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The Big Melt: Global Warming and Sea Ice in the Arctic

Around the globe, average temperatures are creeping up at different rates. The Arctic has experienced the fastest warming – winter temperatures have risen 4 degrees Celsius from 1954-2003. As sea levels rise, traditional Inuit communities in arctic Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia are struggling to survive the impact.

Kivalina is a village 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle at the tip of an 8 mile long island separating the Chuckchi Sea from a lagoon at the mouth of the Kivalina River.  Its 400 residents occupied about 54 acres in the 1950s, but erosion has removed half of that area. Global warming has also negatively affected the health and safety of Kivalina residents in other ways.1 

Aerial view of Kivalina, Alaska, in 1999, looking to the southeast. Credit: United States Geological Service

Efforts to move the village have been underway for many years, but little progress has been made. The move is estimated to cost more than $100 million. Flooding and erosion will make Kivalina’s current location uninhabitable by 2020 or 2025.  

Seawalls like this one were constructed in Kivalina, Alaska, in 2009 at a cost of $12 million and can only protect the village for a decade or so. ©Brian Adams Photography

In 2008, Kivalina sued Exxon Mobil, BP America, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and a number of other oil, power and coal companies for emitting greenhouse gases that cause global warming and threaten the village’s existence, and requested $400 million to finance the relocation. The suit was brought in federal court in San Francisco, but dismissed in 2008. In 2011 the village appealed to the 9th District Court in San Francisco, but in October, 2012, Kivalina lost when a three-judge appeals panel ruled that federal public-nuisance laws did not apply to those corporations in regard to causing enough global warming to force relocation. The panel also ruled that the villagers lacked standing in the case because they did not have enough evidence linking their injuries to the companies’ actions. 

Kivalina is just one example of how Arctic villages are paying the price. In Barrow, Alaska, which is 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 1,300 miles from the North Pole, Roy Nageak is also affected by the melting sea ice. 

“There’s no ice to diminish the strength of the sea. Our beaches, the houses that used to be high and dry and now are so much closer to the ocean--we see a lot of erosion. Our ice is not there like it used to be.”2

Sea ice is defined in the Ocean Health Index as ice that is formed from saltwater and floats on the ocean’s surface. It is one of the four components of Coastal Protection, as it acts as a protective barrier against the impact of waves on arctic coastline.  

As sea ice melts every aspect of Inuit life is affected. “June, July, August, we used to be able to see the polar pack of ice, out in front of Barrow. That’s no longer happening,” says Nageak. “Our people are going bearded seal hunting, walrus hunting, in the spring, are having to go farther and farther out to find the game…I’m one of those very unfortunate ones who didn’t land any bearded seals this spring. My boys went out trying…but they didn’t land any…” 

For those who succeed in bringing back meat, the difficulties continue. “I’ve got two ice cellars that I see where the changes are,” recounted another Barrow resident, Eugene Brower. “They’re no longer cold like they used to be…I’ve got one ice cellar that’s about 12 feet into the permafrost … even with the layer of 5” of snow on the bottom of the ice cellar, my game is melting on top, it’s thawing out, it’s not frozen solid. So, natural ice cellars are warming up … the food you stored there is going to be no longer good to eat.”3

Roy Nageak, Barrow, Alaska. Credit: North Slope Borough School District, Barrow, Alaska

Just Three Decades Ago

In April, 1973, I spent three weeks in the Arctic as part of an international expedition organized by Scott McVay and the National Film Board of Canada to film bowhead whales.  Led by Inuit guide Homer Bodfish, our team trekked across the endless sea ice and struggled over 20 foot high pressure ridges to reach the first open lead 10 miles offshore from Barrow, Alaska. 

The 300-foot wide lead was a river of life, filled with migrating seabirds, beluga whales and, occasionally, a bowhead. You can watch the film of our expedition here and see how the rough, thick ice challenged us.  

At the time we didn’t think about the role that ice played in protecting the coast-- and we certainly didn’t imagine that one day soon much of it might disappear entirely.  

But 40 years later that is exactly what is happening.  Global warming, caused mainly by CO2 and soot released by the burning of long-buried stores of coal, oil or gas (in addition to emissions of methane and a few other heat-trapping gases), has already raised Earth’s average temperature by about 1°C, with more increases to come. In the Arctic, sea ice that was formally called “perennial sea ice”, because it remained year-round, has been melting at the rate of 9 percent per decade since the 1970s. Without the protective band of sea ice, wind-driven waves pound the coast of Alaska, undercutting and flooding the land. 

Why is sea ice important to Arctic people?

Iceberg. © Art Wolfe

Most of us live where the ocean never freezes, but the very survival of arctic residents and their traditional culture depends on a thick layer of sea ice. Now, unprecedented temperature rises are altering ice and snow conditions, creating a long list of negative impacts:

  • The health of the animals the Inuits depend on is declining, and they are harder to find.
  • Subsistence hunting is yielding less, and is more costly and dangerous.  
  • Thawing permafrost is destabilizing buildings and limiting the ability of villagers  to store frozen meat from whales, seals,walrus   
    and caribou in underground caches, as they have done for centuries.  
  • Rising and increased sun intensity caused by increased ultraviolet radiation (see UV radiation) are raising risks for sunburn, skin 
    cancer, cataracts, disorders of the immune system and heat-related rashes or potential illness from food spoilage. 
  • Finally, in the most visible and direct assault of all, loss of sea ice is exposing the coast to waves and storm surges, eroding it   
    away and melting the permafrost so that homes, communities and cultural sites such as cemeteries flood or sink into the ooze.  
    Rising sea level, also caused by global warming, steadily adds to the problem of coastal erosion. 
Arctic winters aren’t just brutally cold.  They also spawn violent storms, with winds that can reach 100 miles per hour.  The frozen ocean is the only feature that protects low-lying coastlines and coastal villages from the ocean’s assault, but rising temperatures have reduced the extent, thickness and duration of seasonal sea ice throughout the Arctic. 

In Alaska, nearly 200 Inuit villages are threatened by flooding and erosion.  Thirty-one of them face imminent danger and of those, twelve have decided to relocate.  Like Kavalina, Shishmaref and Newtok illustrate the dramatic effects that loss of coastal protection by sea ice is having on all Alaskan villages. 

Credit: United States Government Accountability Office


The village of Shishmaref lies just north of the Bering Strait. The area has been occupied by Inuit for several thousand years and today the village is home to about 560 people. Shishmaref is located on Sarichef Island, part of a 50-mile long chain of barrier islands.  

A home lost to erosion in Shishmaref, Alaska. Credit: Alaska Village Electric Cooperative

In addition to the loss of sea ice and consequent severe erosion (up to 10 feet per year) caused by storm waves and rising seas, the permafrost on which Shishmaref village is built has started to melt, causing the coastline to lose three to five feet per year as a result of storm surges and erosion, with larger losses from big storms. The village will be inundated and uninhabitable by 2020 or 2025.  In 2001, residents voted to relocate the village onto the mainland several miles away, at an estimated cost of about $180 million. Progress toward the move has been very slow, but damage to the coast is not, as one resident describes: 

“[The ice] normally saved our beach from eroding so much more - the ice that buffers the waves,” says John Sinnok. “Waves and storms are becoming more frequent, sometimes fifteen feet at a time. So, if there’s two or three storms, it could be fifteen feet three times.”4

John Sinnok. Credit: Katie Basile

Several residents of Shishmaref were among those who participated in a petition to the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights seeking relief from acts, omissions and violations of the United States that cause global warming.  The Commission did not issue a decision, responding that the information provided did not enable it to determine whether the facts alleged violated rights protected by the Commission’s American Declaration on the Rights of Man, but held a general hearing on the issue of climate change in 2007 and  another in March 2011 focused on water rights. In 2011 the Commission made a strong statement urging States to keep human rights at the forefront of climate change negotiations, including in designing and implementing measures of mitigation and adaptation. 


Woman in Newtok, Alaska. @ Brian Adams Photography 

Newtok village, located on the Ninglick River, has been home to Inuit for at least 2,000 years. The current population is about 350.  Its coastline suffers severe erosion both from the ocean and the river. The rate of erosion averaged 68 feet per year from 1954-2003, and recent rates of 90 or even 100 feet per year are reported.  

Erosion of the Ninglick River bank in Newtok, Alaska. ©Brian Adams Photography

Decreased sea ice, increased wave action and storm surges, melting permafrost and increased river flow all contribute to the loss. Because the village is sinking into the melting permafrost, many places are only accessible via boardwalks. York provides further details including interviews, sights and sounds of life in Newtok. Starting in 1994, residents began planning to relocate to Mertarvik, where construction began in 2008. The move will cost between $80 million and $130 million. Maps below show the extent of a flood in Newtok in September 2005, and a map of historical and projected shorelines there. 

The extent of flooding of Newtok village, September 22, 2005. Credit: Nicole McCullough, WH Pacific
Historic and projected shoreslines for Newtok, Alaska. Credit: Nicole McCullough, WH Pacific

What's Next for Inuit Villages

Despite the lack of success in the 2005 petition, Inuit people filed a new petition with the Commission on April 23, 2013 on behalf of Arctic Athabascan peoples. They are seeking redress from Canada for emission of black soot that causes rapid arctic warming and melting. Black soot particles that settle on ice, snow or permafrost absorb sunlight, raise temperature and accelerate melting.  

Climate-related habitat changes in the Arctic are already bringing enormous changes to the Inuit, their communities, culture and the animals, plants and ecosystems that sustain them. In the absence of effective actions by nations worldwide to slow---and eventually stop--- global warming, the future for Arctic peoples will become increasingly challenging. With the increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean, increasing commercial expansion of oil and mineral extraction, shipping, fishing and other activities will add further pressures. The Inuit people and their way of life have endured for thousands of years—but now face a very uncertain future.    


  • 1. Brubaker, M., J. Berner, J. Bell and J. Warren. 2011.  Climate Change in Kivalina, Alaska: Strategies for Community Health.  Alaska Native Tribal Consortium. January, 2011. http://www.anthc.org/chs/ces/climate/upload/Climate-Change-in-Kivalina-Alaska-Strategies-for-Community-Health-2.pdf. Accessed April 29, 2013.
  • 2. Interview with Roy Nageak of Barrow, Alaska, Sept. 15, 2005, partial transcript of video-taped recording (Watt-Cloutier 2005).
  • 3. Interview with Eugene Brower of Barrow, Alaska, Sept. 14, 2005, partial transcript of video-taped recording (Watt-Cloutier 2005).
  • 4. Interview with John Sinnok of Shishmaref, Alaska, Sept. 20, 2005, partial transcript of video-taped recording (Watt-Cloutier 2005).

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