This summer, a team of scientists, journalists, and World Wildlife Fund staff set sail on a voyage investigating the effects of climate change on the High Arctic sea ice and the communities and wildlife dependent upon it.
The voyagers, funded by Canon Europe, sailed along the northwest coast of Greenland and along Nunavut, speaking to coastal communities and exploring possibilities for the future of the Arctic. Along for the ride, dubbed “Sailing to Siku,” was University of Alberta PhD candidate Vicki Sahanatien, who recently joined the WWF’s Canadian Arctic Program as senior officer of Government and Community Relations.
“The objective was to take the sailboat through the eastern portion of the Last Ice Area ... to stop at the communities which we did throughout Greenland and also in Canada, and to discuss climate change and sea ice and find out people’s perspectives on the changes they’re observing and the kinds of concerns that they have about that,” Sahanatien said.
Due to the climate warming, the amount of sea ice remaining in the Arctic during the summer months has been gradually reduced each year, provoking massive repercussions on the communities that rely upon it.
The Last Ice Area includes Canada’s High Arctic islands and northern Greenland, and is predicted to be the last region of ice that will remain once the majority of the summer ice has melted.
“It’s probably hard to imagine it down in Edmonton,” Sahanatien said.
“The communities are situated on the ocean, so people are looking at the sea ice all the time ... they see the changes: the later it freezes up, the earlier it melts, the differences in the open leads — large cracks in the ice — and the timing of them.”
The communities aren’t the only ones experiencing change, however.
Andrew Derocher, a U of A professor and Sahanatien’s Ph.D supervisor, studies polar bears and was quick to emphasize some of the potential consequences that can arise if the melting
“Some ice will still form in winter, but it’s very clear that we’re on a trajectory to having no sea ice in the Arctic in summer. 2012 was a very clear indication of how fast we’re losing the sea ice. Compared to just 20 years ago, we’re almost at half the amount of sea ice that we used to have in summer,” he said.
“That means that (for) those bears that do rely on summer sea ice as a refuge habitat ... any bear that goes north is going to basically end up far away from land and have some serious issues about what they do when the ice is melting away from underneath them,” he added.
Derocher also pointed out that the issue is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
“The only thing we can really control is human behaviour, and we’re not doing very much for the climate change issue — in Canada or globally,” he said.
“We’re going to leave it to the next generation to pay for the mess, and I think it’s going to be catastrophically expensive.”
Sahanatien agrees that the melting sea ice is a global issue that will affect more than just northern communities.
“The root cause is climate change, is our production of carbon dioxide and putting other materials into the atmosphere,” she said.
“It takes the entire country and the entire world to act on this issue. It isn’t possible to stop the ice from melting until our approach to industry changes.”
Regarding the Sailing to Siku expedition, one of Sahanatien’s hopes is for people to begin taking an interest in the Arctic.
“It’s very important for people in southern Canada to be aware of the issues and the challenges that face the Canadian Arctic and also be aware that what (they) do every day in the south affects life in the Arctic.”
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