In the spring of 1987, Inuit hunter Theo Ikummaq made a three-month journey by dogsled from the west coast of Baffin Island to Qaanaaq in Greenland--the same journey that his ancestors made during a 19th century migration. "I could not make that same journey now," he says. "To cross safely from Canada to Greenland, you would have to go much farther north. The trip would also take much longer, as there are many more open leads and the ice is much more unpredictable."
Ikummaq's experiences are being confirmed by scientists working in the area. In as little as 15 years, they believe, much of the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer. The last time that happened was a million years ago. For the Arctic peoples and the animals who share their home, the prognosis isn't good. "The Arctic is the canary in the global coal mine, and its already sick," says Canadian geographer Dr Terry Prowse, a member of the international Arctic Climate Impact Assessment group,
In a vicious circle, more white, heat-reflecting ice is melting and being replaced by darker, open ocean, which absorbs more energy from the sun, accelerating the warming. Eric Rignot of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been using satellites to measure the rate at which ice is being lost from the Arctic ice cap. His results suggest that the rate of annual loss has almost doubled from 90 cubic kilometres in 1996 to 150 cubic kilometres in 2005.
Sea-ice cover during the Arctic summer reached a record low last year, and ice thickness has decreased by 40 per cent over the past 30 years. And between 1965 and 1995, 20 billion tonnes of fresh water has melted from the Arctic into the North Atlantic, more water than in all of the USA's Great Lakes combined.
Ruth Curry at the US Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has used these and other results to formulate an apocalyptic vision of the future. If the melting continues, and more fresh water floods into the North Atlantic, she says, "the great ocean conveyor belt that drives the planetary water cycle and causes the Gulf Stream to modify the northwest European climate could shut down altogether, triggering an abrupt change in climate only decades from now." Such a scenario could see much of the Northern Hemisphere plunged into a mini ice age.
Greenland's ice cap, which contains enough ice to raise global sea level by seven metres, is starting to melt and could collapse suddenly as the high Arctic reaches a 'tipping point'. Most scientists believe that it would take hundreds of years of warm weather to melt it all, but fresh water is already percolating down, lubricating the base and making it more unstable.
None of this comes as any great surprise to the Inuit who live a traditional subsistence lifestyle in Qaanaaq in northwestern Greenland. "Glaciers are noticeably receding," says Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq, a local hunter, pointing to the western landmass. "Our place names are no longer consistent with the land's appearance. Senntarsussuaq means the smaller large glacier that used to stretch out to sea there. It no longer exists."
Eschewing most modern technology, these Inuit still get about by dogsled. But doing so has become increasingly difficult and, at times, dangerous. The inuit need sea ice to form around the coast in order to travel out to hunt the animals that themselves use it to hunt, rest or give birth. But warmer temperatures are causing the ice to form later and making it thinner and more unpredictable.
Lars Jeremiassen has hunted for many years in the Savissivik area. "Forty years ago, we had a safe hunting season when there was enough ice to go out on the land with the dogs from October until the beginning of August," he says. "Now it can be as late as November, or even December before the sea is frozen enough, and by early June, the ice is too thin. …