Imagine how a forest changes when the trees are removed. The primary defining physical feature is gone. Many forest animals rely on trees as a place to live, a primary source of food, and to move about safely above ground-dwelling predators. Imagine the impacts on people who live in the forest and rely on the trees for shelter, shade, and the food they supply.
The loss of Arctic sea ice is equally significant. Far from simply a frozen expanse of seawater, sea ice defines life in the North; it is both literally and figuratively the foundation for life for much of the year. That’s the case for Arctic wildlife, as well as the people who have relied on the ice for thousands of years. In this post, we’ll look at some of the impacts the decline in sea ice means for northern Canadians.
The ice is “the land.”
If you live in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, and you want to visit family in Sachs Harbour, you could spend roughly $2,000 to fly the 250-mile distance. Or you could wait until the ice has formed and pop over by snow machine.
Rather than cause northern communities to be “iced in”, the sea ice extends the land and provides the means for people to travel from one place to another. It is the great connector in the North, allowing people to travel across an otherwise deadly-cold ocean for hunting or visiting other communities.
The extent of sea ice impacts where people can travel; the thickness impacts whether it is safe to do so. Here’s Albert Elias describing changes he’s seen in the ice in recent years:
The sea ice feeds people
The ability for people to provide good nutrition for their families in remote communities depends to a large extent on the sea ice. It provides the means to access animals like seals and walrus, especially for the majority who don’t own a boat. The sea ice is also as important for those animals as the trees are for forest-dwelling animals, and its decline may greatly impact the abundance and health of many Arctic animals.
A calming effect
Sea ice forms a blanket over the open sea and dampens the waves. That makes a big difference. For those who do have boats and the fuel to operate them, capsizing or falling overboard is a deadly proposition. Survival in the Arctic waters is a matter of minutes at best, as rough seas kill.
As the Arctic warms, thawing permafrost, combined with larger waves and more storm activity mean rapid coastal erosion. Low-lying coastal communities are directly threatened by this rapid erosion.
These are just some of the most direct impacts of declining sea ice on people in the North. Indirect impacts result from the roles sea ice plays in regulating the air temperature and wind patterns, among other things. We’ll talk about those next time.