p.m.
Kim Morris and Erica Sawula are graduate students in the Science North/Laurentian University Science Communication program.