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By Ed Struzik, edmontonjournal.com May 6, 2012 7:48 AM

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University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher assesses the condition of a family of grizzly bears on the Arctic coast. Barren ground grizzlies are now mating with polar bears.

University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher assesses the condition of a family of grizzly bears on the Arctic coast. Barren ground grizzlies are now mating with polar bears.
Photograph by: Ed Struzik , edmontonjournal.com

EDMONTON – University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher was in the High Arctic in late April getting a rare, first-hand glimpse of what the future of the Arctic might look like right around the time 3,000 researchers, policy-makers and indigenous leaders gathered in Montreal at the International Polar Year 2012 conference to try to imagine the same thing.

Derocher was on the sea ice catching and tagging polar bears off the coast of Victoria Island when Inuvialuit hunter Pat Epakohak hunted and killed a female polar bear that had two very unusual looking cubs with her.

“One of the cubs was very grizzly bearlike and the other looked more like a polar bear,” Derocher wrote in an email after getting a chance to look at the carcasses of the animals. “I guess we can expect more of these hybrids as the population of grizzly bears continues to grow in this part of the world.”

Up until about 20 years ago, sightings of grizzlies in the High Arctic were extremely rare; a quirk of nature, many biologists thought, that may have occurred because the bear walked the wrong way or strayed too far following mainland caribou that sometimes cross the sea ice to Arctic islands. No one imagined that hybrids such as the one Derocher saw would be part of the land or seascape.

But that thinking began to change in recent years as more brown bears and a succession of other animals such as red fox, coyotes, white-tailed deer, Pacific salmon and killer whales began showing up in areas traditionally occupied by Arctic fox, Arctic wolves, caribou, Arctic char and beluga whales. Some of these animals, we now know, are also producing hybrids.

No one knows exactly what the Arctic will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years. But thanks in large part to the International Polar Year (IPY), which launched in 2007 and has involved 55,000 researchers, northern residents and educators from 60 countries participating in 228 projects, we know that the future Arctic won’t resemble what it is now or was a century ago.

With sea ice melting, glaciers receding and Arctic storms picking up steam, dozens of coastal communities such as Shishmaref in Alaska and Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding and erosion and many of them will slide into the sea.

A warmer and shorter ice season will make it easier to search for oil and gas and other resources in once inaccessible areas, but it will also result in less time for polar bears to hunt seals and more time and opportunity for flies, mosquitoes and disease to take their toll on caribou and nesting birds.

And while a shorter ice season holds the promise of a faster, cheaper way of shipping goods through the Arctic, that traffic will bring noise and pollution to a marine world that is now silent and relatively pristine.

Southerners won’t be immune to what is happening in the polar world, according to many scientists who presented at the IPY wrap up conference in Montreal. For want of a better way of describing it, they likened the Arctic to a giant air conditioner that keeps the southern parts of the world cool.

If the heat continues to get turned up, they say, the air conditioner is going to overload and break down.

By way of example, University of Alberta fire expert Mike Flannigan suggests that forest fires in Alberta, as well as the Yukon and the Northwest Territories are going to burn hotter, faster and more often in the not-so-distant future.

Not every prediction that came out of IPY is black and white or linear.

According to scientists associated with the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program, which has been tracking 890 populations of 323 vertebrate species across the entire Arctic since 1970, overall trends for all Arctic animals remain relatively stable.

That may sound like good news, says Mike Gill, the Environment Canada scientist who chairs that monitoring program, but he agrees that the devil is in the details. While the report shows that commercial fish populations such as Pacific herring and ocean perch appear to be expanding dramatically in the Arctic, marine birds such as thick-billed guillemot have been in a steady decline since 1998. And while the great bowhead whale that was almost hunted to extinction in the early 20th century is making a big comeback, ringed seals and beluga could be in trouble.

As it turns out, the fortunes of many Arctic animals depend on where and how they make a living. Ice-dependent animals such as the polar bear, beluga, narwhal, ringed seal, and Arctic cod, for example, are not faring well in a world where ice is receding quickly.

But killer whales, which tend to avoid ice, are. Fisheries and Oceans scientist Steve Ferguson suggests that the day may soon come when the killer whale replaces the polar bear as the top predator in western Hudson Bay. With the whales’ capability to kill belugas, narwhals and schools of fish, their northward advance could alter what is a very simple ecosystem in a very significant way.

What makes Ferguson’s study, and dozens of others like it, extraordinary is the help of Inuit traditional ecological knowledge. Ferguson and his colleagues visited Inuit communities and conducted over 100 interviews with people who had a first-hand look at where the killer whales are.

This is important because neither the Inuit nor Dene of Canada are going to buy into public policy decisions that have not always worked in their favour. Several of them, including Mary Simon, the President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization representing Inuit from Nunavut, Nunavik in Northern Quebec, Nunatsiavut in Labrador and the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories, made that very clear in Montreal.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan took credit for the Canadian government’s commitment to IPY. His government and the two Liberal governments before it contributed more than $150 million to the effort. But IPY chairman Peter Harrison spoke for the 55,000 people who contributed to the International Polar Year when he said at the Montreal conference that the time has come to act on the knowledge gained from the projects’ research.

“In many cases, we know what needs to be done,” says University of Alberta scientist David Hik, who was executive director of the IPY office based in Edmonton and is now a board member of the Canadian Polar Commission. “Many of us began thinking about an action plan in the early stages of IPY. Now is the time to act. There will be serious consequences for future generations if we fail to adequately address polar issues.”

estruzik@edmontonjournal.com
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