Troubling Signs of Climate Change Seen in Arctic

ByABC News

POINT BARROW, Alaska, Sept. 27, 2005 — -- This season has ushered in the warmest Arctic summer in 400 years. A NASA report to be released this week finds the polar ice pack has shrunk by nearly 30 percent since 1978, and new satellite photos show the melting is speeding up.

Scientists say the Arctic may be caught in a vicious cycle of global warming. As ice melts, there's less white matter to reflect the sun's heat back into space. The dark ocean absorbs more of the sun's heat and that, in turn, melts more of the ice pack.

ABC News traveled to the northern tip of America – Point Barrow, Alaska – to document the other dramatic effects of global warming.

During the summer, people who live in the region have a practice of storing whale meat in ice cellars dug into the permanently frozen ground. But when whale hunter Eugene Brower took an ABC News crew to see his, he was shocked by what he found.

"The skin and blubber should be frozen!" he said. "It's thawing out."

Typically in the Arctic, any ground deeper than about four feet has always been frozen. But the permafrost is now starting to melt.

At Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of the United States is melting as well.

"The bluff edge was out there by about 150 feet or so just 10 years ago," said scientist Ann Jensen.

Since melting permafrost leaves the ground soft and with far less frozen surface to block the waves, the water carves away at it. Old graves are tumbling into the sea.

"They keep getting exposed," said Jensen. "People don't really want to see their ancestors getting washed into the ocean."

Whole villages are tumbling into the ocean, forcing people to relocate -- as well as many animals.

Black guillemots began nesting this far north 40 years ago, when temperatures started to rise.

Now scientists are watching the birds get driven out by puffins, warmer weather birds from the sub-Arctic, which kill the chicks and take over the nests.

"Yesterday, it's the Arctic, and now suddenly, it's turning into the sub-Arctic!" said biologist George Divoky.

As the sea ice disappears, many polar bears are starving because they must have sea ice on which to hunt.

And the culture of local residents, whose life has centered upon hunting on the ice, is changing as well.

"It's often too dangerous now, due to the thin ice," said Fred Simik, an Inupiat native.

Another cause for worry: scientists report that as the permafrost melts and this vast Arctic tundra dries up, decaying plants in the soil are releasing increased amounts of carbon – a greenhouse gas that only adds to the warming and melting.

"Humans are putting about 6 [billion] or 7 billion metric tons of carbon in the atmosphere every year," said biologist Walter Oechel, director of the Global Change Research Institute at San Diego State University. "And we're standing on 200 billion tons here," he added, pointing to the tundra.

Just how soon that carbon may get released is unclear. But those who live in the area have moved on from the debate about whether global warming is real. They're living with it.

ABC News' Bill Blakemore filed this report for "World News Tonight."

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