Although the UN's World Water Day was last Sunday only, it seemed important to spend more time looking at the effect of climate change on one very important body of water: the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The fact that it is now navigable will bring increased cargo and tourist shipping, and more industrial activity, probably including drilling and fracking for oil and gas at sea and on land. Along with these changes, new and unpredictable weather patterns will affect the lives of people and animals alike.
The polar bear, symbol of Nunavut and in many people's minds, a symbol of the entire Arctic, has already been adversely affected by the melting sea ice. The bears used to spend long periods on the ice floes, hunting seals and fish. Now, those ice floes are disappearing earlier in the spring and forming later in the fall. The bears have less time to take on necessary calories and must use more energy swimming. The main cause of death amongst polar bear cubs recently is lack of nutrition in their mother's milk and low ratios of body fat.
Although probably not a threat to the survival of the species, according to TVO's recent series on the Northwest Passage, some Inuit communities are willing to offer polar bear hunts to outsiders, charging up to $50,000 for the experience. These kinds of decisions are bound to affect the communities involved, but it's hard to see how they can be asked to resist the opportunity to make some much needed money.
Lower down the food chain, insects are not appearing at the time the birds need them for food, which affects the birds. Small game, such as guillemots, formerly food for polar bears, are laying their eggs and departing earlier because the weather is warming earlier. When the polar bears arrive at their nesting sites, expecting food, there are fewer birds and eggs, leaving hungry bears.
Polar bears have been studied and scientists are fairly sure what's happening to them, and what is probably to come, but the effect of the new order on other creatures is less well known. Another symbol of Nunavut is the narwhal, a mysterious marine creature who sports a single spiral incisor growing through its forehead. Although narwhals migrate around 1,000 miles per year, they stay in the cold waters and don't emerge from the ice in winter. They don't approach shore and many of their habits are still unknown to scientists. Only the Inuit may legally hunt narwhals, and then only at subsistence levels, but they are threatened by the incursion of killer whales into the Arctic through the melting ice. The orcas have also been seen hunting beluga and bowhead whales.
The changing climate has meant a change of habitat for many species of marine life besides killer whales, although their presence in the Arctic is a huge sign of change. A grey whale, native to the Pacific and not seen in the Mediterranean since the 18th century, was spotted off Israel. Arctic char are having to compete for food with other species moving into their neighbourhood, and Atlantic and Pacific salmon, separated for centuries by the ice packs, are expected to merge in the future. Microscopic plants from the Pacific have been found in the Atlantic, and more life forms will be carried on the hulls of ships through the Passage in the future.
Newfoundland cod, already challenged by over-fishing, will undoubtedly be affected by further changes caused by the mingling waters of the Arctic and the Atlantic.
Some creatures have emerged whose effect is uncertain. A new species of lungworm, as yet unnamed but whose biological label will reflect the language of the Dene people who first saw it, has been found in muskox and cariboo, causing pneumonias. Up to 30 per cent of the muskox population has died off in the last few years. A scientist at the University of Calgary is now researching the worm and will soon publish his findings.
The people of the Arctic are not just sitting passively by and watching the animals suffer. The 900 residents of Clyde River have filed a legal challenge to stop seismic testing for oil on the Arctic Ocean floor off their coast. They are concerned that this testing will harm the narwhal in the area, both disturbing their habitat and possibly preventing them from navigating on their migratory routes. Through the Council of Canadians, they are asking for support for their campaign from other Canadians.