Outdoor World

‘Amazing but also concerning’: weird wildlife ventures to northern Alaska

Arctic Dispatches , portion 2: As the Arctic heats up, residents of Utqiavik are experiencing first linked with unusual species that are making their behavior polewards

Last July, Nagruk Harcharek was savouring a bucolic visit to a cabin that sits on the lip of the Chipp river, deep in the Alaskan Arctic, when something caught his eye. Shimmering on a rack where he hangs his caught whitefish to dry was, astonishingly, a dragonfly.

” I’d been going to camp there for 30 years and I’d never seen one, I couldn’t freaking believe it ,” said Harcharek.” I was astounded. I simply supposed,’ Wow ‘.”

Dragonflies aren’t wholly alien to Alaska, but the vision seemed as jarring as watching a hippopotamus stroll the Champs-Elysees. As the Arctic heats up, at around twice the rate of the global average, its remote but hardy communities are experiencing first linked with species that are flying, scurrying and swimming northwards.

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The task of documenting anecdotal sightings of these newcomers falls to Craig George, a wildlife biologist with a snowy beard, spectacles and well-worn hiking boots. George, originally from New York, has spent four decades observing Alaskan wildlife but in recent years has generated sheaves of records on unusual arrivals.

utqiagvik locator

Last summer, a child was stung by a wasp, the first time anyone could remember this happening in Utqiagvik, a coastal town formerly known as Barrow that is the most northerly settlement in the US.

A sphinx moth, a species with a wingspan as much as 5in across, was reported by a baffled occupant as being some sort of bird. An actual fowl, a kestrel, which has moved from rare to almost commonplace in just a few years, was tended to by George after it sought refuge in his workplace, the North Slope Borough. Arctic squirrels, previously little recognized, have also taken up residency around township.

” People here often don’t know what these sub-Arctic species are and to be honest, sometimes I don’t either ,” told George as he seemed through his records, muttering about the the odd beast (” Hmm, rusty blackbird “) as he went.

” One reason I’ve stayed here so long is because every year there’s something new ,” he mentioned.” It’s amazing but likewise a little bit concerning. The change is happening so, so fast .”

In 2009, Maasak Brower, a Utqiagvik security guard, caught a northern wolffish just half a dozen miles from township. The species , ordinarily found in the north Atlantic, was previously unknown to the Arctic. Brower, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, posed triumphantly with the oddity, which is an unlovely, pouting creature.

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A polar outside Barrow in June 2016. Disappearing ice is forcing polar births on to land where some are interbreeding with grizzly endures. Photo: David Levene for the Guardian

In the near decade since, various scientists have been amassing evidence of wider patterns. Beavers have moved into the Arctic Circle, damming more than 50 creeks. As shrubs were beginning to bud in tundra regions, snowshoe hares and moose have also pushed north.

Polar bears that spend more period on land as their ocean ice habitat shrinks are coming into contact with grizzly births that have wandered further north- resulting in “grolar” or “pizzly” bear hybrids.

Separating freak incursions from long-term switchings is a delicate process. Birds can be disorientated or knocked off course while migrating, a pulse of favorable weather may spur an adventurous fish or mammal to meander beyond their acknowledged scopes.

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Nagruk Harcharek in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Nagruk is the station administrator at the Barrow Arctic Research Center and has lived in Utqiagvik all his life. Photograph: Oliver Milman for the Guardian

But broadly speaking, as the Arctic’s temperature climbs, ocean ice recedes and soil long in the grip of permafrost start to thaw, animals are shifting polewards from the south. Some existing inhabitants, like ringed seals, walruses and polar carries, that rely heavily upon snow cover-up or sturdy sea ice platforms risk being pushed off the leading edge of the world.

Earlier this year, scientists at the University of California calculated that for every 10 degrees north from the 32 nd parallel you move, spring now arrives four days earlier than it did a decade ago. For the Arctic, this daunting equation means that spring has hastened by more than 2 week in just the time it took for Barack Obama to run for the presidency and amended by replacing Donald Trump.

This warping of timescales is inducing the complex web of interactions between predator and prey, pollinator and plant, mate and teammate to unravel. Another looming issue is the creeping advance of new and exotic diseases into the Arctic, with unknown ramifications.

A recent study of connected species around the world- such as sand eels that are devoured by guillemots, caribou and their favoured diet of vegetation- found that, on average, these interactions have changed four days earlier per decade since 1981.

Q& A

How is climate change affecting the Arctic?

The world may have warmed by around 1C( 1.8 F) over the past century but the Arctic far outstrips this global median and is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the world.

In places, the rate of warming has been astonishing. Novembers in the Alaskan town of Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, are now 5.5 C warmer than they were in 1979. This past winter, the warmest on record in the Arctic, insured some locations outperform 20 C hotter than normal.

The Arctic is dominated by sea ice, unlike the Antarctic which is essentially a huge land-based ice sheet. As the ocean and atmosphere warm, ocean ice is diminishing in extent, at around 13% a decade since 1979, according to Nasa. The bright white surface of ice, known as albedo, is giving way to the dark ocean, means that sunlight is being absorbed rather than indicated, amplifying the warming effect.

These” rapid and dramatic changes” are introducing a” new normal” to the Arctic, according to American government scientists in a report card last year. Blizzards are eroding away ice-free coastlines, summertime wildfires are becoming fiercer and certain species, such as polar bears, are increasingly struggling to find meat. This is all rendering a major challenge to communities in the Arctic, but a boon to the shipping industry, who are capable of navigate the field more readily. This task will get even simpler once the Arctic is ice free in summertimes, forecast as soon as 2040 s.

” Things are becoming out of sync ,” said Heather Kharouba, the University of Ottawa biologist who led the research. The Arctic is, as is the case in many of the climate-driven changes under way in the world, the most extreme example of this.

” The whole Arctic ecosystem is changing ,” said Kharouba.” We are reading drastic changes and it’s going to affect human populations .”

Such unpredictability is playing out among whale populations, which are closely watched by the Inupiat Eskimo subsistence hunter communities that dot the northern coast of Alaska. There were initial concerns that bowhead whales, the primary species targeted in spring and autumn whale hunts, could suffer as the sea ice retreats.

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‘ We caught cherry-red salmon up here in the past summer, which never used to happen before .’ Photo: Craig George

Instead, while increasing numbers of orcas and humpback whales have moved into the Arctic, the bowhead whales have remained relatively stable. As long as the sea ice is strong and plentiful, the native hunters in this treeless and unforgiving environment should be able to continue to pull in their prodigious food source from the sea, as the government had done for several thousand years.

For now, though, life remained of the north slope of Alaska. There are whales to be caught as the ice breaks up, snowmobiles to tinker with, polar bears to be wary of. Not all change is bad, either.

” We caught red salmon up here in the past summer, which never used to happen before ,” mentioned Harcharek.” We ordinarily get chum salmon, which is basically dog food. So everyone is pumped .”

  • On Monday read the final dispatch from Oliver Milman’s trip on how a pilot project at a lagoon in northern Alaska is one of a number aiming to slow climate change with geoengineering- but some worry about unintended outcomes

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ us-news/ 2018/ apr/ 22/ utqiagvik-alaska-weird-wildlife-environment

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