THE WILLOWS DID not, at first, look like anything remarkable. It was March 2006, and I was 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, not far from the village of Old Crow. I was back for a visit with the host family that had taught me years before to run sled dogs, and more generally to love the Arctic. And I was stuck. Or more precisely, my dogsled’s runners were snagged in a thicket of willows.
I didn’t think it would take long to get untangled. But after a few minutes — as we struggled with the sled and the dogs strained, yipping with impatience, at their harnesses — I realized the shrubs were far taller than normal. Mushing on the same trail five years prior, the willows had only been a foot high, covered over by packed drifts. But here were thick branches rearing out of the snow.
Even 13 years ago, in 2006, the region was two degrees Celsius warmer than the historical average and was experiencing anomalies. Now it’s warming twice as fast. The temperate summers have allowed the willows to get taller still, their shoots thickening. Familiar plants are becoming ever so slightly wrong.
In headlines around the world, the melting of the polar regions is often seen in terms of geopolitics and a scramble for resources. Greenland is filled with rare-earth minerals essential for cell phones and solar technology. Huge pools of natural gas and oil sit under the Arctic Ocean. There’s a rush to claim this rich territory, as with the Russian Federation’s symbolic planting of a flag on the sea floor at the North Pole in 2007. The thawing of lands once frozen shut by the extreme climate is prompting Russia, the United States, Canada, and Norway to deploy more military to their northernmost posts to declare and defend borders. “A Melting Arctic Could Spell a New Cold War,” Time tells us. National Geographic runs “Scenes from the new Cold War unfolding at the top of the world.”
But climate change, unlike territorial battles, cannot be neatly drawn and settled. It does not wear a uniform or plant flags. It is something far eerier: a worldwide transformation very much visible at the local level up here, felt by every living thing.
In Old Crow, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm says it’s “like watching a nuclear explosion in slow motion.”
IN THE WARMING Arctic, cultures and food supplies are being disrupted. A year after I tangled with the overgrown willows, a lake a hundred or so miles north of the village drained in just a few weeks. Zelma Lake lost almost six million cubic meters of liquid when the permafrost bank on one edge melted away during the warm wet spring, turning a landmark into a mudflat. I used to run sled dogs over the frozen surface of Zelma; now it too was filling with scrubby willow. It is no longer home to flocks of spring waterfowl or a deep basin that shelters fish.
For the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, whose ancestors have lived on the lands around Old Crow since at least the last glaciation, the lake had oriented the whole spring season. For generations, people made camps along Zelma’s shore to hunt caribou and run traplines. No beaver or muskrat can live there now. Caribou no longer come across the empty bowl. As Norma Kassi, who spent springs on the lakeshore since she was a child put it, “This is going to change the whole ecosystem here.”
Take Gambell. Situated on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska, this Yupik village has long depended on walrus. This is nearly as true in the 21st century as it was 300 years ago. Eating in this remote community, like many fly-in villages in Alaska, is prohibitively expensive without subsistence hunting; when I visited Gambell in 2017, a day’s worth of food could easily run over $50. And, as with the caribou in Old Crow, the walrus herds support practices that go beyond food security; hunting sustains people in a raw caloric sense, but also a deep cultural one.
Gambell hunters perfected methods of finding walrus on the sea ice that, historically, has surrounded St. Lawrence Island from October until May or June. But in recent years, the ice has drifted far from the island, meaning hunters have to travel a hundred miles or more across dangerous seas in small open boats to find the animals.
In 2013, storms prevented hunters from going out at all. The village faced a crisis. The governor of Alaska declared an economic disaster on the island to release emergency aid.
Gambell has dealt with a lack of walruses before. At the end of the 19th century, commercial hunters, many of them whalers from New Bedford and Nantucket, killed over 100,000 walruses for their ivory and oil. Starvation followed on St. Lawrence Island. By the early 20th century, residents in Gambell passed a community ordinance to limit the hunt to subsistence needs.
But the sea ice is beyond local control. And as with Zelma Lake, the shifting, decreasing shape of the ice has changed the face of the seasons. It has altered something as basic as how people feed themselves.
THE SHIPPING INDUSTRY sees commercial potential in the Arctic’s unfrozen seas. For the first time in human history, the summer ice pack is minimal enough to imagine connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific by sailing the Northwest Passage over Alaska and Canada. Or by taking the Northern Sea Route running north of Russia. Both are old European dreams, harking back to Dmitry Gerasimov and Sir John Franklin. On August 23, 2018, the Danish ship Venta Maersk left Vladivostok bound for Germany to fulfill this centuries-old desire. It was the first container vessel in history to reach the Atlantic from the Pacific by sailing above Russia, a test run for future summers when sea ice is forecasted to be even less of an obstacle. Just over a month later, it arrived in the port of Bremerhaven loaded with fish and Korean electronics.
I was on a small local freighter off the coast of northeastern Siberia shortly before Venta sailed; a few days and a few miles further out to sea, and we would have passed each other. I was heading to villages on the Russian coast to do research on the history of the region. What I found instead was another kind of strangeness.
On the edge of a brilliantly blue lagoon on the coast, people from the village of Novo Chaplino were in the midst of their summer hunt for gray whales. (Chukchi and Yupik hunters in Russia are given an annual quota from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to sustainably harvest the animals.) Over the past several years, however, hunters have reported that the whales’ meat smells medicinal — as if it had been soaked in iodine. Sometimes the odor is so strong hunters can smell it when the animals come to the surface and exhale, a great gush of air tinged with something chemical. Often, however, the contamination is only apparent after whale meat has been cooked. People who eat it become ill, break out in a rash, or, as one person told me, lose feeling in their mouths and tongues.
Gray whales travel more than 6,000 miles up the Pacific coast from Baja to Siberia each year and somewhere along the route, hunters speculate, they eat or absorb something new. Maybe it’s shellfish and other seafloor organisms, or some algae changed by warmer waters. Maybe it’s a chemical borne north on the currents. Caterina Fortuna, chairwoman of the IWC’s scientific committee, has stated that “honestly, nobody knows exactly why.” Local hunters speculate it is tied to other changes they see in their ocean: warm summers altering what grows beneath the waves, or plastic pollution dragged in by shifting tides.
AS HUMAN BEINGS, we depend on a large set of environmental relationships: the lake that supports the muskrats and the ice that supports the walruses, both of which in turn support people. The coastline near Novo Chaplino that is eroding into the Bering Sea with each fall storm. Or the strange new insects showing up in the summers. Or the smelly whales.
The melting Arctic is also shifting weather patterns globally. The past two winters have seen exceptionally warm temperatures along the Bering Strait, distorting paths of cold air over North America. This likely contributed to the record-breaking chill of the Polar Vortex in the Midwest and Northeast, and the snowfall that melted rapidly enough to cause disastrous flooding in Iowa and Nebraska. In Guatemala, farmers in the highlands, battered by an unusually close sequence of hurricanes growing more forceful and destructive by warming oceans, are fleeing, some to the US border.
In 2017, I was back on the trail outside Old Crow. Winter temperatures there are more than four degrees warmer than normal; the Vuntut Gwitchin plan to declare a state of emergency due to climate change. The willows had grown yet thicker. They are beautiful in the autumn when each leaf turns bright yellow, mapping seams of soil moisture and warmth across the tundra with ribbons of gold in the low-angled northern sun.
But there is something quietly ominous in the willows’ new lushness. When shrubs grow taller and thicker, the snow under their shade cannot refract solar radiation back into space. A bank of willow holds more warmth to the surface of the Earth than does a snowdrift, which reflects the sun’s heat. A large stand of willows will raise soil temperatures, melting permafrost. The permafrost holds seasons upon seasons of plant matter that, until now, have never grown warm enough to decompose. If it thaws, those old plants will rot, releasing carbon.
Change begets more change, another tiny contribution of greenhouse gases sailing out into the atmosphere, joining with billions of other particles to make the planet ever warmer.
Bathsheba Demuth is an Assistant Professor of History and Environment and Society at Brown University, and author of “Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait,” forthcoming in August.