In the Arctic, we are in the midst of a historic transformation. In the past year alone we have witnessed entire landscapes and icescapes on the move or disappearing because of climate change. The latest scientific and traditional accounts of climate change are more worrying than ever. Across the North, our communities are struggling to cope with extreme erosion, melting permafrost and slumping beaches. Our sea ice is thinning, our glaciers receding, and we are faced with an “invasion” of new species—grizzly bears, for example, are coming much farther north than previously. Southern species of fish, insects and birds are all finding their way north. Our summers are warmer, our winters shorter. The magnitude of these changes varies from place to place, but the trend is consistent.
Climate change affects every facet of Inuit life. Our hunting culture depends and thrives upon the cold. Already we are having difficulty adapting to environmental changes as a result of global warming. Hunters have fallen through the thinning sea ice in places and at times long considered safe. The traditional knowledge that once guided our elders onto the land and back home safely becomes less reliable every year as weather patterns grow dangerously unpredictable.
Some of the most alarming projections now predict that global greenhouse gas emissions will increase 57% by 2030. While such an increase would be monumentally damaging, very little now surprises me. The media coverage of climate change in the North has been surprisingly comprehensive; it seems that news is now constantly released on how this year’s warming trends are even worse than the last. Every day, it seems, we learn the most alarming projection made a few years ago now appears too conservative. For example, as recently as 2004, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment foresaw an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer of 2050. The following year, those figures were revised down to 2040. And last year, after the tremendous melt stunned scientists around the world, the most alarming estimates show a new, ice-free, seasonal sea at the top of our world by 2012.
The current level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already transforming the Arctic. Unless we immediately arrest the global increase and begin to decrease emissions, the Northern environment that has sustained Inuit for millennia will cease to exist. Inuit are a uniquely adaptable people. We have weathered the storm of modernization remarkably well, going from dog-teams and igloos to snowmobiles, jumbo jets, permanent homes, and even modern stores, all within a few decades.