Arctic Dispatches, part 1: The past winter was the warmest on record in the Arctic, putting a lifestyle that has endured for millennia at risk: The magnitude of change is utterly unprecedented

A few days before Christmas last year, Harry Brower, mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, was at home when he heard a stunning noise – the sound of waves lapping at the shore.

The sound was as wrenching and misplaced as hearing hailstones thud into the Sahara. Until fairly recently, the Arctic ocean regularly froze up hard up against the far north coast of Alaska by October. In 2017, it wasn’t until the final few days of the year that the ice encased the waves.

Q&A

How is climate change affecting the Arctic?

The world may have warmed by around 1C (1.8F) over the past century but the Arctic far outstrips this global average and is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the world.

In places, the rate of warming has been astonishing. Novembers in the Alaskan town of Utqiaġvik, formerly Barrow, are now 5.5C warmer than they were in 1979. This past winter, the warmest on record in the Arctic, saw some locations exceed 20C hotter than normal.

The Arctic is dominated by sea ice, unlike the Antarctic which is essentially a huge land-based ice sheet. As the ocean and atmosphere warm, sea ice is shrinking in extent, at around 13% a decade since 1979, according to Nasa. The bright white surface of ice, known as albedo, is giving way to the dark ocean, meaning that sunlight is being absorbed rather than reflected, amplifying the warming effect.

These “rapid and dramatic changes” are introducing a “new normal” to the Arctic, according to US government scientists in a report card last year. Storms are eroding away ice-free coastlines, summer wildfires are becoming fiercer and certain species, such as polar bears, are increasingly struggling to find food. This is all providing a major challenge to communities in the Arctic, but a boon to the shipping industry, which can navigate the area more easily. This task will get even simpler once the Arctic is ice free in summertimes, forecast as soon as 2040s.

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“We’ve had a few warmer days in the past but there was nothing like the past winter,” said Anne Jensen, an anthropologist who has worked in Utqiaġvik, the US’s most northerly town, for the past three decades. It was so warm that the snow melted on Jensen’s roof, causing it to leak.

“This year’s winter stuck out, insanely. It was crazy. Even the younger people noticed that this is something that hasn’t happened before.”

utqiagvik

A certain stoicism is required to live in the North Slope Borough, an area of sprawling tundra larger than 39 of the 50 US states that takes in Alaska’s northern coast. The native Iñupiat population have carved out a life here in the brutal cold of the Arctic Circle for at least 4,000 years, subsisting on bowhead whales, seals and caribou.

Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, is the largest of the region’s scattered settlements and remains a flinty and unforgiving frontier town despite the arrival of the internet, buzzy snowmobiles and exotic vegetables (a pineapple costs around $9.50 (£6.70) at the main grocery store).

But the past winter, following a string of warm years, points to a pace of change not before experienced by this community. The winter was the warmest on record in the Arctic, with sea ice extent hitting record lows in January and February, ending up at the second-smallest seasonal peak in the 39-year satellite record in March. The smallest was in 2017. The Bering Sea, which separates Alaska and Russia, lost a third of its winter ice in just eight February days.

Otherworldly temperatures were felt across the region, with the weather station closest to the North Pole spending more than 60 hours above freezing in February, around 25C (45F) warmer than normal, which is equivalent to Washington DC spending a February day at 35C (95F) or Miami baking at 51C (124F). The Arctic was, in spells, warmer than much of Europe.

Utqiaġvik, pronounced oot-ki-ahh-vik or “place where snowy owls are hunted”, got to -1C, around 22C warmer than normal. In December, the temperature readings from the weather station at Utqiaġvik were so freakish that it triggered an automatic shutdown of the system to protect the data from “artificial” figures. It temporarily wiped a year’s worth of numbers.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called the incident an “ironic exclamation point” to the climate change gripping the Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of the global average. This winter’s extreme warmth was, in part, driven by an unusual number of storms in the Atlantic that brought balmier air to the Arctic. But scientists warned that 2017 and 2018 should not be dismissed as mere outliers.

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Residents of Utqiaġvik push out a traditional sealskin boat, or umiak, to race during the spring festival earlier this month. Photograph: Oliver Milman for the Guardian

“There’s no reason why this sort of warmth won’t continue. Within the lifetime of middle-aged adults, the Arctic has completely changed,” said Rick Thoman, a Noaa climate scientist based in Fairbanks, Alaska. “The magnitude of change is utterly unprecedented. For a lot of the people who live there, it’s completely shocking.”

The changes are potentially existential on the north slope, where sea ice provides a crucial platform for catching and hauling in whales – a key food source and cultural totem for the Iñupiat. The spring whale hunt, where emerging cracks, or “leads”, in the sea ice funnel whales into the path of waiting hunting crews, requires dependable environmental cycles that have served the Iñupiat for thousands of years.

“All the indications are there will be a very early loss of ice this year,” Thoman said. “In the 1990s they could do whale hunting in Utqiaġvik up until May or even June. There’s no real chance of that now – the ice will probably start breaking up by early May.

“Native peoples of Alaska are very resilient; they’ve lived here for many millennia for a reason. Some will have to move, hunting will have to change. It can be done but it won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap. There will be a big cost, both financially and culturally.”

average annual temperatures utqiagvik

Utqiaġvik is wrestling with a number of climate impacts. Its coastline, increasingly shorn of sea ice, is eroding at a concerning rate. The melting of permafrost, long-frozen soils that scientists forecast could end up releasing huge amounts of carbon, is causing some buildings to slump, their walls radiating with cracks.

But it’s the potential threat to the whale quota that causes most angst. Slain whales need to be quickly pulled up on to the sea ice and butchered before the cetaceans’ cooling systems halt and they essentially cook from within. Lack of thick, multi-year ice could hinder the haul-out. Caught whales could even fall through the ice if it’s too thin.

“A couple of years ago the ice was rubble, it was just breaking up,” said Nagruk Harcharek, who has spent many of his 33 years whaling near Utqiaġvik. “It was really late this year and everyone noticed. I’d be lying if I said people aren’t worried.

“Some families rely upon whales for their food. It’s so central to our culture. The spring hunt is spiritual – sitting out there on the ice edge is pretty quiet. There’s the unknown. There’s not much going on. You’re watching, waiting.”

Other heritage is already being lost, with archaeological sites along the coast being washed away at a quickening rate. In September, a major storm crunched into the coast and threatened Birnirk, a village that was inhabited for 1,000 years and is a national historic landmark.

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Whaling has long been central to life on Alaska’s north slope. Photograph: Oliver Milman for the Guardian

“It’s very, very grim,” said Jensen, who has worked to excavate and protect several sites. “Most of the coastal sites will be gone in the next 10 to 15 years if the rate of erosion keeps up.”

Across Alaska, dozens of coastal towns are at risk of becoming uninhabitable, with a handful actively seeking to relocate. Melting permafrost is buckling roads into potentially deadly big dipper rollercoasters, as well as threatening to dislodge doses of locked-up mercury. Glaciers near Denali, the tallest mountain in the US, are disappearing faster than at any time in the past 400 years.

The Alaskan government recently warned this bewildering rate of change risks the physical and mental health of its citizens, citing a condition called solastalgia, the distress caused by severe disruption to the environment near home.

“Alaska is on the frontlines of climate change,” Bill Walker, the state’s governor, warned last year. Walker, an independent, has convened a panel to come up with some sort of climate change strategy by September.

average monthly temperatures utqiagvik

Somehow, it will have to suggest a way forward that doesn’t rattle its economically important oil and gas industry, which has received staunch support from a Trump administration that has started to dismantle help for those pummeled by rising seas and storms.

For a reliably Republican state, polling shows unusual numbers of Alaskans are concerned about climate change and, at least sometimes, openly fret over its consequences. “People are feeling the impacts of climate change, we hear that on a daily basis,” said Nikoosh Carlo, the governor’s climate adviser. “It’s a non-partisan issue here. For some communities, the next storm could wipe out critical infrastructure.”

The lack of any federal or state plan to deal with the looming climate crisis isn’t causing mass panic in Utqiaġvik, at least.

“We are capable of adapting to any changes,” said Charlie Hopson, a veteran Utqiaġvik whaler. “We’ve been around for thousands of years and we’re going to keep living. We do our own thing here. The government doesn’t know shit. We don’t need them.”

  • On Sunday read how weird wildlife is venturing to northern Alaska in the second dispatch from Oliver Milman’s trip.

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