Tundra Fires and Melting Sea Ice

Devastating tundra fires, melting sea ice and polar animal migrations are shaping the arctic into a very new landscape with a profound impact on a host of global issues.

Polar bears fighting

In the 1990s, scientists such as Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher predicted the demise of polar bears at the southern edge of their range as sea ice retreated.

Photo by Edward Struzik

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Future Arctic (Island Press, 2015), by Edward Struzik, reveals the inside story of how politics and climate change are altering the polar world in a way that will have profound effects on economics, culture and the environment as we know it. As polar ice retreats and animals and plants migrate northward, scientific, cultural and geopolitical tensions become apparent; Struzik shares insights from wildlife scientists, military strategists and indigenous peoples to piece together the vast environmental puzzle that is the Arctic region. The following excerpt is from the Introduction.

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The beginning of what many people thought was the end of the world began on June 2, 1950, when a small wildfire ignited in the boreal forest in northern British Columbia near the Yukon border and the Chinchaga River.

It had been an exceptionally hot spring, and forest firefighters were too busy battling other fires to do anything about a little fire like this one, which was remote and far from human settlement. Within a few days, though, it crossed into the largely uninhabited wildlands of northern Alberta. Fueled by a tinder-dry forest that went on forever, the relatively small blaze developed into a wildfire of such monstrous proportions that the thickness of the smoke led some people in southern Canada, the United States, and Europe to believe that an atomic bomb had exploded and that the western world was at war with the Soviet Union.

It was not an alien invasion, a volcanic eruption, or an eclipse of the sun as others suspected. At one point, though, flights in the United States and Canada had to be canceled, including one that was searching for a downed U.S. bomber in northern Ontario. In Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Fort Erie, and many towns in New York, it was so dark at midday that the lights at baseball fields, including those at Yankee Stadium, had to be turned on to illuminate the playing fields. Smoke from the Canadian fire could be detected as far away as Europe. Some Danes were so “jittery” when they woke up to see a blue sun rising over the horizon that they went to the bank to withdraw their life savings.

It wasn’t only people that reacted to the dark pall of smoke that hung in the sky. In an article in a Jamestown, New York, newspaper, a farmer described how his chickens, which had fanned out for their midday foraging, “suddenly realized they were being caught by darkness, so they scurried back across the cow yard in more than usual earnest, their heads moving in delayed jerks.”

All told, the Chinchaga fire of 1950 burned for 222 days and torched a stretch of forest that was 175 miles long and more than 3.5 million acres in size. Astronomer Carl Sagan was so intrigued that he inquired to see how it might be used to describe his concept of a “nuclear winter.” Fast-forward to the exceptionally warm summers in Alaska and the Yukon Territory in 2004, 2007, and 2014 when three other remarkable fire seasons unfolded.

An Unprecedented Tundra Fire in Alaska

I remember the 2004 fire season all too well because it forced me to cancel a family visit and a canoe trip down the Wind River in the Yukon. A record 1.5 million hectares were torched in the territory that year. Another 2.7 million hectares of forest burned in neighboring Alaska. Together they burned an area the size of Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined. Smoke from the fires could be detected all the way to the east coast of Canada and throughout many parts of the contiguous United States. Traffic on parts of the Alaska Highway was shut down for days at a time. Alaskans suffered for fifteen straight days when air quality in cities such as Fairbanks was deemed to be hazardous to health by Environmental Protection Agency standards.

In contrast, the 2007 fire season in Alaska was relatively unexceptional save for one notable event, the Anaktuvuk River tundra fire that accounted for nearly 40 percent of the acreage burned that year. Biologist Ben Abbott remembers it well. He and some colleagues were at the Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska playing a buggy game of soccer on a gravel pad when he smelled smoke.

Initially, Abbott thought nothing of it because smoke from fires in forests farther south in Alaska occasionally drifted into this part of the world. He and his colleagues quickly realized, however, that this smoke was coming from the north slope of Alaska, where there are no trees.

Tundra fires are relatively rare in the Arctic, and big tundra fires like this one had never happened in modern times. This fire had been ignited by a strike of lightning that had smoldered for a few months before strong, dry winds blowing in from the Brooks Range fanned the flames. More than 400 square miles of tundra burned before the October snowfalls finally put it out. The fire released as much carbon into the atmosphere as the tundra it burned had stored in the previous half century.

As unusual as this fire was, many scientists believe that it’s only a matter of time before it will happen again. They are convinced that we have already entered a new fire regime that is more extreme than anything experienced in the boreal forest and tundra in the last ten thousand years, and they are not alone in thinking that. When the Canadian military traveled north in 2013 to conduct its annual exercises in the Arctic, it spent a good part of its time working with wildfire management teams on strategies for dealing with fires in the future. It was none too soon. The following year, the government of the Northwest Territories approached the military about the possibility of its personnel assisting in dealing with 295 fires that torched more than 7.5 million acres of forest in the Great Slave Lake area. The fires had so strained the resources of the territorial government that it had to borrow money.

These fires are intermittent but noticeable reminders of the Arctic’s connection to the rest of the world. It is all too easy to go about our lives thinking of the vast region to the north, and what happens there, as a place of little consequence to our routines.

Worldwide Change Starts in the Arctic

Vast, cold, remote, and unpopulated as the Arctic may be, what happens there matters to the rest of the world. Like El Nino, the warm ocean water temperatures that periodically develop off the Pacific coast of South America, a warming Arctic Ocean will likely trigger droughts, floods, and changes in crops yields in other parts of the world. It will further contribute to rising sea levels that are already imperiling low-lying coastlines along the Gulf of Mexico and other places. It has the potential to affect the polar jet stream that drives and gives energy to weather systems as it circles the world. It will also pollute the air we breathe down south. According to a study done by Gabriele Pfister and other researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, the Alaska fires of 2004 produced 2.2 billion pounds of carbon monoxide, which is about the same amount produced by human-generated activities in the contiguous United States during the same period. Pollutants from these fires also increased ground-level ozone up to 25 percent in the northern continental United States and by up to 10 percent in Europe.

The changes already occurring in the Arctic are signs of what’s to come in other parts of the world. With sea ice melting, glaciers receding, permafrost thawing, and Arctic storms picking up steam, dozens of low-lying coastal communities that are vulnerable to flooding and erosion, such as Shishmaref, Alaska, and Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, will have to be shored up or moved. A warmer and shorter ice season will result in less time for some polar bears to hunt seals and more time for mosquitoes and flies to take their toll on caribou. Increasingly powerful storm surges could result in massive seawater intrusions that could affect the fate of millions of migrating birds that nest in freshwater Arctic deltas and coastal wetlands. In addition, if freshwater from river runoff, melting sea ice, and disappearing glaciers continues to grow, the effects on climate and marine life in the Arctic could be enormous.

We can already see the rippling effects of some of these changes throughout the ecosystem. Capelin, not arctic cod, is the dominant fish in Hudson Bay; killer whales are beginning to prey on narwhals and beluga whales throughout the Arctic Ocean; Pacific salmon of all types are moving into many parts of the Canadian Arctic where they have never been seen before; and polar bears at the southern end of their range are getting thinner and producing fewer cubs than in the past. And with almost no ice left in the Chukchi Sea in late summer and fall these days, tens of thousands of walruses are now being forced to haul out onshore where they are farther afield from the clams, snails, and worms they eat and vulnerable to fatal stampedes that can occur when they get spooked. The haul-out of 35,000 animals off the coast of Alaska in late September 2014 was so dramatic that the Federal Aviation Authority took the unprecedented step of asking pilots to remain above 2,000 feet and half a mile away from the area, so as not to frighten the animals. Local community leaders also asked the media and other interested parties to stay away.

The changes are circumpolar in scope. In the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, fiords on the west coast have not been frozen for several years. Tundra there is being overtaken by shrubs, just as it is in Siberia and Chukotka in Arctic Russia. Like most glaciers in North America, the Greenland Ice Cap is melting faster than anyone had anticipated five or even two years ago.

There is actually very little we can do to stop the Arctic from warming in the short term. So much greenhouse gas is being emitted now that it would take decades if not centuries to halt or reverse the decline of sea ice cover, the thawing of the permafrost, the meltdown of the glaciers, and the acidification of the Arctic Ocean, all of which are directly attributable to the increase in carbon emissions. That’s no reason not to try to curb these greenhouse gas emissions, however, and it’s imperative that it be done.

Like the forest fire situation in 1950, however, there is merit in, as well as a powerful economic argument to be made for, using scientific knowledge and traditional aboriginal knowledge to manage the end of the Arctic world as we know it so that the new Arctic that is unfolding doesn’t bring with it surprises that we aren’t prepared to deal with or exploit. That’s the message in a 2014 National Research Council report that attempted to look ahead to what awaits us as a new geological era unfolds. The committee members who wrote the report didn’t do so independently. They called on hydrologists, mappers, oceanographers, biologists, weather analysts, sociologists, anthropologists, geologists, and others for their expertise and opinions.

A New Climate, Thanks to Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The kinds of ecosystems that the new Arctic (including the sub-Arctic) will comprise, however, is not entirely clear because biodiversity in the region is not as simple as it is often made out to be. Against a backdrop of boreal forest, tundra, permafrost, polar deserts, glaciers, ice caps, mountains, rivers, deltas, sea ice, polynyas, gyres, and open ocean there are tens of thousands of pieces to this puzzle. They include the 21,000 cold-climate mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants, and fungi that we know a lot about as well as the untold number of microbes and endoparasites that remain largely a mystery.

What we do know with some degree of certainty is that temperatures will rise dramatically in summer, resulting in the Arctic Ocean being seasonally ice-free by 2040. Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be gone a decade later, as will one-third of the 45,000 lakes in the Mackenzie, the largest delta in the Arctic. In 2100, when trees and shrubs overtake much of the grasses and sedges on the tundra, what we think of as traditional habitat for barren ground caribou will have shrunk by as much as 89 percent. Coniferous forests will be replaced by deciduous ones in many places. Some trees will have begun to take root on the south end of the Arctic Archipelago. The polar ice cap on Melville Island will have melted away. Brintnell Glacier, the last remaining ice field on the mainland of the Northwest Territories, will be gone as well.

What we think we know about a future Arctic, however, may be grossly underestimated. By nature, scientists are slaves to certainty. If that certainty is 95 percent, as it is in scientists’ belief that humans are responsible for the warming that has been taking place since 1950, there’s confidence in telling the public.

Most scientists actually have a picture of a future Arctic that is much more daunting than the one they are comfortable talking about or putting pen to. Glaciologist Jason Box said as much when a writer for Rolling Stone asked him if high-end projections of a 6-foot rise in sea levels due to the meltdown of the Greenland Ice Cap are too low. “Shit yeah,” said Box, who believes that dust and soot from forest and tundra fires and coal-fired plants from around the world are settling into the country’s interior and absorbing more solar energy than most people think.

The only thing unique about Box is that he said out loud what many scientists think privately. When Ben Abbott and University of Florida researcher Edward Schuur asked forty-one climate experts what percentage of the surface permafrost is likely to thaw, how much carbon will be released, and how much of that carbon will be methane, the scientists surveyed predicted that the amount of carbon released by 2100 will be 1.7 to 5.2 times larger than reported in recent modeling studies, which used a similar warming scenario. The carbon released will be similar in scope to the carbon that is currently released by deforestation.

Abbott and Schuur also surveyed climate and fire experts in 2013, asking them how much boreal forest and tundra will burn in the future. Nearly all respondents painted a picture that is much worse than what most experts had publicly claimed. In a “business-as-usual” scenario, they predict that emissions from boreal forest fires will increase by 30 to 90 percent by 2040. In a “best-case” scenario, fire emissions will increase by 16 to 43 percent. Emissions from tundra fires will grow even more rapidly, in large part because they have been so rare in the past. In the same business-as-usual scenario, these scientists expect an increase in emissions that ranges from threefold to seventeenfold by 2100.

Fire scientist Mike Flannigan plants himself somewhere in the middle of the pack of these forecasters, but even he believes that we could see a Chinchaga-sized fire in the sub-Arctic sooner rather than later. If there has already been a fire in the boreal forest that spread into the Arctic tundra, he says, a fire of 1 million to 2 million hectares is not out of the question.

As much as we do know about what the future Arctic might look like, it’s what we don’t know that worries scientists like Henry Huntington, co-chair of the National Research Council committee that examined emerging research questions in the Arctic. “Many of the questions we’ve been asking are ones we’ve been asking for some time,” says Huntington, an Arctic scientist at the Pew Charitable Trusts, “but more and more, there are new questions arising from insights that have been made only in recent years, or phenomena that have only begun to occur.”

Many Questions, Few Answers

The list of emerging questions is long, and they come from a number of unexpected developments. Consider, for instance, the following: the discovery that beluga whales and narwhals in the Arctic have little or no immunity to diseases such as phocine distemper that are common in mid-latitude marine environments; the enormous irruptions of snowy owls in southern Canada, the United States, and as far south as the Caribbean in 2011 and 2013 that suggest that something might be happening to prey cycles in the Arctic; the storm surge of 1999 in the Mackenzie delta in Arctic Canada that sent a huge wave of seawater more than 20 kilometers inland, turning much of the tundra that was swamped into a dead zone; and the ridiculously powerful cyclone that tore through the Arctic for two weeks in the summer of 2012.

Underscoring that there is still a great deal to learn is the 2009 discovery of a flat-topped mountain ridge 3,772 feet above the seafloor 700 miles north of Alaska and 300 miles west of Ellesmere Island. Nearly 25 miles long and 12 miles wide, it is nothing short of remarkable that such an enormous geological formation could remain undiscovered for so long.

What the future holds for the Inuit, the Dene and Athabaskans, and other northern indigenous people whose cultures grew out of a close association with this frigid world is another part of the puzzle that needs to be put together. Those cultures are already in a state of rapid economic reorganization and social readjustment. Many people have either stopped or reduced their consumption of caribou and reindeer, not because they prefer store-bought beef and pork, but because the caribou and reindeer populations are collapsing all across the Arctic world.

Industrial changes that have come to the Arctic are bound to further destabilize this fragile world. No longer a wasteland of interest only to missionaries, miners, and outdoor adventurers, the Arctic now matters more than ever before. The receding ice is revealing 22 percent of the undiscovered, technically recoverable hydrocarbon resources in the world, and it is opening up shipping lanes that are far shorter, cheaper, and potentially safer than existing routes that must pass through the Panama and Suez Canals.

Exploited responsibly, the extraction of these resources could be a boon to a world economy increasingly starved of new sources of fossil fuels and metals. The development and exploitation of these resources could also solve some of the formidable economic and social problems that are impoverishing the Arctic’s many indigenous communities.

Coming, however, at a time when Arctic animals such as the narwhal, beluga whale, and polar bear may be having difficulty adapting to these rapidly changing conditions, there are likely to be extinctions, extirpations, and trade-offs. Inevitably, sea ice will continue to be a problem, even if it thins to levels that make navigation through the Arctic safer. Accidents will happen, as the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska proved. Oversights will fail, as British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated. Currently, there is no proven method by which cleanup crews can separate oil that is attached to ice, nor is there any infrastructure in place in the Arctic from which to stage a cleanup. An oil spill in the High Arctic could well be more catastrophic than anything we’ve seen so far.

The future is not entirely bleak. Arctic animals such as the musk ox will likely thrive in this warmer world. So, too, may the wood bison, which emerged from the nineteenth century greatly diminished due to habitat loss and overhunting before it was reintroduced to parts of the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, Siberia, and Alaska. There are even signs, which currently seem like long shots, that lions—the cougar in this case—could stage a comeback in a land in which it once preyed on animals such as the Yukon horse and the woolly mammoth. In addition, as Syndonia Bret-Harte, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology, recently discovered, vegetation can recover from tundra fires as long as the fires are spaced far enough apart in time.

The Role of the Arctic Council

It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the world is watching these developments unfold with great interest. The United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark—all members of the Arctic Council that loosely oversees the exploitation and conservation of a changing landscape in the polar world—are currently in a race to claim millions of square miles of Arctic that belong to no one. In 2013, after years of trying to join, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, and Italy were finally granted observer status on the Arctic Council.

This newfound interest in an Arctic that is no longer as frozen, inaccessible, and seemingly worthless as it once was perceived to be will inevitably bring with it a different and more complicated set of beliefs in what this area is and what it means to the rest of the world. Therein lie questions that need to be answered before it is too late, although “too late” is difficult to define. In places like northern Alberta, development of the oil sands has already proceeded with little consideration for wetlands, wildlife, and the native peoples who live there.

What is the future of the Arctic, which is so intimately tied to the future of the more habitable places where we humans have settled in such great numbers? If there is anything that can be done to shape it so that economic and geopolitical interests don’t sacrifice environmental and cultural integrity, which will no doubt have global reverberations, what will it be?

From Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge by Edward Struzik. Copyright © 2015 by Edward Struzik. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.