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These are the most extreme effects of climate change people are seeing in the Arctic

As world leaders meet for COP23 climate summit, Inuit are seeing the sun rise in the wrong place

by Hilary Beaumont
Nov 7 2017, 11:08am

World leaders and activists are gathering in Germany this week to decide how to implement the Paris Climate Accord.

The accord aims to stop average world temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. If that is not possible, it aims to keep it under 2 degrees Celsius.

An estimated 25,000 people will be at COP23, including leaders from 195 nations, and Canada’s climate change minister Catherine McKenna. Although President Donald Trump has said he will pull out of the accord, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon will represent the U.S. at the talks.

As politicians negotiate next steps, the planet is already experiencing some of its hottest years on record. Climate change is already causing flooding due to sea level rise along with extreme droughts and fires. Polar regions are warming faster than any other region on earth, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). And Canada’s Arctic is seeing some bizarre consequences.

The sun, stars and moon aren’t where they should be

Inuit elders are reporting a strange sight in the Arctic: The moon and stars appear to be in the wrong place, and the sun is rising in a different location.

“When the natural world begins to change, they really see it.”

Elders believe the earth’s tilt has changed, but western scientists say what they are seeing is an illusion created by a warming atmosphere.

Nunavut resident Louis Andalik, born in 1938, said through a translator he has noticed the sun’s position change dramatically since his childhood.

When he was a child, on the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21, he remembers the sun would rise in the south. “You would see it but it would continue to stay red because it was so close to the horizon, and just disappear without ever fully showing up.”

But in recent years, on Dec. 21, the sun rises in the south/southeast and stays in the sky, giving at least six hours of daylight, “and it shows up pretty clearly.”

Longer hours of sunlight, and the sun seemingly rising in a different location, are among the unique visual illusions scientists say are caused by a warming atmosphere.

When he was a child, Louis learned about the world by carefully observing changes in the environment, rather than being taught facts and information about the planet. It was a survival technique, according to Joe Karetak, who translated for Louis.

David Barber, a scientist studying sea ice, was invited to COP23 to update the conference on the warming Arctic. He says the position of the sun, stars and moon appear to change because the atmosphere is warming.

Perched on top of the permafrost are cities, pipelines and roads.

“In the case of seeing something in a different location [in the sky], from a scientific perspective we’re very clear that this is because the boundary layer of the climate is warming. So that means the layer of the atmosphere that is right above the earth’s surface in the Arctic is much warmer now than it used to be.”

He says the illusion is caused by the refraction of light, similar to a mirage in the desert, or a straw appearing askew in a glass of water.

“Inuit are meticulous observers of their environment, and they always have been. …So when the natural world begins to change, they really see it.”

Permafrost collapse

Imagine if the ground beneath your feet began to collapse in slow motion.

That’s what’s happening throughout much of the Arctic — from Canada to Siberia.

“When you’re out fishing on the sea ice, you notice it’s not as thick as the year before.”

Permafrost is earth that’s frozen year round. In the far north, permafrost forms a foundation under everything, except bodies of water. Perched on top of the permafrost are cities, pipelines and roads.

In Canada’s north, the permafrost is more than 10,000 years old, and depends on a cold climate to keep it together. But now, due to warmer temperatures, that permafrost is beginning to thaw and collapse, according to research by Canadian scientists published last spring in the journal Geology.

In Canada’s Arctic, the hot spots for permafrost collapse are communities like Fort McPherson, Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik, with a combined population of 5,000 people.

In northern Russia, homes are beginning to crack and collapse as the permafrost under them thaws, and giant other-worldly craters have opened up in the ground in Siberia.

Possibly the scariest part is that as the permafrost thaws, it releases trapped methane and carbon dioxide, which are potent greenhouse gases that will further contribute to global warming.

Unpredictable hunting and travel for the Inuit

Kukik Baker, a hunter in Arviat, Nunavut, is noticing changes to the sea ice.

“It starts to thaw quicker than it did in the past,” she says. “When you’re out fishing on the sea ice, you notice it’s not as thick as the year before.”

The sea ice where she travels is four or five feet thick, but she notices each year it is “a little bit thinner” than the year before.

“You just have to pay a little bit more attention to it,” she says.

Arviat is above the tree line, so certain animals and birds don’t come that far north. But this year she has seen three robins — an unusual sight.

In January this year, three men travelling on a snow machine fell through the sea ice and drowned near Whale Cove, Nunavut. It’s not clear if sea ice thickness contributed, or whether they were on an unsafe trail. But due to record high temperatures last winter, the ice on the Hudson Bay formed late, setting a new record low for ice extent, according to Nunatsiaq News.

Barber likens the sea ice to the trees in the rainforest — if you cut the trees down, you would expect everything to be affected.

“There isn’t anything that isn’t being touched by [the loss of sea ice],” Barber says.

“The Arctic is a tool to understand the immediacy of climate change,”

“People are part of the ecosystem, so it affects their ability to harvest animals for traditional use, it affects their cultural activities, it affects their transportation on the ice.”

And the Inuit are also grappling with globalization, including increasing interest in fossil fuels and mining in the north, and more tourism.

More severe storms

Severe hurricanes in the Atlantic dominated North American headlines this summer.

And the Arctic too is seeing more extreme storms, Barber says.

As the ocean warms and the sea ice recedes, the storms draw more strength from the ocean. These extreme storms can break up large ice floes very quickly into smaller ice floes, opening up the ocean even more. Some areas of the Arctic are also seeing very heavy snowfalls.

Barber says annual climate conferences are one way to get the public and politicians to recognize the urgency of climate change, and then need to rapidly wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

“The Arctic is a tool to understand the immediacy of climate change,” he said.

Shane Smith embarks on an expedition to investigate why Greenland is melting, and how the resulting sea level rise will mean devastation sooner than expected. This is his Debrief from Season 2 Episode 2 of VICE on HBO.