Climate change brings illumination to Arctic winter
Refraction bends light from the south
The eternal darkness that blankets the high Arctic three months a year is becoming brighter every year and, according to one observer, it’s the result of global warming.
Wayne Davidson, a longtime weather station operator in Resolute Bay — one of Canada’s most northerly communities — said Inuit hunters have noticed for years that the dark Arctic night is becoming lighter.
Davidson started to study the phenomenon and posted photos of the sky on his website (www.eh2r.com). Eventually, he and other observers say, they figured out what was happening.
“I believe it’s related to temperature differences and the Arctic is becoming warmer than usual ever since 1998,” the weather researcher said in a telephone interview from Resolute Bay, where he has been living for 25 years.
Basically, the warmer layer of air over the Arctic is acting as a conduit for light from the south.
“It’s the refraction of light where the warm air and the cold air meet that is creating this brightness,” Davidson explained.
The bigger the temperature differences, the longer the light travels and shines, he noted.
“It’s a slow but gradual process that doesn’t seem to want to stop,” Davidson said. “It’s astounding, there’s no other word for it.”
The new kind of light — that takes various shades of blue, green and red — has been noticed not only by residents in Resolute Bay, but also in other hamlets on Baffin Island.
“Nowadays, we also see the daylight much earlier,” said Harry Alookie, of Qikiqtarjuaq. “It never used to be like that.”
While some Arctic residents might enjoy winters that are not as bitterly cold as they used to be, it’s a different story for Inuit hunters.
The rising temperature makes hunting difficult as prey disappears and thinning ice becomes treacherous.
“The impact is especially big this year,” said Alookie, who manages the Nattivak Hunters and Trappers Organization in Qikiqtarjuaq.
The sea ice used to freeze up in November but this winter the hunters were only able to go on the ice for the first time on Monday.
“It’s making it a lot more difficult for people up here,” Alookie said, noting that ice is of paramount importance for Inuit livelihoods.
There are about 70 full-time hunters in Qikiqtarjuaq and several residents, like Alookie, are occasional hunters who go out on weekends.
“We have to be in communication with each other about which areas are safe and which areas are not,” he added.
Scientists have said the Arctic is warming more quickly than the rest of the planet and Davidson has noticed it first hand.
“It’s been surprisingly consistently warmer than usual for the past few winters,” he said.
For instance, the mean temperature for this past December was 8 C above the normal seasonal temperatures.
“It’s huge,” Davidson said.
In the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit, it rained from Monday to Wednesday and there is still open water in the bay.
The United States National Snow and Ice Data Center reported Wednesday that the extent of Arctic sea ice cover for December 2010 was the lowest on record, particularly in Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait, south of Baffin Island.