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.


| March 2015



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

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.”