The Arctic: Earth's Early Warning System

An Arctic native leader offered a passionate plea to the U.S. government and its citizens Wednesday to aggressively combat climate change. Addressing a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on global warming, Inuit Circumpolar Conference Chair Sheila Watt-Cloutier said the Inuit are already suffering dramatic changes to their Arctic environment.

Watt-Cloutier, who represents the 155,000 Inuit in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and the Russian Federation, described the Inuit struggle as "a snapshot of what is happening to the planet."

"We find ourselves at the very cusp of a defining event in the history of this planet," Watt-Cloutier told the senators. "The Earth is literally melting."

Inuit hunters and elders have been observing changes to their environment for decades, Watt-Cloutier said, including unpredictable weather, melting of permafrost and glaciers, decreasing sea ice, as well as the presence of new species such as barn owls, robins and mosquitoes never seen before by the Inuit people.

"If we can reverse the emissions of greenhouse gases in time to save the Arctic, then we can spare untold suffering," said Watt-Cloutier.

"Protect the Arctic and you will save the planet," she said. "Use us as your early warning system. Use the Inuit story as a vehicle to reconnect us all so that we can understand the people and the planet are one."

Committee chair John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said a recent trip to the Arctic showed him that "these impacts are real and consistent with earlier scientific projects that the Arctic region would experience the impacts of climate change at a faster rate than the rest of the world."

Wednesday's hearing was part of an ongoing effort by McCain to rally more support for the climate stewardship bill he and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman have coauthored.

"We are the first generation to influence the climate and the last generation to escape the consequences," McCain said.

The Arizona Senator's legislation would require some sectors of the U.S. economy to enact mandatory reductions of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – the leading greenhouse gas. The bill was defeated in the Senate last October by a vote of 53 to 44, but supporters of the legislation said the vote was a watershed moment in the U.S. debate over the issue of global warming. It was the first action on the issue by the Senate in six years.

McCain said he is determined not to abandon the proposal, but he acknowledges the bill has little support in the House or within the Bush administration.

Although a new report from the White House on climate change cited studies that linking rising temperatures to human activities, "officials have said there is no change in the administration's policy position," McCain said.

President Bush is loathe to enforce mandatory greenhouse gas emissions reductions on American industries and has repeatedly questioned the science that points to the effects of these emissions on the climate.

Few doubt global warming is an international concern, but critics of the administration note that the United States, which is responsible for more than 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, must play a leading role in efforts to limit consumption of fossil fuels.

New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg said it is politics, not science, that is prohibiting U.S. action on global warming.

"I am disturbed by the administration's shifting position on climate change," Lautenberg said. "We need leadership at the top and we are not getting it."

The hearing included testimony from authors of two recent studies that indicate failure to curb global warming could have devastating effects. One study, published in August in the journal "Science" shows that heat waves in North America and Europe will become more intense, more frequent and longer lasting during this century.

The second study, published in August in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" details how global warming will bring California a dramatic increase in extreme heat and heat-related mortality and significant reductions in Sierra snowpack, with cascading impacts on water supply.

The California study focused on two scenarios and showed that significant changes in temperature are likely regardless of what is done in the immediate future to reduce emissions.

"The greenhouse gases that we are emitting today will reside in the atmosphere for decades, perhaps for a century – that makes this a pressing problem," said study coauthor Daniel Cayan, a research meteorologist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego.

Under the study's lower emissions scenario, summer temperatures in California will still rise 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with the length of the heat wave season extending from an average of 115 days in a year to 149 to 162 days. But if nothing is done to curb the use of fossil fuels, summer temperatures rise a dramatic 7.5 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the study, with the length of the heat wave season increasing to 178 to 204 days.

"It is pretty clear that when we think of our kids and their kids they will be wanting to deal with the lower emissions scenario," Cayan said.

Watt-Cloutier told the commitee that the observations of the Inuit are backed by the findings of Western scientists, in particular the work of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA).

The ACIA is an international team of 300 scientists, experts, and indigenous residents of the Arctic region who are preparing a comprehensive analysis of the impacts and consequences of climate variability and changes across the region. Their final report is slated for release this November and paints a worrying future for the Inuit.

The ACIA has found that in Alaska and western Canada, the average winter temperatures have increased by as much as 3 to 4 degrees Celsius over the past 60 years. During the past 30 years, Arctic sea ice extent has decreased, on average, by about 10 percent, and this change has been 20 percent faster during the past two decades. Continued melting of sea ice will lead to significant changes in the surface reflectivity, cloudiness, humidity, exchanges of heat and moisture, and ocean circulation, in particular along coastlines and near ice margins.

Watt-Cloutier said two major conclusions of the ACIA report are that marine species dependent on sea ice face an uncertain future and that global warming will disrupt – and potentially destroy – the Inuit culture. Warmer climates could bring insects with diseases the Inuit have never known and the species they depend upon, such as the polar bear, are unlikely to survive if global warming continues unabated.

"The ancient connection to our hunting culture may disappear within my grandson's lifetime," Watt-Cloutier said. "My Arctic homeland is now the health barometer for the planet."


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