Updated: Nov 18, 2022
“ Its unlikely that, that bear will survive. It looks tiny in size. There is no ice around the island so its stuck there. The only prey around is the walrus and it is not large enough to hunt walruses. Unless, a dead whale washes up the shores, its chances of survival are bleak.”
Our guide and The Man We Went To For All Answers, Vide, delivered these lines in a flat monotone but there was no missing the despondency that lay underneath.
We were at Kvitoya, the remotest island on Svalbard and had spied a bear resting on top of the rocks.
It stayed still, ignoring us, not wanting to do anything that will cause it to expend any energy.
All of us stared at the bear, with less excitement and a greater sense of concern.
The simple and stark truth is that the Arctic is in crisis.
The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world.
To put it simply - sea ice is melting, frozen ground (called permafrost) is thawing, and the habitat for the wildlife there is shrinking ... fast !
Let’s get an idea of how fast.
Sometimes, the impact of climate change seem to be too far away for immediate concern. Its different here. It is estimated that, by 2040, Arctic sea ice may disappear altogether during summer months ! Already, when we were there, we hardly saw any sea ice.
Where's the ice ?
Why is sea ice so important ?
There is a large ecosystem that depends on sea ice. The most well known example, is of course, the polar bear. Polar bears use the sea ice for traveling between islands, searching for mates, and most critically, for hunting seals. But with ice declining and breaking up earlier, bears have less time to hunt. They get stuck to specific islands which might not offer enough prey as seemed to be the case with the bear we just saw.
Where's the ice ?
Polar bears are not alone in facing this threat. Lets look at the harp seals, for example.
The pups of the harp seals when they are born are pure white pups camouflaging beautifully on the Arctic ice floes. The pups use the ice as platforms for nursing and resting for the first month or so of their life, growing till they are ready for life in water. As the ice melts faster, these pups will end up being in the water before they are ready to fend for themselves.
The slightly older seals – called as yearlings – also get impacted. Their chief source of food are small crustaceans and fish, like krill, that are usually found along the sea ice edge.
No sea ice. No krill. No food for the seals.
Where's the ice ?
Actually, the story is really alarming for the immense scale of impact. Lets move away from the larger animals to the smaller ones.
In polar waters, there are tiny snails called pteropods. The water here is becoming more acidic as it absorbs more carbon dioxide from the air. It is estimated that the water will become so acidic that the shells of pteropods will begin dissolving. Like in any food chain, they are an essential food source for larger animals such as herring, cod, and, whales. Less pteropods means less food for them too.
You get an idea on how the entire ecosystem is under threat.
And, not in the distant future. Now.
Where's the ice ?
“ Yeah, its gorgeous, no doubt. But its very worrying. These waterfalls just show how fast the glaciers are melting.”
We were at Austfonna, the Europe’s third largest glacier. The beauty around us was simply breath taking. The glacier stretched for miles ( it has a surface area of around 8000 sq kms ! ). And to make the beauty even more astounding, there were these beautiful waterfalls at periodic intervals.
We were trying to see if we can get a photograph of a bird flying in front of the waterfall, or a slow shutter speed of the water falling. Wasn't easy.
However, the real world challenges are far more serious and difficult.
I read that remote sensing by satellites showed that 97% of the Greenland ice cap experienced surface melting.
This melted water does not just remain on the surface and refreeze later in winter. It goes down into the ice sheet through large holes called moulins and accelerates the ‘glacial advance’. This in turn results in glaciers calving ( breaking off ) more icebergs into the ocean.
The waterfalls look stunningly beautiful. But.
Greenland is now the largest contributor to the global rise of sea level , its melting ice cap adding some 300 cubic kilometres of water per year to the ocean.
This is a self destructing cycle, sadly. Less ice, leads to higher temperature, leading to more melting and hence, even lesser ice.
Warmer temperatures are causing fewer days of snow cover each year in the Arctic. Less snow cover means less white cover and greater darker ground, which means more solar radiation to be absorbed. This, in turn, leads to more snowmelt. Similarly, the water becomes warmer for the same reasons and even if a glacier calves due to natural process, the ice on the sea water will melt faster as there is less white ice to reflect the heat in summer.
Less white ice. More dark surface. Greater heat absorption.
And, I hate to add to this already alarming scenario, but with less ice, there will naturally be more sea traffic and I don’t need to paint the picture of that impact !
“ The temperature is increasing each year and the permafrost is also thawing. That will impact all the houses in Longyearbyen,” said Oddgeir, our guide when we were looking for arctic foxes just outside the settlement.
Everyone…practically, everyone we interacted with, was worried about the huge changes in the weather pattern. This year’s heat wave in Europe was just a dismal reminder of how precarious the situation is.
“ Our children might not see the polar bears. Maybe, only a hybrid polar bear might exist, since there have been cases of polar bears mating with grizzlies,” glumly predicted Vide.
One might be tempted to shrug one’s shoulders and say this is not our problem. This is a problem only for the few who live in those regions.
Initial estimates of sea level increase are being revised upwards. A 2019 UN report estimates this increase will have a potential to displace more than 680 million people around the world. Countries across the world will get impacted. Some of the names, I read – Ho Chi Minh City, Mumbai, Bangladesh, Shanghai.
Ocean currents have a key role to play in sustaining world wide weather patterns. Changes in the water temperature can impact this process.
For example, researchers from the Scripps Research of Oceanography, found that “ meltwater could affect wind patterns, which are responsible for moving cold, deep ocean water to the surface. With less cold water circulating, surface temperatures will continue to warm, creating more precipitation and potentially strengthening the El Niño climate pattern that often brings intense rains to North and South America and droughts to Australia and other western Pacific countries.”
Lastly, the permafrost. Permafrost is a layer of continuous ice which has approximately 1500-1600 billion metric tons of organic carbon trapped in it. That’s more than twice the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere.
The permafrost is melting. Which means, this carbon can get released.
This is not someone else’s problem. It impacts everyone.
The situation is dire. And its facing us.
A cry for help