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Shishmaref is literally falling into the sea…

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By Geoff York

As will likely be a common scene from here on out, I awake to a snowy, foggy morning. As the sea ice starts to break up, more and more water opens up and that significantly adds moisture to the near shore environment. With the right temperature and dew point combination, fog doesn’t move in, it just happens.

The weather improves enough to fly, though our fueling airplane is stuck in Kotzebue due to local weather conditions down there. We gear up and head out to the southwest in the direction of the village of Shishmaref, though we will remain far offshore. You may have heard of this town as it became famous during recent discussions on the impacts of climate warming to people in the north.

The severe loss of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea and the longer open water periods not only impact the wildlife, they impact the communities of the Arctic and present a unique hazard to the existing oil and gas infrastructure in Alaska and elsewhere. Due to increased storm and wave action, formerly buffered by sea ice, and concurrent with melting permafrost soils, Shishmaref is literally falling into the sea. The village of Kivalina to our north is also threatened by these same forces. Moving these long-occupied settlements will not be easy or inexpensive. If sea levels rise as predicted, we will see similar stories playing out around the world – and millions of people will be at risk of being displaced.
Not the happiest of thoughts as I busily scan the ice below our helicopter looking for a white needle in a massive white haystack, so to speak. To get an idea, try and quickly find the polar bear in the photo below. Now imagine that at 200 feet and 70 knots! Our best bet is to find recent tracks or to notice a bear moving. If a bear lies still in rough ice, with no clear tracks nearby, we’ll likely fly right over it.

Where’s the add 70 knots of forward motion!Where’s the add 70 knots of forward motion!

We finally cut some decent tracks and start to follow them to the west a bit. They lead us to a subadult male that Eric captured earlier in the season and he is feeding on a seal. While it’s not clear if he was the successful hunter, or whether he is scavenging the remains from an adult bears dinner (common for younger polar bears), it is great to see him out and doing well. The FWS team has resighted about 7 bears so far this year out of the 57 captured to date. More on how we can visually tell this later.

Once again, the weather is uncooperative and without additional fuel support we start heading back to base. We do not see any more bears or tracks, though we spot quite a few bearded and ringed seals, an occasional bowhead whale, and several belugas migrating northward. Eiders and murres are also increasingly common on the water and in flocks moving north. The productivity of this region is truly amazing.

WWF International Arctic Programme polar bear specialist, Geoff York, is currently in the Chukchi Sea area with the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service, conducting research into the status of polar bear populations in the area, and is blogging for the WWF Climate blog while he is there.

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