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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The Arctic: An indicator of global change

Gunter Weller of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said: “Climate change is a major contributing factor to erosion on the Arctic coast.”

Since 1971, the average temperature in Barrow, Alaska (site of the only first-order weather station in the Alaskan Arctic), has increased by about 4 degrees. (See http://climate.gi.alaska.edu/ClimTrends/30year/30yr.html for more information.)

The extent of polar sea ice has shrunk by 10 percent since 1973, with a 15 percent reduction during summer months. Because of the extremity of its environment and its key role in numerous global processes related to the atmosphere and ocean circulation, many scientists consider the Arctic to be an “indicator of change” for the rest of the planet, according to the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research (www.cgc.uaf.edu).

Warmer temperatures melt glaciers and the polar ice cap, which raises the sea level worldwide.

In Shishmaref, higher tides contribute to erosion. The sandy permafrost—ground that normally is frozen year round—comprising Sarichef Island is also thawing. This makes the land unstable and vulnerable to wave action, especially during winter storms when large chunks of the island have fallen into the sea.

Additionally, the sea ice that used to protect the island’s bluffs from the brunt of the waves during spring and fall storms is now thinner and forms later, often after the worst storms have done their damage.

Thinner ice creates more treacherous conditions for hunters, not only from the danger of falling through into frigid sea water but from the possibility of being swept out to sea as chunks of ice break off unexpectedly.

Global warming also contributes to the increasing number and severity of winter storms. When these fronts meet open, relatively warm water, the storms gather energy that increases their force.

These changes are affecting villages throughout the Arctic and western coasts of Alaska, including Barrow, Kivalina and Point Hope. Shishmaref’s plight is considered the most dire.

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