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Longer ice-free seasons leave Arctic Alaskans to weather climate change in real time

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
More open water near the coast in fall is warming the town's climate and increasing its vulnerability to storm surge flooding. Steven Kazlowsk photo (Courtesy NOAA)

As the autumn bowhead whale hunt gets underway off of Alaska’s northernmost coastlines, the effects of diminishing Arctic sea ice are being felt by local whalers and hunters whose communities rely on the seasonal harvests.

Ice that not long ago ran thick close to the shores of whaling communities up until June, and returned in mid-September, now melts sooner and stays farther from shore for a longer period of time. The diminishing ice is causing changes to weather patterns that have become noticeable for locals over the last dozen years. It’s also the cause of unsafe ice conditions and a decline in marine mammals, said Margaret Opie, a whaler and hunter.

“We’re used to dry air here,” Opie said. “The open water means more rain and heavier snowfalls and lots of fog. “Also the open ice is displacing all the animals like seal and walrus and polar bear ... hopefully they’ll adapt to coming onto the shoreline.”

In a recent article for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service Alaska Region, wrote about the undeniable changes in Barrow in the past 10 years.

“The dramatic decline of summer and autumn sea ice during the past decade is having profound and sustained impacts on northern weather and climate,” Thoman wrote.

Thoman’s article, “In Barrow, Alaska, climate change in action,” reports that weather and climate findings have been recorded since 1920. “These observations support what every resident in America’s northernmost town can see: climate change is happening — right now — in obvious and dramatic fashion,” Thoman said.

For Opie, the changes are obvious. The biggest problem, she said, is the unsafe conditions during the annual spring whale hunt. “The ocean is our garden and we depend on marine mammals for our culture,” Opie said. “The ice conditions are unsafe; that affected us the most this season.”

Hunters are heading out now for the fall hunt, “but there’s no ice in sight.”

More open water, more coastal erosion

Sea ice near Barrow has “rarely been a solid, unbroken sheet stretching to the limitless horizon,” Thoman reported. Open stretches of water, called leads, are common among the ice and important for sea-dwelling mammals as they offer a break in the ice for surfacing to breathe or eat. Those spots also offer a place for Inupiat hunters to go to harvest the mammals during the hunts.

Before 2000, sea ice would begin to move in closer to the Barrow shore sometime in September, said Thoman. “However, the main ice pack was rarely more than 150 miles off shore at the end of summer, and by sometime in October, cooling temperatures and autumn storms would typically return the sea ice to Barrow,” he wrote.

Opie added that more fall storms as a result of open water are causing noticeable coastline erosion.

In October 2012, a storm 500 miles northwest of Barrow produced coastal flooding in low-lying parts of Barrow, according to Thoman’s report.

This flooding was not the result of unusually powerful winds at Barrow, he wrote, noting the average wind speed during the storm was just 16.3 mph, with peak gusts to 30 mph. Rather, the mild but steady breeze over ice-free waters raised the sea level by several feet.

“Thirty years ago, the exact same meteorological conditions would have had much less open water to work on, and similar flooding would not likely have occurred,” he said. As more ice melts in the summer and takes longer to return in the fall, the autumn temperatures have “risen dramatically,” Thoman said.

Hotter weather brings different birds, sea life

The temperature increase, along with the rise in precipitation have increased vegetation and berries, Opie said, adding that more berries isn’t a bad thing. But she has also noticed different birds and sea life.

“This rise in temperatures is directly related to the lack of sea ice near the shore,” Thoman reported. “With open water off-shore, the air temperature in Barrow can not fall much lower than the ocean surface temperature as long as winds are blowing from water to land. When sea ice is present, air blowing across the ice toward land can be much colder.”

Thoman makes it clear that temperatures and ice levels have definitely fluctuated over the past decades, but the trend in the last 10 years points to an overall shift.

“Since 2002, however, the ice pack has retreated, and now, not only are Octobers regularly near the warmest of record, but every October is exceptionally warm,” he wrote. “Prior to 2002, huge year-to-year swings in October temperature were typical.”

He also adds that a lack of sea ice does not necessarily guarantee warm October temperatures.

“There is nothing abstract or hypothetical about climate change at Barrow,” Thoman wrote. “Like almost every community across the Arctic, Barrow will somehow have to adapt to environmental changes in ways that may prove to be economically and culturally costly.

This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is republished with permission.