A letter to Santa in times of climate change

On 24 December, the South China Morning Post published the following article that I wrote about the challenges Santa Claus is facing in the Arctic in times of climate change.

A letter to Santa in these troubled times

You will probably remember the excitement of writing a letter to Santa, specifying your wish list for Christmas presents. Nowadays, he is just one click away on the Internet. I would have loved to ask him about life in the Arctic in times of climate change. He must have first-hand experience, and I don’t know that many people up North. But the site requested me first to fill in whether I am a boy or a girl; this is not the site for adults to start their research. I did click on another button, which connected me to a LifeCam in northern Finland. It reassured me that he is living happily in his cold and snowy place.

image of Santa and climate changeBut lately, the Arctic region is less snowy and less cold than it used to be. Surely not all inhabitants in the frozen North will be so untouched as Santa by the new Anthropocenic conditions. The IPCC warned this year for the health risks and well being of Arctic residents, resulting from injuries and illness from the changing physical environment, food insecurity, and a lack of reliable and safe drinking water. Climate change will impact their economy and their quality of life. It also threatens to damage the cultures of the people that live in the Arctic. Culture also mediates the response of these people to climate change. Several experts have written on the importance of acknowledging cultural factors in adaptation and mitigation responses. These will likely fail to be effective if they do not connect with what matters to individuals and communities.

Arctic warming twice as fast

Santa has reasons to be worried about his Arctic home. Last week NOAA presented the annual Arctic Report, which confirmed that rising air and sea temperatures continue to trigger changes in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of anywhere else on Earth. One of the effects of this rapid warming is the decrease in the extent of the ice cover, which opens up the Northern Sea Route that connects the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean via northern Canada. As the sea ice melts, less sunlight is reflected, and the dark seawater will absorb more solar energy, which in turn will help to increase the melting of the sea ice further. Presents ordered by Santa in Shanghai can now reach Finland in the summer months across the Arctic, which is about 40 percent shorter than the traditional route via the Suez Canal. But the increase in shipping in this fragile environment may lead to additional local environmental and climate change impacts.

If Santa returns from his shopping spree in China, he will witness along the northern shores of the American continent many examples of the potential impacts of climate change. He might experience more rain than usual, especially in the winter months, and he may notice the decline in the areas covered by snow. At many places, he will be able to see the signs of coastal erosion caused by sea-level rise and by the increasingly damaging storms with stronger waves that develop in the absence of sea ice. In several native villages along Alaska’s northwestern coast, houses have collapsed into the sea, and populations had to relocate inland.

Permafrost highways

The thawing permafrost adds to the problems. Inhabitants increasingly face the effects of climate change on infrastructure, water pipelines, and coastal protection. Highways in the Arctic are often built on permafrost, and it is essential that the ground remains completely frozen. In Alaska, the warming climate has decreased the days that these roads can be used from 200 days to only 100 days per year in the past 30 years. Building infrastructure on melting permafrost can increase the cost by 10 percent or more.

The effects of climate change on wildlife are also noticeable. Sailing through the southern Beaufort Sea, with nowadays an increased number of days without sea ice, he might notice the reduced survival rates of the sub-adult bears. In the last decade, their numbers have been reduced with some 40 percent. The caribou are also in trouble. EPA reports that climate change leads to an invasion of shrubs in the tundra, sometimes replacing lichens and other tundra vegetation. Such a habitat change might lead to a decline in the number of caribou. They form a critical food source for predators such as bears and wolves, as well as for Alaska Natives.

Mass caribou die-offs

Santa may be particularly worried about the reindeer, especially since the increasing lack of snow coverage leaves him little alternatives for sleigh transport than to fly with the eight reindeer through the Christmas sky. But they may be increasingly hungry. Although reindeer look different from the caribou, they are probably closely related cousins that got separated in the last ice age. They are in a dramatic decline in the far north. Jeff Flocken of the International Fund for Wildlife explains that changing weather makes food hard to obtain for some caribou, and their numbers are declining to about 60 percent from historic highs. In some northern regions, it is worse, especially the mass die-offs of the Peary ones, where up to 84 percent of the population may have been lost. Climate change is to blame since the light, fluffy snow that used to cover the native shrubs that grow in the tundra is now often replaced by heavy icy rain. It is freezing over these plants, so the reindeer can’t access them for food.

Dear Santa,

Perhaps I should just ignore that I am a grown-up and simply do it: write to Santa. I am a boy; my mother does not know that I write to you, and my special wish is some fluffy snow for Rudolph and the other reindeer. And while I am writing to you, dear Santa, is it too much to ask for some awareness of the Anthropocene? That is how we name this new geological epoch where we are changing the earth’s life support systems. Knowledge of the consequences of our destruction of the global commons is a necessary prerequisite for individual action and agreement on collective action to save our planet. Thank you, Santa, wishing you all the best in these challenging times.