Nothing on earth compares to the icy sweeps of the planet’s polar extremes. It’s why, perhaps, explorers and scientists who have been there often seek more distant analogies, describing the poles’ austere swaths of frozen terrain in lunar terms, unworldly with their slimmed-down palettes of white, black, and icy blues. Only the best-adapted species are allowed to live in the Arctic and Antarctic. The harsh winters, violent winds and dark winters make them deadly for humans. But these inhospitable, remote places are more important than any other place closer to us. Our climate and weather patterns are controlled by the poles. They also regulate maritime food supplies. And they are warming faster than anywhere else on earth, with untold consequences for those who live at the planet’s more accommodating latitudes.
I saw this firsthand on Feb. 6, 2020, when Antarctica logged its hottest temperature on record—18.3°C (64.9°F)—at Argentina’s Esperanza weather station. I was on nearby Anvers Island, accompanying a team of ornithologists from New York’s Stony Brook University conducting a census of the region’s chinstrap penguin population. Although the warm weather was pleasant for expedition members, they had to strip down to their T-shirts in order to enjoy the warmth, it was not a good sign for the species they were documenting.
Photograph by Acacia Johnson
Penguins aren’t just adorable icons of Antarctica. They’re a sentinel species—an animal whose behaviors can tell scientists if something is going wrong in a particular environment. They eat krill and other tiny crustaceans, which are the basis of the marine food chains. Nearly all animals in the ocean consume krill and other crustaceans that eat krill. This includes the fish that end up on our dinner plates. Krill consume the algae and phytoplankton found beneath the ocean ice. The sea ice has been declining as global temperatures increase due to rising carbon emissions. It would be impossible to survey the health of the world’s krill populations, but if chinstraps aren’t doing well, it’s likely that krill, and everything that eats krill, aren’t doing well either. Our carbon canaries have not been doing well. Stony Brook scientists found that most chinstrap colonies have declined in the last 50 years. Some by 50%, while others were down by as much as 77%.
Continue reading: Antarctica’s Chinstrap Penguins Are Under Threat from Climate Change
We can wring our hands over the looming loss of a charismatic species, but “Save the Penguins: Use Solar” doesn’t go far enough as a slogan. It doesn’t fully encompass what the loss of this penguin species portends for the future of humanity on this planet. Climate change moves so slowly as to feel almost imperceptible to us—what difference, after all, does a fraction of a single degree make on our day-to-day lives?—but lay that trajectory over something more fragile and less resilient like the chinstraps, and it quickly becomes clear the domino effect of climate change is already starting to reach uncomfortably close to home.
Or it ought to. There is an incomprehensible disconnect between what climate science says must be done—an immediate shift in how we produce energy, travel, and eat—and what we, and our leaders, are willing to do. What point is the urgent threat of ecological catastrophe becoming a distant concern? If the sea ice has completely disappeared? The penguins have arrived?
Then it’ll be too late.
Baker at Orne Harbour, Antarctica on February 7, 2020
The Arctic is close to reaching this tipping point. Nearly five months after Antarctica’s high temperature record, the Siberian city of Verkhoyansk reached a searing historical high of 38°C (100.4°F) on June 20, 2020, heralding a summer of extreme heat and wildfires in a region better known for ice storms. The Arctic and Antarctic both saw dramatic declines in their sea ice, making 2020 the most hot year ever. When there isn’t enough ice to reflect the sun’s rays back into space, that heat is absorbed by the dark ocean, accelerating rising water temperatures and ice melt, altering ocean currents, weakening the jet stream, and changing wind patterns. This ripples through the ecosystem and causes more heat, drought, floods, storms and other effects. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Admiral Karl L. Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, told me on a September 2021 visit to the Canadian Arctic outpost of Resolute. Hurricane Ida, which had just struck the Caribbean and some parts of the U.S. caused more than 75 billion dollars in damages and claimed the lives of 107 victims from Venezuela and Connecticut. While Resolute seemed worlds away from the destruction left in Ida’s wake, the two were opposite sides of the same coin, Schultz said. Ida was a tropical storm that exploded into a hurricane with little warning—the kind of rapid intensification caused by a warming Arctic, and a harbinger of more to come.
Continue reading:The U.S. Coast Guard is Worried about the Country’s Future in a Warming Arctic
Everyone on Earth is affected by what happens at the top. However, it is the most significant for those who reside there. A lack of sea ice exposes vulnerable shorelines to rapid erosion, forcing indigenous villages that have lived in harmony with the Arctic’s extremes for centuries to relocate inland. Hunting for seal, walrus, and polar bear—a mainstay of native Arctic traditions and subsistence survival—is not possible without winter’s thick slabs of ice. Many communities at the edges are affected by the loss or dislocation of sea ice. It is an indicator of how global warming could affect the rest of the planet.
A few weeks after leaving Resolute, I traveled to the village of Unalakleet on Alaska’s northwest coast to meet Laureli Ivanoff, an Inupiaq climate activist. Ivanoff’s home freezer was full of the wealth of Arctic Alaska’s short summer season: berries and tundra greens, wild rhubarb, salmon caviar, caribou fat, and bear meat. The one thing she doesn’t have is the food that sustained her culture for generations: ugruk,Bearded seal. All parts of a seal are used when it is killed, such as the fat and skin. This anchors hunters in a communal ritual of caring for the environment and sharing knowledge. When Ivanoff was a child, ice formed in the early fall and stayed deep into spring—these days she wonders if she will see ice at all in coming years.
“Colonization and assimilation have taken away so much,” Ivanoff told me—including language, dancing, and ceremonies that bound the community together. The only thing that remains is the indigenous food traditions. “And now climate change is taking even that.” She watched her 3-year-old son play on the floor as he took a toy boat on an imaginary Ugruk hunt. “How much of his culture will he get to keep?”
Human nature has a basic desire to give something back to others that embodies our core values. My daughter will inherit a planet that has been ravaged by heat waves and plagued with plastic waves. What do these events say about the values I cultivated during my generation’s relentless pursuit of constant growth? It is obvious that to stop climate destruction, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half by 2030 as compared to 2010. This will require significant sacrifices in the near term for many of those who live in developed countries. Prioritizing climate is a better way to secure the future than just continuing to build wealth.
Continue reading: Polar Paradox: While the melting Arctic could destroy Indigenous Ways of Living, it may also make some Alaskans rich
Both poles left me feeling frustrated at the global inability to respond to certain doom and fear. Not only is it a warning, but the Arctic warming has also been causing havoc. The Arctic has the potential of taking us along in its destruction. Both poles are protected by permafrost which is the frozen layer that covers them. This carbon bomb has yet to be detonated. The soil’s thaw releases greenhouse gases that further warm the area and create a constant feedback loop. Scientists don’t yet know if Arctic emissions are on par with a small developing nation, or, more likely, another China. (The South Pole’s permafrost is trapped under the Antarctic ice sheet. It is possible for the Antarctic ice sheet to melt, but we should be concerned about a rise in sea level of up to 200 feet.
We tend to think of the earth’s polar regions as victims of our own carbon profligacy. They will be perpetrators if they are pushed past that tipping point. The polar regions of the world protect our lives as well as those around us. It’s worth sacrificing a little bit more to ensure we leave a better world behind.
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