The Impact Of Disappearing Ice On Ecosystems And People

The continuing thinning and shrinking of the Arctic sea ice cover has numerous possible impacts on the Arctic ecosystem and the people who live within it. Many Arctic residents (human and nonhuman animals) depend on the natural resources on the land and in the oceans for food, shelter, and livelihood. Warming the Arctic climate impacts these resources at all levels. Residents have begun to encounter conditions with which they have no experience, and they have fewer resources to adapt than residents in the less extreme climates.

Nonhuman animals would likely be adversely impacted. For instance, the thinning of the Arctic ice presents a problem for polar bears at the top of the Arctic food chain. Polar bears spend much of their time on the ice hunting for seals. Thinning ice degrades their natural habitat by reducing the stable platform on which they live. The reduction of ice cover next to the coastlines in the summer also creates a larger barrier for bears to cross in search of food. Concern about the health of polar bears has increased in the recent years as biologists have noticed a large number of thin, young adult bears in search of food.

Caribou herds are also likely to feel the impacts of a warmer climate. Changes in the vegetation from typical tundra types to woody shrubs have been documented on the north slope of Alaska over the last 50 years. This indicates the degree of change in the habitat in the Arctic, and the sources of food that inhabit this ecosystem. The northward expansion of pests, such as mosquitoes, also suggests greater stresses on caribou and other animals, as well as potential insect-borne diseases.

Since many Arctic residents live in coastal communities, they are also sensitive to changes in the ice cover and ocean. In recent years, the thinner ice cover has presented an increasing hazard to Alaskan native whalers who camp on the ice to access the ocean. They have encountered the ice breaking up earlier in the season, before the normal migration of whales, and have on occasion needed to be rescued from breakaway ice floes. Travel on land has also become more difficult with the warming and melting of permafrost and a longer summer season in which the ground is thawed.

The reduction of ice cover along the coastline also increases the coast's exposure to storm-driven waves and, in turn, contributes to the coastal erosion. In spring and fall, the ice cover that can protect the coast from large waves retreats. Combined with the trend of rising sea levels and the warming of the soil layers, this retreat is likely to give rise to an accelerated trend in the coastal erosion. The impacts on coastal communities include the costs of relocating and rebuilding critical infrastructure farther inland.

Both the economy and the environment may be impacted by the need to expand shipping along a more ice-free route in the Arctic. The potential for increased shipping activity along this Northern Trade Route along the Siberian coast, with a direct route between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, may drive the development of northern ports and economic expansion to these regions. Similar to the past development initiatives, such as the Alaska Pipeline, this shift in trade route would provide a boost to the Arctic economies, but also adversely impact the environment and increase social pressures on the residents. The potential for greater contamination of these fragile regions also increases with expanded shipping, particularly with regard to oil transport. Since the Arctic is a region that encompasses many national boundaries, protecting this environment will require that international environmental protection efforts be expanded.

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