The Arctic meltdown: Quick thaw alarms natives and scientists

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Siberian Eskimos defy doomsayers' predictions
YANRAKYNNOT, Russia — The native elders have no explanation. Scientists are perplexed as well. The icy realm of the Eskimo — the tundra and ice of Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland — has started to thaw.

Strange portents are everywhere.

Thunder and lightning, once rare, have become commonplace. An eerie warm wind now blows in from the south. Hunters who prided themselves on their ability to read the sky say they no longer can predict the sudden blizzards.

"The Earth," one hunter concluded, "is turning faster."

In recent years, seabirds have washed up dead by the thousands and deformed seal pups have become a common sight. Whales appear sick and undernourished. The walrus, a mainstay of the local diet, is becoming scarce, as are tundra rabbits.

The elders, who keep thousands of years of history and legend without ever writing it down, have long told children this story: If the ice that freezes thick over the sea each winter breaks up before summer, the entire village could perish.

The children always laugh. Here in the Russian Arctic, the ground is frozen nearly year-round. The ice blanketing the winter seas around the Bering Strait is thick enough to support men dragging sleds loaded with whale carcasses.

Even Zoya Telpina, the schoolteacher in this outpost of 350 Chukchi reindeer herders and marine mammal hunters, said a winter sea without ice seemed like "a fairy tale."

But last winter, when Telpina looked from her kitchen window toward the Bering Sea, she saw something she'd never seen in her 38 years: the dark swell of the open ocean, water where there had always been ice.

Telpina's husband, Mikhail, a 38-year-old dog-sled musher, has seen mushrooms on the tundra shrivel and whole herds of reindeer starve. He has cut open the bellies of salmon to find strange insects inside. He has seen willows rise where he has never seen trees before.

The changes are so widespread that they have spawned changes in the Eskimo languages that so precisely describe ice and snow. In Chukotka, where the natives speak Siberian Yupik, they use new words such as misullijuq — rainy snow — and are less likely to use words like umughagek — ice that is safe to walk on. In Nunavut, Canada, the Inuit people say the weather is uggianaqtuq — like a familiar friend acting strangely.

What the residents of the Arctic are reporting fits convincingly with powerful computer models, satellite images and recently declassified ice measurements taken by Russian submarines.

In the last century, parts of the Arctic have warmed by 10 degrees Fahrenheit — 10 times the global average. Sea ice covers 15 percent less of the Arctic Ocean than it did 20 years ago, and that ice has thinned from an average of 10 feet to less than 6.

A group of scientists who spent a year aboard an icebreaker concluded that the year-round sea ice that sustains marine mammals and those who hunt them could vanish altogether in 50 years.

The U.S. Navy, already planning for an ice-free Arctic, is exploring ways to defend the previously ice-clogged Northwest Passage from attack by sea.

Without the stabilizing effect of great land masses, the Earth's watery north is exquisitely sensitive to warming. A few degrees of warmth can mean the difference between ice and water, permafrost or mud, hunger or even starvation for the inhabitants of these remote lands.

Yet, explaining the quick thaw and determining its cause — whether human or natural — has so far eluded the experts.

There are few long-term climate observations from the Arctic: Weather stations in the Far North are just 50 years old. And there is almost no data from places like Russia's Chukotka Peninsula, only 55 miles from Alaska.

In their search for information, Western scientists are turning to sources they once disparaged. In a rare convergence of science and folklore, a group of scientists is mining the memories of native elders, counting animal pelts collected by hunters and documenting the collective knowledge of entire villages.

These threads, which stretch back generations, may be the only way to trace the outlines of the half-century of change that has resculpted the Arctic and to figure out its cause.

"We have all these people paying very close attention to the animals they hunt and the sea ice they travel on," said Henry Huntington, a scientific consultant in Alaska. "It's often extremely accurate and far better than anything science has come up with."

Native observations that at first don't seem consistent with the warming — such as snowier winters and colder summers — also fit the scientists' models. Warmer air is expected to usher more storms and precipitation into the Arctic. Melting sea ice in summer can lower the water temperature and lead to cooler temperatures on adjacent land.

Despite parallel observations, Western researchers and Arctic dwellers still look at each other suspiciously across a cultural divide. Many scientists remain uncomfortable with any information not backed by numbers and measurements. Many native elders resent scientists who come ashore with their strange machines thinking they know more about the place than those who live there.

Others mistrust Western scientists -ho come to gather data and never send back word of their findings. They recall a group of toxicologists who came to remote villages here several years ago to collect women's breast milk to measure pollution levels. The scientists detected organic pollutants such as dioxin and PCBs in the breast milk. But the women say they were never contacted about the results.

For scientists, the facts are mostly a matter of academic, and sometimes political, interest. But for the natives, they may be a matter of life and death.

The subsistence hunters of Chukotka live in small villages without pickup trucks or snowmobiles, without supply ships or supermarkets. They have 19th-century harpoons, small boats and limited fuel for their hunts.

These villagers, who depend almost entirely on the icy sea for their food, may be witnessing the demise of their ancient way of life.

Caleb Pungowiyi, an Eskimo who works with scientists to record the observations of his elders and peers, put it this way: "When this Earth starts to be destroyed, we feel it."

Ice is a second home for Gennady Inankeuyas, a 42-year-old hunter considered the best harpooner on the Chukotka Peninsula. For years, Inankeuyas has prowled the ice for seals and walrus, dragging heavy sleds and animal carcasses over the frozen ocean.

This year, Inankeuyas returned to the uncertain ice. He had to. "Of course it's dangerous," he said. "But the village needs the food."

That food is not as easy to come by now that the weather has changed. "The south wind is a bad wind. It moves the walrus to another place," said Igor Macotrik, a 42-year-old Eskimo hunter. "The walrus is hard to find."

Scientists understand such observations. Their data show that the walrus are declining, possibly because they also have to work harder to find food. Walrus mothers nurse their babies on sea-ice floes. As melting ice recedes, the walrus do, too. Far from the coast, the mothers must dive longer and deeper from the ice to the sea floor to find clams.

In recent years, the Eskimo hunters have also noticed that gray whales have become very skinny. The meat of some freshly killed whales smells rancid, "like medicine," said Maxim Agnagisyak, a 28-year-old hunter. The sled dogs won't eat it.

Scientists are beginning to analyze samples of whale blubber from the region to seek an explanation. For several years, record numbers of gray whales have washed up dead and emaciated as they migrate to their winter calving grounds in Baja California.

Land animals are also under stress. Reindeer herds plummeted after the Soviet Union collapsed and the government subsidies that helped sustain the herds were cut off. The animals began starving, and their numbers continue to decline.

Scientists have not studied the reindeer herds of Chukotka, but they have seen similar starvation in Canadian caribou. The grazing animals normally survive the winter by nosing through soft, dry snow to feed on the tundra vegetation insulated below. In recent warm years, winter rains have alternated with snow, leaving an icy crust that is difficult to penetrate and cuts the animals' legs.

Scientists are only beginning to catch up with native observations on many other aspects of the Arctic environment, such as tundra vegetation. They are monitoring a tree line that is advancing north as the Arctic warms. And scientists from Russia, Delaware and Ohio have just started a large-scale project to study the permafrost as it thaws.

It is unclear if the changing climate will let them finish their work. With scientists still debating the trajectory of change in the Arctic, the fate of the Siberian Eskimo remains as uncertain as the Arctic ice in late spring.

Hunters with tiny boats and little fuel must now go much farther out to sea for food. Sometimes they return empty-handed. Sometimes they return with prey unusual for the season, or fish native to warmer waters. Sometimes, when the seas are rough, they do not return at all.

The hunters willingly talk about the many changes they see around them. But they don't spend much time worrying about climate change.

For the moment, they have more pressing concerns: gathering enough ammunition for the spring hunt and stretching their supply of stored whale meat.