Not long ago the debate was still heated as to as whether or not the earth is warming. Today it has been established that the planet is indeed warming and that, as a 2001 statement from the National Academy of Science puts it, "changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities."
Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1880, the average temperature of the planet has increased by just over one-and-a-half degrees Fahrenheit. That may not seem like much. One entire degree of that change, from fifty-nine to sixty degrees Fahrenheit, took place since the late 1970s alone. According to the United Nations-sanctioned Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), earth and its inhabitants will be facing temperatures from three to ten degrees warmer by the end of the 21st century.
To put this into perspective, consider that the temperature difference between today's temperature and that of the last ice age, about twenty thousand years ago, is nine degrees Fahrenheit. According to the predictions of the IPCC, that same temperature change will now happen within just one to three hundred years. Natural cycles of warming and cooling typically take tens of thousands of years, not hundreds. So what is happening?
To understand climate change, one must first understand why our planet has a climate perfectly suited for life in the first place. The warmth of the earth's surface is caused by an atmospheric process called the greenhouse effect, whereby certain gases are responsible for keeping the temperature at a constant on the planet. Acting much like the glass of a greenhouse, these naturally occurring gases, like carbon dioxide, let sunlight in while preventing heat from escaping, and for this reason they are called greenhouse gases.
Throughout earth's 4.6 billion year history, concentrations of greenhouse gas and temperatures on earth have fluctuated, as the earth cycled through warm periods and ice ages. For the past nine thousand years, however, temperatures have been very stable-a fact scientists believe has been essential to the development of human civilization.
That seems to be changing now. In the last 150 years, human activities associated with the industrialization of our world, (in particular the burning of fossil fuels: gas, oil, and coal) have released an increasing amount of greenhouse gases that accumulate in the atmosphere, where they strengthen the greenhouse effect and may cause climate instability. Scientists cannot predict all the consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, but watching closely for changes and they've got their eyes on the sky.
And elsewhere. Scientists see the signs of atmospheric and climate change in tree rings, ancient coral, and bubbles trapped in ice cores. Residents of Latin America and southern Asia see it in lethal storms and floods. Europeans see it in disappearing glaciers, forest fires, and fatal heat waves. The most dramatic changes, however, are seen in the Arctic with it melting permafrost, disappearing sea ice, and retreating glaciers. As Elders of Nunavut, Canada said to GoNorth! team member Shari Fox during one of her large research studies on traditional ecological knowledge: "the weather is uggianaqtuq!"
Uggianaqtuq (OOG-gi-a-nak-took) is a Inuktitut word that means to behave unexpectedly or in an unfamiliar way. While the global community and scientists worldwide were still debating the realities of climate change, the Elders of the Arctic peoples began to observe the changes based on their traditional knowledge. GoNorth! team member and scientist Henry Huntington explains, "Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a system of understanding one's environment. It is built over generations, as people depend on the land and sea for their food, materials and culture. TEK is observations and experience in light of what one has learned from one's Elders. The people of the Arctic rely on this knowledge for their survival. They literally stake their lives on its accuracy again and again."
Despite this wealth of knowledge held by Inuit regarding climate change, scientific research has rarely included observations of local people. Mostly this is because science has not accepted the traditional ecological knowledge of Native people as valid or functional. This has slowly changed over the past ten years. Two scientists instrumental in this change are GoNorth! scientists Henry Huntington and Shari Fox.
Today we know the Elders were right. In the past few decades the average temperature in the Arctic has risen at almost twice the rate as the rest of the world. Although very little emission of greenhouse gasses actually takes place in the Arctic, the region is like the canary in the coal mine, a harbinger of what is to come based on dramatic changes already taking place. In Alaska, the temperature increase over the past 150 years sets the record at more than six degrees Fahrenheit. These Arctic changes will, in turn, affect the planet as a whole, as climatic processes unique to the Arctic have significant effects on global and regional climate.