November 27, 2004

Hot Times in the Arctic

The temperature rises in the Arctic are bringing in hosts of new animals that the native Inuit don't even have names for. It also spells disaster for Arctic animals that are well adapted to harsh, cold living conditions, but can't directly compete with the sturdier animals moving north with the warmer climate:

...The Inuit are reduced to describing [the robin] as "the bird with the red breast" in their language, Inuktiut, said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the top elected representative of the people worldwide.

Nor, she said, are there words for salmon, hornets and barn owls, all of which are appearing in the Arctic for the first time. "We can't even describe what we are seeing," she added.

Last month, the Arctic Council presented the most comprehensive report ever carried out on the climate of the region, which is made up of parts of the United States, Canada, Russia, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. It concluded that the far north is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

...[The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment] added that polar bears "are unlikely to survive as a species" if the sea ice melts, because they would be crowded out by brown bears and grizzlies, which would be much better suited to the new environment.

Another report, on changes in North American wildlife because of climate change, concluded that the Arctic fox is already retreating in the face of a steady northwards expansion of the red fox.

Much larger and more aggressive, the red fox easily beats its Arctic cousin in fights, but cannot cope with extreme cold. But as global warming has taken hold it has already advanced 600 miles north in parts of Canada...

The Arctic fox has a circulatory arrangement in its feet called a countercurrent heat exchange.

The way it works is that the arteries going towards the extremities are in close contact with the matching veins going back towards the body in the opposite direction. The warm blood going to the feet transfers heat to the cold blood coming from the feet. This allows minimal heat loss to the cold ground, and prevents the body core from being chilled.

Such an adaptation is common in ocean fish, the feet and wings of water birds, the extremities of ocean mammals, and animals who live in very cold climates. it's the kind of specialization which is only useful in a particular climate, and confers no advantage outside of it. It's helpful in a harsh environment much the same way as a smaller stature requiring less sustenance is helpful.

I'd like to be able to put into words how tragic such a potential loss of biodiversity is, and how long it would take to regain should the climate shift back. But the truth is that this tragedy is being repeated in the Antarctic as more southerly penguin species are crowded out by northerly neighbors better adapted to the heat. It's being repeated as wetlands become too drained or polluted to support their amphibian populations. It's being repeated as irreplaceable habitat is razed for goods that will be quickly used and thrown away, or for land that will wear out and wash away within a few short seasons.

I read an economist's book once (it was a long time ago, from a friend's book collection, and I don't remember the author's name, sorry) where the author suggested that if the environment were important, a market would be created for it and it would be preserved at whatever its true currency value was. Yet the way our society is going, by the time the value of a diverse catalogue of living things and habitats is realized, it may not be available at any price.

More than money, more than power, more than mineral riches or investment portfolios, the fine and rare life that exists on this planet is wealth beyond measure. It exists nowhere else in our solar system, and as far as we know, nowhere else at all. There can be no greater imperative than preserving this planet to the best of our ability, because the life of our species truly depends on it.

Posted by natasha at November 27, 2004 10:49 PM | Environment | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

Yet we keep polluting, continue to drive our SUVs, leave all the lights on in our homes, watch industry spew endless chemicals into our skies, and ignore mass transit planning.

The pot we are sitting in his slowly rising in temperature, and we either can't notice, or won't notice, as we are being cooked to extinction. The polar bears might be gone before us, but we move one step closer to our own end with each species we wipe out in our foolish wasting of this planet.

Posted by: Scott at November 28, 2004 05:25 AM

And our administration fiddles as the earth burns...Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky said "the United States will take the findings into account as it continues to review the science on climate change" even as the US doomed the Reykjavik meeting of the Arctic Council on Nov. 24th. Yeah, we'll take the findings into account. But it will soon be too late for many beings.

Posted by: Patrick at November 28, 2004 04:06 PM