For many people in the Northern Hemisphere who celebrate Christmas, the iconic image is one of snow or a Santa Claus driving a sleigh through the snow driven by reindeer.
Depending on which version of the Santa Claus story you read, his home is in the Arctic, possibly at the North Pole. Images of snowy Santas will adorn many Xmas cards sent this year.
But as the Xmas images stay the same, the Arctic itself is rapidly changing. Scientists now talk of the “Old Arctic” – the one we once knew – and the “New Arctic” the one being fundamentally transformed by climate change.
The “Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades”, starts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Report Card.
The report continues that, despite relatively cool summer temperatures, the region has reached a “new normal’, characterized by “long-term losses in the extent and thickness of the sea ice cover, the extent and duration of the winter snow cover and the mass of ice in the Greenland Ice Sheet and Arctic glaciers, and warming sea surface and permafrost temperature”.
This is not good news. Writing about NOAA’s findings in Grist, the meteorologist, Eric Holthaus, said that what the scientists are telling us is that “The Arctic as we once knew it is no more”.
Holthaus reports on a press conference to release the report, where acting NOAA Administrator Timothy Gallaudet outlined why we should all be concerned: Because the warming Acrtic is affecting weather patterns worldwide. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic — it affects the rest of the planet,” said Gallaudet.
Last week, Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Program, added that the changes are happening so fast that “there is no normal. That’s what so strange about what’s happening in the Arctic. … The environment is changing so quickly in such a short amount of time that we can’t quite get a handle on what this new state is going to look like.”
Mathis added: “Whether they be wildfires out in California or hurricanes down in the Gulf we have to think about the impacts that changes in the Arctic are having on those disruptive climate events.”
So whilst the warming Arctic affects us all, it will affect the Inuit the most. Last month, the New York Times reported on how “Lost Ice Means Lost Hope for an Inuit Village.”
Reporting from Rigolet, Labrador, in Canada, the article made for startling, uncompromising reading: “The Inuit have a word for changes they are seeing to their environment: uggianaqtuq. It means ‘to behave strangely.’ But it is not just the weather that’s in turmoil.”
The Times quoted Ashlee Cunsolo, a public health researcher and director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, who has been studying the link between climate change and mental health.
Cunsolo and her team found that “melted ice, shorter winters and unpredictable weather made people feel trapped, depressed, stressed and anxious, and, in some cases, led to increased risk of substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.”
Cunsolo told the Times: “All humans, whether we want to admit it or not, are impacted by the natural environment”.
And the lesson from the Arctic is that what happens in the region will affect us all. It is worth remembering that if or when you open an Xmas card with Santa on it.