By Hannah Gartner
As climate science has grown two of the areas most closely monitored are the poles. This past January saw record breaking lows of sea ice in the Arctic. For the years between 1981 and 2010 the average extent of sea ice for this time of year was measured to be 14.57 million square kilometers. Since 2005, January has consistently seen sea ice extent below 14.25 million square miles, and this year it reached only 13.53 million square miles. The effects that this loss will have on climate change remain unclear, yet there is consensus that there will be effects.
What is more apparent is how sea ice, or lack thereof, impacts people in the Arctic. For over a century we have known of the Northwest Passage, a boating rout that takes one from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through archipelagos above the Arctic Circle. For those in the Northern hemisphere this allows for a much shorter journey to the other side of the World then the conventional one through the Panama Canal. Over the past decade the number of vessels making this journey has risen to around 30 per year. Still, for large shipping containers the voyage can only be made in the Summer months when sea ice is lowest, and they need to bring along ice breaking technology.
As the ice recedes the tourism industry has also moved into the Northwest Passage. They too can only voyage in the Summer, but this does not change the fact that they are stopping in ports that previously would have been impossible. One example is Cambridge Bay, a town of 1,500, which until recently was only accessible by air. The added tourism is changing the culture of these towns. Tours and cultural centers have begun to crop up and the increased traffic is also increasing revenue.
For other areas though the outlook is not so positive. Shishmaref, a island town on the western coast of Alaska, has historically relied on Fall sea ice to stop the damaging impacts of storms. However, now the ice isn’t forming until December and the impact is the loss of about 50 feet of shoreline annually. The future of the people of Shishmaref becomes more uncertain each year, and there is consensus that they must relocate or perish. In the face of all this unknown, there is one nonnegotiable fact about receding sea ice – there will be massive affects that dramatically change life within the Arctic Circle.