Focus on impacts on people will help world better understand Arctic climate crisis, say scientists

A man ice fishing on the Bering Sea on Jan. 18, 2020, near the village of Toksook Bay, Alaska. Communicating how climate change is impacting northern peoples, will be key to getting the world to fully understand the ramifications of Arctic environmental warming, say experts. (Gregory Bull/AP/via The Canadian Press)

A bigger focus on how climate change is impacting northern peoples will help the rest of the world better understand why they should care about the Arctic climate crisis, scientists said on Tuesday upon the release of the Arctic Report Card 2021. 

Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a co-editor of the Arctic Report Card, says the move in recent years from just focusing on landscape and wildlife impacts in the report to how climate change is affecting local Arctic populations has been an important step.

“I think that’s really the connection that people at lower latitudes can make,” Thoman said at a virtual news conference on Tuesday before the report was released. “That these changes are not abstract. It’s not just about polar bears, it’s about actual human beings, members of the world community, that are being impacted now.”

Thoman says the resilience of northern peoples who’ve thrived in the Arctic over thousands of years hasn’t changed, but that rapid climate change is putting unprecedented pressure on their ways of life.

“The changes are impacting people, and their lives and livelihoods, from what’s for dinner to tonight, on up to [changes on an] international scale. So I think if we can stress anything, it’s not just that it’s warming by X degrees, but the impacts to actual people [that] I think is the connection to make, so that people at lower latitudes fully understand what this means to people just like them.”

Saami reindeer herder Nils Hakan Enoksson, pictured here with his herding dog Zorro, in a traditional grazing area of Arctic Sweden. Reindeer herders say the warming Arctic, including increased rain in winter, is putting increased stress on their animals and their traditional cultures. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

The report card is a peer-reviewed overview of climate’s impact on the Arctic and has been put out annually since 2006 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States.

This year’s edition included contributions from 111 authors in 12 countries.

Impacts to transport, supply chains

Among the many changes discussed in the report, was how increased glacier retreat and permafrost thaw impacts things like landslides and infrastructure safety.

Gabriel Wolken, from the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys and lead author of the chapter, says it’s important the everyone from scientists to journalists make sure the international implications of these changes are understood. 

“From the perspective of changes in glaciers to the degradation of permafrost, these rapid changes can have impacts on carbon release and sea level rise and that’s a global phenomenon and that’s important to take into consideration,” he said.

A 2020 file photo of rubble and earth at the site of recurring landslides on Svalbard archipelago in Longyearbyen, Norway. Svalbard is approximately 1,200km north of the Arctic Circle. Global warming is having a dramatic impact on Svalbard, and
like in other regions of the Arctic, it’s increasing the risk of avalanches and landslides due to freezing rain in the winter and the thawing permafrost in the summer. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“Locally, the emergence of these glacier and permafrost hazards can cause a disruption to shipping. So in an era where there’s increased concerns about supplies and supply chain issues, travel through the Arctic through the Northwest Passage is something that is receiving a lot more attention.

“Cryosphere related hazards, though changes to glaciers and permafrost can have significant impacts on the different transportation routes that are taken. Large tsunamigenic, or large landslides that cause tsunamis, can have a significant impact on some of these shipping routes, so that’s another impact to people elsewhere on the globe from these changes in the Arctic.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Nunavut, Canada breaks 47 daily temperature records in 1st 6 days of October, CBC News

Greenland: Rise in sea level from ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica match worst-case scenario: study, CBC News

Finland: Temperatures headed toward -40C in Finnish Lapland, Yle News

Russia WMO confirms 38 C Arctic temperature record in Russia, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Arctic Report Card 2021 – Sea ice changes, rain on Greenland ice sheet among dramatic changes in North, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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