NOTnothing on earth compares to the icy sweeps of the planet’s polar extremes. That is why, perhaps, explorers and scientists who have been there often seek more distant analogies, describing the austere expanses of frozen terrain of the poles in lunar, supernatural terms with their reduced palettes of white, black and icy blue. Home to only the best-adapted organisms, the Arctic and Antarctica are largely lethal to mankind, unforgiving with their dark winters, harsh winds and bitter cold. Yet these remote and inhospitable places impact our lives more than almost anything close to home. The poles regulate our climate, our weather and even our maritime food supply. And they are warming faster than anywhere else on earth, with untold consequences for those who live in the planet’s most accommodating latitudes.
I saw it with my own eyes on February 6, 2020, when Antarctica recorded its hottest temperature on record – 18.3°C (64.9°F) – at the Esperanza weather station in Argentina . I was on nearby Anvers Island, accompanying a team of ornithologists from Stony Brook University in New York conducting a census of the region’s chinstrap penguin population. Expedition members enjoyed the mild weather, stripping down to T-shirts, but it was an ominous sign for the species they were there to document.
Photography by Acacia Johnson
Penguins aren’t just adorable icons of Antarctica. It is a sentinel species, an animal whose behaviors can tell scientists if something is wrong in a particular environment. Chinstraps feed primarily on krill, tiny crustaceans that are the base of the marine food chain. Almost every animal in the ocean eats krill or something else that eats krill, right down to the tuna that ends up on our tables. Krill feed on algae and phytoplankton that cling to the underside of ocean ice. As global temperatures rise due to rising carbon emissions, sea ice is shrinking. It would be impossible to investigate the health of the world’s krill populations, but if the chinstraps aren’t doing well, it’s likely that krill and anything that eats krill aren’t doing well either. And our carbon canaries are not doing well. The Stony Brook researchers found that most chinstrap colonies had declined over the past 50 years, some by half and others by as much as 77%.
Read more: Climate change is decimating Antarctic chinstrap penguins
We can wring our hands at the impending loss of a charismatic species, but “Save the Penguins: Use Solar Power” doesn’t go far enough as a slogan. It does not fully encompass what the loss of this penguin species portends for the future of humanity on this planet. Climate change moves so slowly that it seems almost imperceptible to us – what difference, after all, does a fraction of a degree make in our everyday lives? – but place that trajectory on something more fragile and less resilient like chinstraps, and it quickly becomes clear that the domino effect of climate change is already beginning to reach uncomfortably close to home.
Or at least it should. There is an incomprehensible disconnect between what climate science says needs to be done – an immediate change in the way we generate energy, travel and eat – and what we and our leaders are prepared to do. When does the distant threat of ecological collapse take on the fierce urgency of the present? When the sea ice will have completely disappeared? When are the penguins?
It will then be too late.
Baker in the port of Orne, Antarctica, on February 7, 2020.
The Arctic is approaching this tipping point. Nearly five months after Antarctica’s record high temperature, the Siberian city of Verkhoyansk hit an all-time high of 38°C (100.4°F) on June 20, 2020, heralding a summer of extreme heat and wildfires in an area best known for ice storms. Overall, 2020 was the warmest year on record for both poles, and both the Arctic and Antarctica saw precipitous sea ice declines. When there is not enough ice to reflect the sun’s rays back into space, this heat is absorbed by the dark ocean, accelerating the rise in water temperatures and the melting of the ice, changing the currents ocean waves, weakening the jet stream and altering wind patterns. The effects ripple through the global ecosystem, manifesting in greater drought, heat, flooding and storms. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Admiral Karl L. Schultz, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, told me during a September 2021 visit to the forward- Canadian arctic post at Resolute. Hurricane Ida had just passed through the Caribbean and parts of the United States, killing 107 people from Venezuela to Connecticut and costing more than $75 billion in damage. While Resolute seemed worlds away from the destruction left in Ida’s wake, the two were opposite sides of the same coin, Schultz said. Ida was a tropical storm that exploded into a hurricane without warning – the kind of rapid intensification caused by the warming Arctic, and a harbinger of more to come.
Read more: Why the warming Arctic has the US Coast Guard worried about the rest of the country
What happens on top of the planet matters to everyone on earth. But it matters most to those who live there. A lack of sea ice exposes vulnerable shorelines to rapid erosion, forcing indigenous villages that have lived in harmony with the extremes of the Arctic for centuries to move inland. Seal, walrus and polar bear hunting – a mainstay of Arctic indigenous traditions and subsistence survival – is not possible without the thick patches of winter ice. For many communities on the fringes, the loss of sea ice means cultural disruption as well as dislocation in insight into what global warming, if left unchecked, will ultimately bring to the rest of the world.
A few weeks after leaving Resolute, I traveled to the village of Unalakleet on the northwest coast of Alaska to meet Laureli Ivanoff, an Inupiaq climate activist. The freezer in Ivanoff’s house was overflowing with the bounty of Arctic Alaska’s short summer season: tundra berries and greens, wild rhubarb, salmon caviar, caribou fat, and bear meat. The only thing she doesn’t have is the food that has sustained her culture for generations: ugruk, or bearded seal. When a seal is harvested, every part of the animal is used, from fat to skin and intestines. It anchors the hunter in a community ritual of sharing and respect for nature. When Ivanoff was a child, the ice formed in early fall and stayed until spring. Today, she wonders if she will see ice in the years to come.
“Colonization and assimilation took away so much,” Ivanoff told me, including the language, dance, and ceremonies that unite the community. Only indigenous food traditions remain. “And now climate change is taking even that.” She watched her 3-year-old son play on the floor as he took a toy boat on an imaginary ugruk hunt. “How much of his culture will he be able to retain? »
A fundamental part of human nature is to want to pass on to the next generation something that symbolizes our values, whether it is a cultural tradition or material possessions acquired during a lifetime of work. If my daughter inherits a damaged planet, shaken by heat waves, fouled by a tide of plastic and witnessing waves of climate migrants fleeing uninhabitable lands, what does that say about the values my generation has cultivated in its relentless pursuit of perpetual growth? The science is clear: to avoid climate devastation, we need to nearly halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from 2010 levels. This means real sacrifices in the short term, especially for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in highly developed areas of the world. At this point, prioritizing climate offers a stronger guarantee for the future than continuing to accumulate wealth as we have.
Read more: Polar paradox: Arctic melting could destroy native ways of life while enriching some Alaskans
I came out of both poles with a growing sense of frustration with an overall reluctance to act in the face of a certain fate, as well as fear. A warming Arctic is not just a warning. It has the potential to take us with it in its demise. Permafrost, the layer of permanently frozen ground that underlies both poles, is a carbon bomb ready to explode. When the ground thaws, it releases greenhouse gases, further warming the region and setting off a perpetual feedback loop. Scientists don’t yet know if Arctic emissions are comparable to those of a small developing country or, more likely, another China. (The South Pole’s permafrost is trapped under the Antarctic Ice Sheet. If that melts, we have bigger problems to worry about, like a sea level rise of 200 feet).
We tend to think of Earth’s polar regions as the victims of our own carbon binge. But if we push them beyond the tipping point, they will become authors. Our polar regions protect life as we know it only to the extent that we protect them. It’s worth sacrificing a little more to make sure we leave behind a better world.
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