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Inuit See Signs In Arctic Thaw
String of Warm Winters Alarms 'Sentries for the Rest of the World'

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

PANGNIRTUNG, Canada -- Thirty miles from the Arctic Circle, hunter Noah Metuq feels the Arctic changing. Its frozen grip is loosening; the people and animals who depend on its icy reign are experiencing a historic reshaping of their world.

Fish and wildlife are following the retreating ice caps northward. Polar bears are losing the floes they need for hunting. Seals, unable to find stable ice, are hauling up on islands to give birth. Robins and barn owls and hornets, previously unknown so far north, are arriving in Arctic villages.

The global warming felt by wildlife and increasingly documented by scientists is hitting first and hardest here, in the Arctic where the Inuit people make their home. The hardy Inuit -- described by one of their leaders as "sentries for the rest of the world" -- say this winter was the worst in a series of warm winters, replete with alarms of the quickening transformation that many scientists expect will spread from the north to the rest of the globe.

The Inuit -- with homelands in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and northern Russia -- saw the signs of change everywhere. Metuq hauled his fishing shack onto the ice of Cumberland Sound last month, as he has every winter, confident it would stay there for three months. Three days later, he was astonished to see the ice break up, sweeping away his shack and $6,000 of turbot fishing gear.

In Nain, Labrador, hunter Simon Kohlmeister, 48, drove his snowmobile onto ocean ice where he had hunted safely for 20 years. The ice flexed. The machine started sinking. He said he was "lucky to get off" and grab his rifle as the expensive machine was lost. "Someday we won't have any snow," he said. "We won't be Eskimos."

In Resolute Bay, Inuit people insisted that the dark arctic night was lighter. Wayne Davidson, a longtime weather station operator, finally figured out that a warmer layer of air was reflecting light from the sun over the horizon. "It's getting very strange up here," he said. "There's more warm air, more massive and more uniform."

Villagers say the shrinking ice floes mean they see hungry polar bears more frequently. In the Hudson Bay village of Ivujivik, Lydia Angyiou, a slight woman of 41, was walking in front of her 7-year-old boy last month when she turned to see a polar bear stalking the child. To save him, she charged with her fists into the 700-pound bear, which slapped her twice to the ground before a hunter shot it, according to the Nunatsiaq News.

In the Russian northernmost territory of Chukotka, the Inuit have drilled wells for water because there is so little snow to melt. Reykjavik, Iceland, had its warmest February in 41 years. In Alaska, water normally sealed by ice is now open, brewing winter storms that lash coastal and river villages. Federal officials say two dozen native villages are threatened. In Pangnirtung, residents were startled by thunder, rain showers and a temperature of 48 degrees in February, a time when their world normally is locked and silent at minus-20 degrees.

"We were just standing around in our shorts, stunned and amazed, trying to make sense of it," said one resident, Donald Mearns.

"These are things that all of our old oral history has never mentioned," said Enosik Nashalik, 87, the eldest of male elders in this Inuit village. "We cannot pass on our traditional knowledge, because it is no longer reliable. Before, I could look at cloud patterns or the wind, or even what stars are twinkling, and predict the weather. Now, everything is changed."

The Inuit alarms, once passed off as odd stories, are earning confirmation from science. Canada's federal weather service said this month that the country had experienced its warmest winter since measurements began in 1948. Nationwide, average temperatures this winter were 7 degrees above normal. Some of the larger temperature increases were in the arctic north.

"That is entirely consistent with the long-range forecasts that indicate the effects of global warming will be most felt in the north," said Douglas Bancroft, director of Oceanography and Climate Science for Canada's federal fisheries department.

"What we see is very clear. We are going to see a reduction in the overall arctic ice. It doesn't mean it goes away. But it brings profound changes," he said by telephone from Ottawa, the Canadian capital. "Weather will get stormier because the more open water you have, the easier it is for storms to brew up."

Bancroft said there would also be significant changes in the region's ecosystems.

"You have species that adapted over 40,000 years to a certain regime," he said. "Some will make it, and some won't."

Satellites at NASA have measured a meltdown of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica in the past decade. With other NASA data, scientists in Boulder, Colo., say the retreat of the ice caps in 2006 may be as large as last year's, which they say was likely the biggest in a century. Earth's average surface temperatures last year tied those of 1998, the highest in more than a century, NASA says.

In this month's issue of the journal Science, a team of U.S. and Canadian researchers said the Bering Sea was warming so much it was experiencing "a change from arctic to subarctic conditions." Gray whales are heading north and walruses are starving, adrift on ice floes in water too deep for feeding. Warmer-water fish such as pollock and salmon are coming in, the researchers reported.

Off the coast of Nova Scotia, ice on Northumberland Strait was so thin and unstable this winter that thousands of gray seals crawled on unaccustomed islands to give birth. Storms and high tides washed 1,500 newborn seal pups out to sea, said Jerry Conway, a marine mammal expert for the federal fisheries department in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

"We are seeing dramatic changes in the weather systems," Conway said. "To be honest, we don't really understand what are the potential impacts. If you look back in history, there have been warming periods that have gotten back to normal. But we don't know if that will happen this time."

Metuq, the hunter, fears the worst. "The world is slowly disintegrating," he said, inside his heated house in Pangnirtung, a community of 1,200 perched on a dramatic union of mountain and fjord on Baffin Island. Seal skins stretched on canvas dried outside his home. The town remained treacherous. Rain in February had frozen solid, and there had been almost no snow to cover it.

"They call it climate change," he said. "But we just call it breaking up."

The troubles for the Inuit are ominous for everyone, says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, head of the International Circumpolar Conference, an organization for the 155,000 Inuit worldwide.

"People have become disconnected from their environment. But the Inuit have remained through this whole dilemma, remained extremely connected to its environment and wildlife," she said. "They are the early warning. They see what's happening to the planet, and give the message to the rest of the world."

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