It felt like the top of the world in more ways than one. It was my last evening in Barrow, now Utqiagvik, Alaska, the northernmost community in the United States. I borrowed skis, a skijoring harness, and an eager young husky named Namik and set out onto the shore ice that extended for two miles into the Chukchi Sea.
It was such a night and such a light as cannot be imagined at lower latitudes. The unsetting late-April sun shimmered through floating ice crystals. I thought I glanced colors — blue, pink and gold — glowing teasingly in this translucent scrim, but when I stared I saw only soft light and shadow.
When the way is smooth, joring is a blast — the ski equivalent of cycling with one hand gripping a truck gate; the dog pulls, you pole and kick, and the two of you fly over the snow. Plus, I thought shamefully, Namik would likely smell a polar bear before I saw it and distract it while I got away.
Id hoped to get within sight of the ices edge, but the ridges pushed up by the shifting ice finally grew too steep to cross and too numerous to go around; I marveled at how the old explorers had labored, pushing heavy sleds over hundreds of miles of the stuff. And so I turned around.
The next day I flew back to Seattle via Prudhoe Bay and Fairbanks. Late that night I received an emailed link to a University of Alaska site that showed an animated sequence of aerial radar images of the Barrow Peninsula and surrounding waters. For six days the sea ice along the shore held steady while odd bergs and chunks darted about in the open water beyond. Then, on the seventh, a strong wind rose from the east. Shortly before 1 p.m., while I was airborne, the ice shelf I had skied on 16 hours earlier blew apart. Two big sections skittered around the open lead and out of the frame. Luckily, or wisely, the Inupiat hunters who had camped out on the ice for their annual bowhead whale hunt had noted the wind and gotten off. Perhaps they sensed the ices vulnerability.
The greening of the Arctic, and the concomitant warming of its permafrost, bode ill for people there and everywhere else.
A few years earlier, such an early breakup would have been unthinkable on this shoreline, where the ice regularly dispersed in June or July. But many bets are off as climate change hits high gear. Thirteen U.S. government agencies have just issued an alarming new report predicting that global warming, if allowed to continue unabated, will shrink the American economy by 10 percent by 2100, amid environmental impacts that are, if anything, even more dire. The White House tried to bury the report by releasing it on Friday during the holiday weekend, and President Donald Trump announced he didnt “believe it.” But its conclusions are inescapable. One need only travel to the Arctic, ground zero for climate change, to see them starting to play out.
The top of the world is now warming at twice the average global rate. Youve likely seen the graphs and stats: Last winter, maximum sea-ice cover narrowly missed being the smallest ever recorded — a dubious honor that goes to the winter of 2016-17. The two previous winters ice packs were the next smallest. Since 1979, peak sea-ice coverage has fallen from about 6.5 million to 5.5 million square miles.
At the dawn of the 20th century, it took the great polar explorer Roald Amundsen three years and three icebound winters to sail the fabled Northwest Passage at the top of the continent. Today ships steam right through, and forecasters predict that the entire Arctic Ocean may be ice-free in summer 2050. This is giddy news if youre a shipper looking for a cheaper route from the factories of China to the malls of Atlantic America and the hypermarkets of Europe. Not so if youre a narwhal or bowhead whale, two of the species that will likely suffer most from the snowpacks decline and disappearance — thanks to both the loss of a food web based in the algae that grow under the ice and the arrival of predatory killer whales, which the ice now excludes.
The changes that warming is bringing to the Arctic affect much more than a couple of exotic whale species; they are transforming the regions lands as well as waters. For creatures as various as majestic caribou, diminutive seabirds and humans here and around the world, the results are dire. For these species, freezing means life, and new thaw — along with the billions of tons of carbon that will be released when it comes — threatens disaster.
Since 1979, peak sea-ice coverage has fallen from about 6.5 million to 5.5 million square miles | Mario Tama/Getty Images
Id come to Barrow/Utqiagvik in the course of research for The Wild Edge, a book on marine ecosystems and migration routes along the West Coast. I tagged along with George Divoky, a Seattle-based biologist whos spent 44 summers studying a single population of black guillemots, pigeon-sized auks that breed on a sandbar island 25 miles to the east of Utqiagvik. Since 1975, Divoky has steadfastly (some would say obsessively) monitored changes in the guillemots diet, behavior, demographics and environment, chronicling each individual bird and each minute shift in the cycle of freezing and thawing to which their lives are finely tuned.
In the process, hes produced a serendipitous but invaluable record of changes in the Arctic climate, begun when few had thought to worry about it — a fine-grained complement to the continent-scale maps showing how the Arctic ice pack has shrunk over those years. Like the proverbial coal-mine canaries, his guillemots serve as ready-made monitors of their changing environment — and he has the baseline data to measure the impacts. Originally, the birds fed on fat-rich, highly nutritious arctic cod; in recent years theyve had to switch to leaner, less nutritious prey like sculpin, as warming waters have driven off the cod. Before, polar bears couldnt be bothered with tiny seabirds or scrawny biologists, as long as they had ice on which to hunt fat seals. But with the ice pack shrinking, famished bears began raiding the colony in 2002, and Divoky had to set out tough plastic cargo carriers for the guillemots to nest in, and an electic bear fence for himself.
Till now, the guillemots spent their winters on the Bering Seas seasonal ice pack. This year, that ice did not form, and the birds struggled; only 50 pairs returned in June — half as many as in 2017 and the smallest tally in four and a half decades.
This is the kind of wildlife change that local residents notice, and fear. One evening in Utqiagvik, federal and state wildlife officials convened a community meeting, complete with the obligatory raffle (grand prize: a shotgun) and steaming tureens of snow-goose soup for anyone who got hungry. The federal representatives, who were new to their postings, didnt have a lot to say. But Geoff Carroll, for many years the Alaska Game and Fish Departments resident wildlife biologist, did — on a subject of surpassing interest to local folks. He explained how the caribou that were a primary food source were not doing well at all. The Western Arctic Herd had shrunk from about 500,000 to 250,000 caribou in just eight years. The smaller local Teshekpuk Herd had declined at a similar rate.
“This is due to oil development?” an older Inupiat woman asked, voicing the abiding local mistrust of the drilling and pipeline operations at Prudhoe Bay, nearly 400 miles to the east. “Very little,” Carroll replied gently. “There really isnt much oil development here.”
“But theres all the helicopters going over, scaring the herds.”
“Yes, but we think its more natural mortality. Global warming is a big cause of that.” He explained how warming had thrown something new and deadly at the caribou: winter rain. The rainwater froze, locking the lichen the caribou survived on in a blanket of ice, and they starved — especially the females, who struggled and often failed to make enough milk for their calves. That led to the evenings take-home message: “Take it easy on the cows [while out hunting], especially the pregnant cows. You probably know that the pregnant females are the ones with the spiky antlers. Watch out for them. Try to run em as little as possible. When you chase the entire group, it takes their energy and makes it harder to survive the winter.”
Herd of caribou in Alaska are shrinking due to the effects of global warming | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images
Summer also brought new perils for both the caribou and the moose that have lately ventured up to the northern coast from the fens to the south as warming brings their food sources farther north. Higher temperatures mean more flies and mosquitoes in summer and, persisting through winter, ticks. These little bloodsuckers elevate annoyance to a fatal affliction. Their victims dont merely lose blood and catch diseases when bit; they waste precious energy and foraging time shaking and scratching in a vain struggle for relief, rubbing off wide patches of insulating hair. “Im used to moose being these big, beautiful animals,” Carroll told me. Now, gaunt and ragged, they easily perish.
Losing these ungulates would be devastating to the residents of Utqiagvik and other Arctic communities. Caribou and other wild meats are deeply embedded in local nutrition, tradition and household economy. Airborne imported groceries are fiendishly expensive; apples and hamburger meat cost as much as halibut at the towns only supermarket. I got to chatting about life at the top of the continent with the young guy who lent me skis at the town rec center. Does it get grim in winter, when the sun never rises? I asked. “Oh no,” he replied, “winters the best season. Thats when we can get out and hunt.”
Indeed. The summer thaw may bring 24-hour light and a brief eruption of bright wildflowers and tasty berries, but it also turns the tundras surface into the foot-sucking, ankle-twisting boggy goo called muskeg. In winter, hunters, wildlife biologists and anyone else with a reason to get around can zip over the frozen ground and snow by dog sled, as Carroll still did, or, as most do these days, by snowmobile.
In summer, muskeg has been known to swallow moose, men, heavy equipment, even, the story goes, a railroad engine in northern Ontario. In winter, heavily laden truck convoys crisscross the North Slope on highways built of ice. Freezing means stability and mobility, and not just in winter. Vast swaths of Russia, Canada and Alaska and smaller patches of several neighboring countries consist of permafrost, technically defined as soil that has remained frozen for at least two years, beneath a skin that thaws and turns fertile and gooey each summer. Permafrost is one of the planets most extensive and underappreciated landforms. The circumpolar permafrost belt covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemispheres land surface. It reaches to the north shore of Greenland, just 420 miles from the North Pole, and, in Mongolia, to the latitude of southern France and northern Oregon.
But frozen stability and mobility aint what they used to be. When I arrived in the far north, the talk was about a truck convoy that got stranded when an ice road turned soft and mushy. Cabins, cities and pipelines alike face collapse when their frozen foundations thaw. To guard against buckling, “thermopylons” sunk along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline convey ground heat up to radiator-like fins that dissipate it in the air. Such stopgaps will work only so long.
This year, the smallest number of guillemots returned to Alaska in more than 40 years | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
And the effects of thawing will be much more widely, even globally, felt. Permafrost soils are rich in carbon, the legacy of the fertile grasslands and forests of past epochs, protected by freezing from microbial breakdown. The deep, frozen deposits of windblown and river-borne soils called yedoma across Siberia contain 10 to 30 times as much carbon as ordinary deep mineral soils. And, borne northward from the steppes to the south for millions of years, this carbon-rich former top soil has piled up a hundred feet deep, maybe more.
Thats an enormous carbon sink, perhaps the biggest on the planet. As scientists have come to appreciate the depth of the yedoma deposits, their calculations of the amount of carbon impounded in northern permafrost have risen sharply. One researcher, Max Holmes of the Woods Hole Research Center (with whom Ive written a forthcoming book about permafrost, “The Big Thaw”) favors a midrange estimate of 1.5 trillion tons of carbon. Thats more than the 1.2 trillion tons sequestered, for now, in all the fossil fuels accessible underground. Its about three times as much as all the carbon in all the vegetation on Earth, and nearly twice as much as all the carbon in the atmosphere today.
Another 230 billion tons of carbon entering the atmosphere would push average global temperature above pre-industrial levels by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which was long considered the best-guess threshold before severe, perhaps irremediable disruptions — among them rising seas, supercharged storms, drought and desertification, famines and epidemics — surpass our capacity to adapt. Recent climate events and better modeling suggest that wont be good enough, leading to a new goal of keeping the increase to 1.5° C. Even by the old standard, the permafrost ringing the northern hemisphere contains about six times our “emission budget,” the amount we can likely afford to add to the atmosphere if we dont want to upend the planetary systems upon which life as we know it depends.
How quickly this carbon will be released is one of two big questions in permafrost science. The other question: In what form will it enter the atmosphere? When microbes break down organic materials in the presence of oxygen (i.e. aerobically), they release carbon dioxide. In anaerobic environments, such as peat bogs and the guts of cows, sheep and other ruminants, they produce methane. Popular media commonly describe methane as having 20 or 30 times the heat-trapping effect of carbon dioxide, but thats over the long haul, a hundred years. The short haul — the period of greatest concern while we (maybe) get our political and energy acts together — is another story. Methane molecules last a little over nine years in the atmosphere, during which they trap nearly 100 times as much heat as their CO2 counterparts. After roughly a decade, they then break down to form water vapor and carbon dioxide, which continues to trap heat, albeit less efficiently, for another 200 years or so. Methane is the greenhouse gas that gives big and keeps on giving.
Thats led some scientists and commentators to argue that the most important thing conscientious consumers can do to reduce their climate impacts is not insulating, recycling, driving hybrids or e-cars, or even not driving at all. Its forgoing meat, especially beef and lamb, and dairy products. The methanogenic powers of cow and sheep burps and livestock waste pits (not to mention rice paddies) are well established.
“There are no climate change deniers in Zhigansk” — Anya Suslova, research assistant for Woods Hole Research Center
But how much of the huge carbon stocks held in permafrost will be cashed in as methane (i.e. digested in a wet, anaerobic environment) is a more complicated and, so far, elusive question. The answer depends on a host of biochemical, geological, atmospheric and hydrological processes and the interactions between them, which researchers at Woods Hole and elsewhere are just starting to parse out.
Warming throws another wild card into this complicated equation. Hotter summers produce more thunderstorms, which bring more lightning. This, together with drier vegetation, has sparked a surge in wildfires, not just in boreal forests but on the tundra itself. In 2015, 726 square kilometers burned in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in western Alaska — more than half again as much as in all the preceding 74 years.
In several ways, fire causes tundra soils to warm more in summer and cool less in winter. It burns away insulating natural mulch and leaves black char that absorbs more solar radiation. Shrubs thrive in burned-over soils; their dark leaves likewise absorb more heat than the grasses and sedges they replace. They also support thicker blankets of insulating snow in winter, which slow or prevent the freezing of the ground below.
These fires juice a landscape transformation that was already underway. About 20 years ago, scientists discovered a rare benchmark thats enabled them to chart that transformation: thousands of aerial photographs of Alaskas North Slope that the U.S. Navy took in 1944 in a wartime search for new petroleum sources. From 2000 to 2003, they retraced some of these transits by helicopter, taking matching photos across 75,000 square miles. These before-and-after images, coupled with ground observations, showed that willow, birch and alder sprigs had grown tall and bushy. New patches were popping up where no detectable shrubs appeared before and spreading outward in concentric rings, each generation shielding the next one from the wind and cold.
Over the same 50-year period, the stunted boreal forest called taiga has expanded across an estimated 43,000 square miles along the Alaskan tundras southern margin, both reflecting and accelerating the warming; the drak trees, like shrubs, absorb heat and insulate the ground. The same processes have been observed on an even larger scale in Siberia. Almost anywhere else, from Amazonia to the rebounding forests of the American East, such growth would be welcome. But the greening of the Arctic, and the concomitant warming of its permafrost, bode ill for people there and everywhere else.
A sea otter sits on a chunk of ice near Whittier, Alaska | Saul Loeb/Getty Images
At a July meeting recorded by Krysti Shallenberger of local radio station KYUK, residents of Bethel, the largest (and largely Yupik) community in Western Alaska, gave scientists and undergraduate researchers from the Woods Hole Research Centers Polaris Project an earful about the changes theyve seen. Before, they would have to re-level their houses only every five years, as the ground below thawed and shifted: “Now I did it last year and it needs it again.” Foot-sucking sinkholes appear in what was frozen ground. Thawing, sloughing soil wrecks both the roads — “Freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw, every time after it rains, theres hundreds of potholes growing immediately” — and the rivers that are still vital arteries. “Its making it harder for people to get to their berry camps and their fish camps, because of all the erosion thats getting put into the water, the sandbars and everything.”
At Woods Hole, I met a young research assistant named Anya Suslova who grew up atop permafrost, in the Siberian hamlet of Zhigansk. She watches climate change progress through two lenses, her work and the everyday experience of her friends and family back home. “People in the Arctic are the first ones seeing changes,” she told me. “They see new species of birds and plants. They see the seasons changing. It used to be just winter and summer. Now we have these shoulder seasons. The river freezes up later, with thinner ice, which means fishing is really dangerous.
“People see it happening. There are no climate change deniers in Zhigansk.”
Eric Scigliano is a POLITICO Magazine contributor.