National Geographic : 2018 Jan
laSt ice 109 and there’s barely any wind. After more than a week of waiting, Sala and his team of divers are eager to explore some open water around a cou- ple of small islands off Bylot’s western shore. In a few weeks, algae will be in full bloom, the water will cloud, and underwater filming opportunities will vanish. But now, the sea here is just begin- ning to blaze with life. “Sunlight is like a lighter for this ecosystem; it’s why we’re here now,” says Manu San Félix, a diver and photographer who has joined us on the beach, wearing his dry suit. Over the next few days, if the weather holds, he, Sala, and other ex- pedition members will record the beauty of what will be lost if we fail to protect the Arctic’s last ice. The harder work, more arduous even than div- ing in freezing water, will take years: persuading governments to cooperate to save a region that extends across borders. Preserving the last-ice re- gion itself won’t be enough; because ice migrates long distances, its sources eventually will have to be protected as well. Right now, for example, Siberian ice contaminated with nickel and lead from the Russian industrial city of Norilsk—one of the world’s most polluted places—sometimes drifts into the Canadian Arctic. There it poisons the food web as it melts. “It’s a good sign that we are seeing narwhals, belugas, and polar bears,” says San Félix. It means the food chain here is still healthy. We talk about a pod of bowhead whales that were spotted during a helicopter flight the other day and about how their huge heads enable them to smash through two feet of ice. Bowheads can live 200 years or more. (One way their age has been determined is by carbon-dating old harpoon points embedded in their bodies.) The oldest of them now, says San Félix, might have been born when Napoleon was still alive. “Imagine!” he says. “ That calf we filmed might be here in 2215!” If we’re lucky, that is, and foresighted enough. Says Sala: “This is not a simple, linear story where we know how it ends.” j undergo profound changes. Diverse species will be thrust into closer contact than ever before. “ There’s the potential for a massive scram- bling of genes in the whole Arctic Ocean,” Kelly says. “ We did a survey of marine mammals and came up with 34 species that are capable of hy- bridizing.” For reasons that scientists don’t yet understand, marine mammals have tended to retain the same number of chromosomes—a key requirement for hybridization—as they diverged into different species and even genera. “So you end up with things that you would otherwise say are different genera, but are in fact able to produce fertile hybrid offspring,” says Kel- ly. “An example would be harp seals and hooded seals, which we classify as different genera—but we’ve seen them hybridize in the wild. There is some evidence of a hybrid between belugas and narwhals.” Pizzlies—crosses of grizzlies and po- lar bears—already roam the Arctic. Genetic stud- ies show that polar bears began diverging from grizzly bears within the past 500,000 years. Glob- al warming threatens to reunite the two species. “ We could lose polar bears,” Kelly says. “ They might be reabsorbed into the grizzly bear ge- nome out of which they came. We’re not just talking about ecological change. We’re talking about evolutionary change—really sped up.” The end result, says Kelly, is likely to be a tre- mendous, irreversible loss of genetic diversity. But even if that weren’t the case, the Arctic’s wildlife would still be in trouble. “ We’re chang- ing the habitat so fast that even if they have the genetic diversity to respond, they may not have the time.” For some of the world’s iconic species, the last-ice region could make the difference be- tween survival and extinction. “peaceFul, iSn’t it?” Enric Sala is smiling as he joins me on the beach in front of our camp’s dou- ble row of two dozen orange tents. We’re looking east across the frozen reaches of Navy Board Inlet toward Bylot Island, several miles away. Covered with mountains and glaciers, a refuge for den- ning polar bears and hundreds of thousands of nesting birds, it’s larger than the big island of Ha- waii. The sun is out, the weather has finally lifted, Tim Folger has written many features for National Geographic, including two on how climate change is affecting Greenland. He lives in Gallup, New Mexico.