Soon after the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its new landmark report on sea level rise last month, I travelled to the Arctic to check out global warming’s ground zero for myself. The ominous report, validated by more than 100 of the best scientific minds from 36 countries, made dire predictions for places like Key Biscayne, an island I have called home for the past 20 years and whose fate is increasingly tied to what happens to the sea and land ice in the Arctic. The study confirms that, unlike the Las Vegas slogan, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.
Specifically, it finds that, unless policy makers are able to keep global warming under 1.5°C, communities like Key Biscayne are likely to vanish. Moreover, it warns policy makers that an increase of just half a degree over that will destroy life as we presently know it on our planet. In essence, millions of lives hang in the balance with just half a degree of additional warming. And, as if that wasn’t enough, current scientific estimates place us on a path towards warming the world by 3 to 5°C. The only good news is that there is still a very narrow time window (11 years) to turn this bleak scenario around. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
So, off I went to see first-hand the region of our planet currently flashing the loudest planetary climate fire alarm signal. A recent study by NOAA found that the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
As I began my 3,936-mile journey to the Arctic, I could not help but wonder what all the people I saw in the cavernous airports were thinking. Surely, if our best scientific minds were telling us that we were in a battle for our survival, everyone should be talking about this. But no one seemed alarmed. Why wasn’t the media talking about this 24/7 as it did when covering a war or other national emergency?
The answer to this query comes partly from the old adage where a frog, which is dropped into a pot of boiling water, quickly jumps out of the pot. But if it’s placed in the pot with room-temperature water, which is then heated up slowly, the poor frog won’t notice the slow change as it meets its groggy death. In humans, this neurological glitch is called “change blindness” and it helps explain part of the puzzle that keeps humans from treating the climate crisis as an emergency. The other part of the puzzle -- the majority of it -- is political and corporate disinformation.
As my small charter plane made its way over the mighty Brooks Range into the Arctic Circle, I looked down on the vast expanse of land that makes up America’s largest national wildlife refuge known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska’s North Slope Region, a pristine home to Arctic wildlife, including polar bears, porcupine caribou (whose migration is so large that it can be seen from space), lynx, muskox and innumerable bird species. This is land that until recently had been off limits to oil and gas development, regardless of what political party was in control, especially as this is opposed by the majority of Americans. Today, the battle for ANWR is seen as the American conservation movement’s last stand. That’s because opening up ANWR to oil and gas development would not only add fuel to a planet already on fire, but it would also upend a land where native tribes and wildlife have coexisted for millennia.
As the endless land beneath me -- Alaska is bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined -- gave way to Earth’s northernmost body of water, the small single engine plane abruptly banked and began its descent to the dirt runway on Barter Island in the Arctic Ocean. Upon landing, I was greeted by mild weather and deboarded the plane in a short sleeve shirt with a jacket tied around my waist; the first sign of climate anomalies taking place here. I was then handed my bags by the pilot and walked into the village of Kaktovik (population 240), where I would be staying with Kayotuk, an elder from the Iñupiat tribe.
It had been a long journey and, after getting briefly acquainted with my host, I quickly fell asleep until loud gunshots woke me in the middle of the night suddenly. Kayotuk explained to me that, because of the danger posed by polar bears to the villagers and their children, the village has set up 24 hour bear patrols. Gunshots meant bears had tried to enter the village and had either been scared off or shot. This was another sad consequence of a warming planet as the hungry polar bears are forced to remain on land longer due to the ocean surrounding Kaktovik taking much longer to freeze. Because polar bear prey is found on sea ice, the bears frequently wander into town in search of food while they wait for the sea ice to reach them. During my walks through town, I was deeply moved when I came upon the carcass of polar bear that had been sadly shot because of these tragic aberrations.
While documenting polar bears and the remains of bowhead whale from a recent hunt by the Iñupiat tribe (the US government permits the tribe to hunt three bowhead whales per year, and the discards help keep the climate-beleaguered bears alive), a boat skipper informed me that despite it being October, the sea ice was still over 300 miles away -- a record distance for this time of the year.
The data shows that sea ice in the Arctic has been retreating 12.9 percent per decade, unleashing dire circumstances not only for species like polar bears, but also for humans in the form of rising sea levels, ocean acidification and climate change acceleration due to methane, a potent greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat, being released from melting permafrost.
Moreover, the Albedo Effect, which keeps the Earth cooler as ice and snow reflect about 80% of the Sun’s energy back into space, enhances warming because, as ice and snow melt, the darker oceans and land absorb the heat, causing more warming in an increasing cycle.
None of this bodes well for coastal Florida communities like Key Biscayne where sea level rise, due mostly to melting polar ice, is already speeding up.
Despite all of this, many of the indigenous people in Kaktovik favor opening up their land to oil exploration as the riches being dangled in front of them by the oil majors are simply too hard to resist. The mayor informed me that the community was split over the issue, and a previous village employee, Evelyn Reitan, told me that she had been fired from her post for what was perceived as her strong opposition to oil development in ANWR.
Tribal communities like Kaktovik bear little blame in the global crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the oil majors. Today, an increasing number of people believe climate crimes should be prosecuted in forums like The Hague. They believe reparations for environmental damage should be paid, especially if the evidence continues to prove that offending corporations were aware of the dire consequences of their actions and proceeded anyway.
Seeing the front lines of the climate crisis with my own eyes was bittersweet. Sweet because I was able to observe up close the proud, kind and magnificent people and culture of this blessed land. And because I’ve had the profoundly moving experience seeing the Northern Lights above me -- so close that I felt I could touch them, as if entering a realm where the Spirit of the living Earth permeates every fiber of one’s being. And, bitter because the Earth was showing me that we had harmed her, and harmed the living creatures she is responsible for sustaining, including ourselves.
About the Author
Executive Director for ArticWild a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wild Arctic environments. Rivera Uncapher received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Miami School of Law in 1990. Upon graduation, he founded a company specializing in assisting Central American indigenous communities in getting their handicrafts to European markets. His photography work has been widely recognized, including by the United Nation's Biodiversity Initiative, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Wilderness League. He is a frequent contributor to magazines, trade journals, and industry blogs. Recently he was featured in Islander News for his film Cayo Vizcaíno. His photography and film work has allowed him to witness first-hand the key role the Arctic plays in safeguarding Earth’s unique atmosphere.