By Grace Finnell-Gudwien and Gabrielle Rancifer
Every year as a child, oceanographer Joellen Russell watched the sea ice break apart and float out into the ocean off the shores of Kotzebue, Alaska, a native fishing village about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
“You could hear it and smell it before the ice actually looks like it’s moving because it’s so dry,” said Russell, who now is the Chair of Integrative Science at the University of Arizona and a climate scientist. “You’ll hear it groaning, then you’ll hear big cracks, sounds of the night, and then all of a sudden you’ll smell it. You’ll smell seawater.”
Russell’s parents would tell her to be careful on the ice, always worried she might fall through, although Russell said that was unlikely to happen then. She does remember, though, witnessing a dog who got stuck out on a jagged, broken-off piece of ice. There was no way to save the dog because the ice would break any boat that tried to reach the dog, Russell said.
Today, breaking sea ice is far more common and causing new threats, including an earlier breaking season and sea ice melting away altogether, Russell said. The culprit? Abrupt climate change.
“I’m constantly shocked at how abrupt ‘abrupt climate change’ is,” Russell said. “The coastline is dramatically changing and this is happening really rapidly.”
She made the remark in an interview after the Comer Climate Conference, an annual gathering of global climate experts whose research covering climate change over thousands to millions of years informs the realization of how fast climate change is accelerating now. Russell recalled the dramatic changes she has witnessed firsthand.
“Abrupt climate change continues to be the challenge of our age. I am deeply worried,” Russell said. “We have an emergency here, and we need to get more people, more hands on deck.”
This sea ice melt harms the Arctic ecosystems and all its species, such as polar bears. These large Arctic animals typically hunt by waiting on sea ice next to a small broken area in the ice where marine mammals such as ringed and bearded seals come up to breathe. Whenever prey comes up for a breath of air, the polar bear attacks and catches a meal, Russell said. With the sea ice melting, though, there is less ice where polar bears can rest while waiting for animals to surface. Even if the ice is not completely melted away, it may be too thin for polar bears to lay on anyway.
“Now they have to hunt and chase and swim.” Russell said, “Their metabolic budget is starvation – not because they’re not eating, but because they are spending way too much energy for the food that they’re getting.”
If people are not careful, though, they could be a polar bear’s next meal, Russell said, telling the story of a hunter who insisted on going to hunt a polar bear on his own. Although he was warned of the hazards of hunting alone, the hunter trusted his expensive, state-of-the-art snow machine and gun. When he ventured out onto the ice, he saw his prize – a big polar bear. He crept over, raised his gun, and pulled the trigger.
His fancy gun was frozen. The bear was not. The hunter was lunch.
Many other people also try to exploit nature and trust technology, adding to the causes of abrupt climate change. Russell learned this during her childhood when she moved with her family to the Rocky Mountain Indian Reservation for the Chippewa Cree tribe in east central Montana.
“I remember my brother and I were devastated,” Russell said. “It was the most crowded, smelly, used-up place we had ever seen.”
While this area was certainly less-exploited than much of the United States and other parts of the world, it was overcrowded and over-used for natural resources compared to Kotzebue. Russell said she and her brother could not understand how people could use land excessively; it was something they had never been exposed to before. Witnessing these different experiences and cultural relationships with the land helped inspire her work as a climate scientist today, though, especially when studying the effects of abrupt climate change on sea ice and coastal areas.
In native Alaskan towns, climate change erodes the coast where many houses are located. As the air warms due to carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere from human fossil fuel emissions, the frozen layer of Earth called permafrost begins to melt. The houses are on the permafrost because it has never melted in all the generations people have lived here and caused no threat. The houses are now in danger as permafrost melts. Sea ice also melts, and all of this ice melting contributes to larger, stronger waves hitting the coast. With the sea ice melted away and the ground softer, the towns do not have the natural barriers to protect themselves from these stronger waves.
“We’re not even talking about the tourism impacts or the freshwater impact on the fishing,” Russell said. “I’m talking about where people’s homes are too close to an unarmored ice edge.”
Adding to this issue is how melting land ice causes sea level rise.
“The ocean is probably the most important thing in how the land ice goes,” said glaciologist Richard Alley, a professor in the Department of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and emcee for the annual Comer Conference. “About a third of sea level rise is the ocean expanding as it warms, and a third is ice sheets, mostly the edge of Greenland, melting.”
Land ice is made when snow packs down, spreads out to the coast, and freezes due to cold water quickly overturning on top of warmer water, Alley said. If it melts, it adds to sea level rise, and it leaves the coast unguarded from increasing coastal erosion from wind and waves.
Obviously, this situation is troubling for both humans and the natural ecosystem in the area, but Russell said she has hope that it is not too late to address the issue if people research and make changes to help the climate.
The work that everyone is doing to address our climate now is incredibly important, Russell said. “Let alone how important it is to understand how those mechanisms played out in the past.”
Grace Finnell-Gudwien and Gabrielle Rancifer are Health, Science and Environment graduate students at Medill. You can follow Grace on Twitter at @GGudwien and Gabrielle at @GabiRancifer.