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Part of the Climate Change exhibition.
Why does the Arctic respond so quickly to climate change? For one thing, warming decreases snow and ice cover, which reduces reflectivity and exposes the ocean. As a result, the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. Also, permafrost melting releases greenhouse gases. If this occurs on a large scale, it will trigger even more warming—not just locally, but globally.
This warming is already affecting Arctic sea ice. It is shrinking and thinning at record levels for recent times—a process that itself increases warming. For the people, plants and animals that call the Arctic home, the speed of climate change poses significant challenges. And all the rest of us will feel the impact of changes at the poles.
Sea ice serves as a platform for traditional seal and bowhead whale hunting by the Inupiat, who live in the Alaskan Arctic. When the amount of thick ice diminishes, as is happening now, hunting becomes more treacherous. Climate change will affect all the Arctic's four million residents, but the 400,000 indigenous peoples still practicing traditional hunting and fishing will likely bear the brunt of the changes.
Thinning Arctic sea ice may have drastic and unpredictable consequences for global climate. Still, there may be some benefits. A nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean would mean shorter sea routes between Europe and Asia. And nations with Arctic borders are scrambling to map the seafloor, in hopes of discovering long-hidden oil, natural gas, and other resources.
Sea ice reduces wave action, and its loss leaves coastal villages like Kivalina, in northwest Alaska, exposed to the full fury of coastal storms. With storm erosion causing the land beneath their feet to disappear, residents must leave the place their families have called home for generations.