Since their way of life is intimately tied to the land, aboriginal communities in the North will be profoundly affected by the changing climate. Shifting ice and weather conditions are already altering the range and availability of animals such as polar bears, walrus, seals and caribou, staples of the northern diet. Hunters can no longer rely on traditional knowledge to guide them on their hunt. Thinning ice has become a hazard to hunters used to travelling on great expanses of sea ice. Earlier ice breakup is also responsible for declining polar bear populations in the western Hudson Bay region, by depriving them of critical time to prey on seals and fatten up to survive the ice-free months without food. There is also a concern that global warming will increase the contamination of traditional food sources by pollutants. For example, elevated levels of toxic metals in Arctic char have been attributed to higher fish metabolic rates, caused by warmer water temperatures and longer ice-free seasons.
Melting sea ice could open the Northwest Passage to international shipping and increase access to offshore oil and gas resources, offering new economic opportunities in the North. But it raises concerns over sovereignty and the environment.
Thawing permafrost is wreaking havoc throughout the North, having a great impact on transportation. The season for ice or winter roads is growing shorter and it’s becoming more difficult and expensive to maintain them. The Manitoba government spent millions of dollars in 1997-1998 to fly in supplies to northern communities normally serviced by winter roads. In the spring of 2006, a mining company in the Northwest Territories had to airlift some of its heavy equipment by helicopter after it got stranded when an ice road did not freeze thick enough. Roads and airstrips are sinking and cracking as the underlying permafrost melts: a stretch of runway at the Yellowknife Airport recently had to be excavated and backfilled.
The instability of the melting permafrost is threatening everything from the soundness of homes to traditional ice cellars where communities keep their meat fresh. Waste locked in the once-solid ground is now leaching, raising environmental concerns. Thawing peat bogs and tundra could release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Since the temperature of permafrost is within only a few degrees of 0°C throughout much of the North, even a slight change in temperature can have a significant impact.