The progressive loss of sea ice in summer has serious implications for animals and for indigenous people
The locals in Alaska this summer were not shy about talking about their melting mountaintops, or the collapsing salmon industry. As our native Tlingit cabdriver drove us into Juneau, he pointed out a peak in the far distance. “That one, it used to be covered with snow all year,” he explained. Next we passed a salmon fishery, boarded up. “Salmon are dying, water is too hot. Things have been rough for people the past two summers. We have never seen anything like this, not in our lifetime.”
What locals are noticing, scientists and satellites are reinforcing. Alaska’s sea ice had unprecedented melting this summer, with the National Weather Service reporting there was no sea ice left within 150 miles of Alaskan coastlines. Satellite measurements done by NASA show summer sea ice levels in the Arctic have dropped by approximately 40 percent since the late 1970s. Sea ice—frozen ocean water—forms, grows and melts in the ocean, as compared to icebergs, glaciers and ice shelves that float in the ocean but originate on land.
Loss of sea ice has serious implications for animals and indigenous practices, with native people relying on the sea ice to support their living ecosystem that is dependent on fish and wildlife. Food security has become a major instigator for the planet’s first official climate refugees, with a recent U.N. report estimating two billion people face moderate to severe food insecurity due largely to the warming planet with escalating extreme weather events and shifting weather patterns. Behavioral adaptations are key to survival, and the Inupiat in the far north are by necessity deep into navigating what those adaptations are going to look like.
The Arctic summer of 2019 headlined well-above-average temperatures, warmer seas and a historic July heat wave going into the unprecedented 90’s. In terms of records, July was the hottest month ever recorded on planet Earth since 1880, when modern recordkeeping began. In 2017, Cook Inletkeeperpublished projections for nonglacial stream temperatures in different case scenarios for climate change in Alaska, projecting out to 2069. Shockingly, temperatures recorded in 2019 surpassed even the worst-case projections for 50 years in the future.