Global Warming Poses a Challenge to Arctic Animals – and Those Who Hunt Them

If we manage to cap global warming at 1.5°C since pre-industrial times, it will be several degrees warmer in Canada’s North. This is the second installment in a series that examines what six degrees of heat will mean for the Northwest Territories. Read the first here and the second here.

When David Kuptana looked out the window of his home in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, and across the Beaufort Sea last Friday, he saw something unusual for November: open water, just two kilometers away.

« We never had that. We used to have frozen solid ice, » he said.

Ulukhaktok, a small coastal community on the western shore of Victoria Island, lies north of the Arctic Circle. This is where Kuptana, a full-time hunter, was born and raised.

Kuptana says warming temperatures in the Arctic mean ice forms later in the season, limiting his ability to get to his usual hunting grounds and also driving away some of the wildlife he seeks out, such as polar bears and seals.

One meter high pressure ridge on Lake Winnipeg. Kuptana says pressure ridges, like this one, are where seals like to raise their young – and where polar bears can get a meal. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Both animals like pressure ridges in the ice, Kuptana said. This is where seals like to raise their young and, not so incidentally, where polar bears might find a meal. But the absence of thick ice and those pressure ridges, Kuptana said, also means the absence of these animals.

« The ice is too thin, » he said.

Summer sea ice is expected to disappear at 6°C

Seeing less sea ice is something Kuptana and others in Ulukhaktok may have to get used to. Even in the best-case scenarios, the world seems locked into rising temperatures that will affect the Arctic even more than the global average.

Studies show that the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world. This means that even if global emissions are capped at 1.5°C, the Arctic could experience temperatures up to 6°C warmer than they were in pre-industrial times.

Walt Meier, principal investigator at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, said that at 6°C of warming – « we’re pretty sure the ice cover will disappear completely in summer ».

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Ships are framed by chunks of melting sea ice in Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit in late July 2019. Walt Meier, principal investigator at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, said that at six degrees of warming, the Arctic will likely lose its summer sea ice. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Meier refers to summer sea ice, sometimes called multi-year ice. It is ice that stays in the Arctic Ocean for more than a year, which makes it different from seasonal or annual sea ice.

A recently released report by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, presented at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt earlier this month, predicts that the Arctic will lose all of its summer sea ice at least once before 2050.

Meier helped revise the report. He said that every degree counts.

If we manage to limit Arctic warming to 4.5 degrees, he said it would likely save a few million square kilometers of sea ice. It could be a kind of lifeline for all the creatures that depend on the ice, like the polar bears walking on it and the tiny organisms that exist underneath.

Loss of sea ice heralds the death of polar bears

The last time Kristin Laidre saw a polar bear hunt was from a helicopter over northeast Greenland.

Laidre, a senior scientist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, watched the animal rear up on its hind legs and smash through a patch of lumpy snow – a seal den – over and over again.

« He keeps doing that to the point where, like, the whole bear is almost like under snow. You can only see his erect buttocks, » she said.

But the hunt was unsuccessful. Laidre said a polar bear has to « work pretty hard » to catch a seal, its primary prey.

A research paper indicates that when polar bears come to communities to feed, it threatens their health and lives. Laidre also said bears can’t get enough fat from eating things on land – like berries or twigs – to survive.

A polar bear and her cub in Churchill, Man. Kristin Laidre, a senior scientist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, says polar bears can’t get enough fat by eating things on land, like berries and twigs, to survive. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Polar bears are a « specialist » in hunting on the frozen ocean, Laidre said. Each of its sealing techniques relies on the existence of pack ice.

And that’s why the loss of sea ice in the summer heralds an almost certain fate for the species.

« You would lose polar bears in most parts of their range, » she said. « Now, could there be polar bears that can hang in small areas like, for example, around Greenland, where we have glaciers? Maybe. But I don’t even know. »

“It will hurt a lot of people”

In the 90s and 2000s, Kuptana said his community was able to hunt what they needed for the winter season in the months of October and September.

« We used to catch a lot of animals all winter long, » he said.

But now, because the freeze-up happens later in the year, he goes hunting on the ice later in the year as well. By the time the ice is safe to travel, he says, the days have become short and sometimes animals, like caribou, have already migrated.

This means he travels farther and with less daylight to harvest food for his family.

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A person drives a snowmobile and trailer towards Hudson Bay in May 2022 in Inukjuak, Quebec. Kuptana says climate change means he is traveling further, with less daylight, to harvest food for his family. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

« The price of gas just went up, right now, just Monday, » he said. “It will be very difficult for our young people who have no income to try to harvest for their families,” he said.

Kuptana says that for a few years now, Ulukhatuk has been trading fish for caribou meat from Aklavik to help those struggling to obtain country meat.

« Our elders, my dad, used to tell me that one day we weren’t going to see any snow. And it’s not going to freeze, we won’t have ice. And it’s starting to affect us, that starting to happen,” he said. .

“My great fear is that climate change will continue[s] and doing what he’s doing right now is going to hurt a lot of people. »


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