11/16/2013 4:13:18 AM
Polar Bears in the Cloudier and Shrubbier Arctic
It's 11/12/13. The outside temperature today was a balmy 15 F (-10 C), much warmer than yesterday. Sea ice is forming on the shores of Western Hudson Bay. Up farther North, the Arctic Ocean surface is almost entirely frozen. Unlike last fall, when satellites observed record-low Arctic sea ice extent, this fall has been icier and colder. Warmer today than yesterday, More ice this year than last year = no big surprise. But, record-low ice amounts and thirty-year declines in ice extent? Um, that's not normal. Diminishing sea ice is an intense reality, especially if you are a polar bear who depends on sea ice or if you know the context. I'll give an update from the tundra, with a focus on recent polar bear activity and why a cloudier and shrubbier Arctic matters.
I won't lie. The bear watching has been amazing. I saw my first polar bear enroute to the Tundra Buggy Lodge. I'm embarrassed to admit it but I screamed. It was a primal moment when the hairs on my back all went up. The Royalty of the Arctic know how to surprise you. (I have been stalked before in Oliktok Point, Alaska.) Now, I am getting more used to a day full of polar bears. Yesterday, they were sparring (play-fighting) in front of the lodge and today they were eating a seal in the distance. A mama bear with two cubs treaded on thin ice, and then swam to get to the kill. But as amazing as these sightings have been - I have also seen a lot more than polar bears.
I've seen my carbon-dioxide laden breath in the cold air, a reminder that I breathe out every day one of the same substances that we emit as pollution to warm the planet. Being a cloud girl, I have been watching clouds. Fall is the cloudiest season in the high Arctic. I especially enjoyed seeing the clouds form over the open waters of Hudson Bay. Open water and cold air means that the Arctic is getting cloudier during the fall as the sea ice melts away. Seeing these cloud changes due to sea ice losses was impressive because clouds have a profound influence on Arctic energy budgets. Finally, I have been watching the shrubs and their snow cover. As the climate warms, the Arctic is getting shrubbier. This shrubification (a word pending addition to the dictionary) is expected to decrease the surface albedo, enhancing the sunshine that is absorbed, which further enhances the warming (a "positive feedback").
Bonne nuit/Buenas noches/Good night from the Tundra!