Taking a Close Look at the "Last Ice Area"

NASA ICE/CC BY 2.0

Every winter, less seasonal snow and ice forms in the Arctic—spanning Northern Canada, Russia, Alaska, and Greenland in addition to the Arctic Ocean—meaning that the melting from the preceding summer is not replenished. This, in turn, means that the permanent ice in the region is more vulnerable the next summer—and melting rates increase each year.

The cycle is moving in one clear direction: An ice-free Arctic. The only question is how long the remaining ice can last.

The most commonly cited projection shows that the Arctic will experience its first ice-free summer in 2015. Of course, some argue that in a practical sense, the Arctic is already ice free.

Once this ice is gone, what will happen to the people and animals that have survived in this region for centuries? The WWF has attempted to answer this question by looking at a project for 2040 in which only a few tiny slivers of ice—on the edge of Greenland and Canada—remain.

Wildlife in the Last Ice Area

feverblue/CC BY 2.0

Polar bears have become a banner species for climate change and the plight of the Arctic—and with good reason. Polar bears—which have a highly-specialized method of hunting seals and fish through holes and breaks in ice—need sea ice to survive. Already, diminished icepack has resulted in bears taking to open water, swimming as far as 426 miles, in search of hunting grounds. When bears don't find sufficient ice, the consequences can be grissly, with some turning to cannibalism to survive.

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With such a small habitat remaining—which WWF estimates will cover less than 500,000 square miles—the few remaining polar bears in the Last Ice Area will be in close competition with each other for hunting grounds. The proximity of other polar bears, however, will probably be the least of their worries. As temperatures warm, other species move north. By 2040 it is likely that this last Arctic habitat will overlap with that of grizzly bears, which have already demonstrated greater resilience in some parts of Alaska and Canada.

Walruses, too, will feel the strain of a dramatically reduced habitat. Sea ice is essential for the mating and breeding of the species, which use it to congregate in areas that allow for resting near feeding grounds. As ice has been diminished, mothers have been forced to travel farther to find food for their calves—resulting in increased mortality rates and overall lower reproductive productivity.

NOAA/Wikipedia/Public Domain

Seals, which form an essential part of the polar bear diet, are also impacted by the reduction in sea ice. The animals, which spend most of their time at sea, often only come ashore on floating sea ice. As this ice has shrunk, they have increasingly hauled out onto the rocky shore. In addition to habitat loss, a strange disease has emerged, threatening at least one species' survival.

In the Last Ice Area, the small remaining populations of these species will be forced together along a narrow strip of sea ice. This close concentration—combined with the intrusion of sub-Arctic species—will increase the competition among species dramatically, making it ever more difficult for the dwindling survivors to find sufficient food and reproduce.

People in the Last Ice Area

ezioman/CC BY 2.0

Life has never been easy for people in the Arctic, but a radically changing environment is bringing new social and economic challenges to communities that, for centuries, have survived in the icy extremes.

A warmer climate, it turns out, does not necessarily mean a safer environment in the Arctic. Indeed, as the ice melts, shorelines are becoming increasingly unstable, threatening entire towns with rapid erosion and rising sea levels. In addition to this, ice trails—which people have followed for generations as safe passages across the ice—have thinned, making common routes dangerous and unpredictable. Finally, the animal species indigenous to the region have long been the foundation of Arctic peoples' livelihood. As these animals decrease in abundance, it strains local economies. Moreover, those that survive are likely starved and desperate, leading to more dangerous interactions between people and animals.

In all likelihood, however, there will be few people in the Last Ice Area. Most communities indigenous to the Arctic will have moved on, or reoriented their economies to service the influx of shipping and petroleum extraction industries that will rush in once the ice is permanently gone.

If urgent action is not taken to reduce global emissions than the Last Ice Area may indeed be a reality. To protect this tiny sliver of a once vast ecosystem, governments and organizations like WWF must begin working on a management plan today.

This future, after all, gets closer every day.

Tags: Animals | Conservation | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Effects | Global Warming Science