Arctic summers could soon be free of sea ice, according to a new study. How that change will affect people and wildlife in Nunavut depends on who you ask.
The peer-reviewed study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, determined that floating arctic sea ice could vanish completely during September, when levels are usually at their lowest, as soon as the 2030s.
The study also found that, even if drastic measures are taken to curb global warming, the Arctic could still lose its summer sea ice by the 2050s.
Nunavut’s Minister of Environment Joanna Quassa believes the study is proof that the effects of climate change are occurring “far quicker than scientists have predicted,” and assures that her department is “working very hard” to mitigate the ensuing risks.
She pointed specifically to the GN’s climate change risk and resiliency assessment, which aims to examine and brace for the changes that Nunavummiut are likely to experience as a result of a warming planet. The government is also “building more energy efficient housing and offering programs to help homeowners and community members transition away from fossil fuels,” she noted.
However, she sees some potential positives to more open water in arctic summers.
“First and foremost,” she said, it would allow Inuit to spend more time on the water.
“This would mean a longer season with which Inuit can harvest, continue with our annual marine research programs which helps us to monitor and identify new marine creatures, and explore the possibilities to increase the scale of our marine fisheries sector,” she added.
Erin Keenan, Senior Manager of Arctic Marine Conservation at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) agreed that a loss of summer sea ice could create “some changes that could be construed as a benefit” in the short term, but offered a different view on how marine wildlife – and the people who rely on that wildlife for subsistence – will be affected long-term.
“Sea ice is almost as important as soil in a forest environment,” she said. “It’s the basis of the entire Arctic marine ecosystem. Almost every species we find in the Arctic is adapted to live in an environment with sea ice.”
“It’s not just the iconic species like polar bear or narwhal or walrus that are relying on the sea ice and impacted by the loss of sea ice. The ice is also how algae develops, which is basically in the food chain for all of the species within that ecosystem.”
“It’s hard to say that wildlife populations will be able to sustain themselves in a way that can also support food sovereignty.”
A loss of summer sea ice could certainly make it easier for boats and ships to navigate Arctic waters. Quassa believes that could lead to benefits from “an economic development perspective.”
“More ice-free summers would also mean longer marine transportation seasons for our mining operations, exploration efforts, fisheries development sector and cruise ship tourism visitors,” she said. “This might also help us strengthen our existing marine protection efforts and [allow us] to work closer with our partners at the federal government on increasing our search and rescue capabilities.”
“Having more open water would likely prolong our marine re-supply season and allow us to get more of the heating fuel and building and infrastructure materials that we require for our community projects.”
Keenan again offered a different prospective, explaining that increased shipping activity could put further strain on ecosystems that are already being forced to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.
Whatever changes are coming, Quassa is adamant that Inuit communities must be closely involved in the conversation.
“Inuit have been monitoring and observing change in our environment long before the term climate change was ever coined,” she said. “Because Inuit have always been adapting, we have learned to navigate through the changes we are seeing.”
“Whatever the future holds, it is important to ensure that Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit is incorporated in our adaptation efforts.”
On that point, Keenan agrees.
“There’s a wealth of knowledge about these animals and how they behave from Inuit communities who are in the region,” she said. “We’ll have to look to them to understand how the species are being impacted in future decades and how to best support the conservation and survival of these species.”