Many indigenous languages have no words for legions of new
animals, insects and plants advancing north as global warming
thaws the polar ice and lets forests creep over tundra.
"We can't even describe what we're seeing," said Sheila
Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (news - web sites) which
says it represents 155,000 people in Canada, Alaska, Greenland
In the Inuit language Inuktitut, robins are known just as
the "bird with the red breast," she said. Inuit hunters in
north Canada recently saw some ducks but have not figured out
what species they were, in Inuktitut or any other language.
An eight-nation report this month says the Arctic is
warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and that the
North Pole could be ice-free in northern hemisphere summer by
2100, threatening indigenous cultures and perhaps wiping out
creatures like polar bears.
The report, by 250 scientists and funded by the United
States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and
Iceland, puts most of the blame on a build-up of heat-trapping
gases from human use of fossil fuels like coal and oil.
The thaw may have some positive spin-offs for people, for
instance by making chill Arctic seas more habitable for cod or
herring or by shifting agricultural lands and forestry north.
But on land, more and more species will be cramming into an
ever-narrowing strip bounded to the north by the Arctic Ocean,
threatening to destroy fragile Arctic ecosystems from mosses to
Arctic foxes or snowy owls.
In Arctic Europe, birch trees are gaining ground and Saami
reindeer herders are seeing roe deer or even elk, a
forest-dwelling cousin of moose, on former lichen pastures.
"I know about 1,200 words for reindeer -- we classify them
by age, sex, color, antlers," said Nils Isak Eira, who manages
a herd of 2,000 reindeer in north Norway.
"I know just one word for elk -- 'sarvva'," said
50-year-old Eira. "But the animals are so unusual that many
Saami use the Norwegian word 'elg.' When I was a child it was
like a mythical creature."
Thrushes have been spotted in Saami areas of the Arctic in
winter, apparently too lazy to bother migrating south.
Foreign ministers from the eight Arctic countries are due
to meet in Reykjavik on Wednesday but are sharply divided about
what to do. The United States is most opposed to any drastic
The U.S. is the only country among the eight to reject the
127-nation Kyoto protocol meant to cap emissions of greenhouse
gases. President Bush (news - web sites) says the U.N. pact would cost too much
and unfairly excludes developing states.
In some more southerly areas of the Arctic, like Canada's
Hudson Bay, receding ice means polar bears are already
struggling. The bears' main trick is to pounce when seals
surface to breathe through holes in the ice.
The Arctic report says polar bears "are unlikely to survive
as a species if there is a complete loss of summer-ice cover."
Restricted to land, polar bears would have to compete with
better-adapted grizzly or brown bears.
"The outlook for polar bears is stark. My grandson will
lose the culture I had as a child," said Watt-Cloutier,
referring to Inuit hunting cultures based on catching seals,
bears or whales.
Around the Arctic, salmon are swimming into more northerly
waters, hornets are buzzing north and barn owls are flying to
regions where indigenous people have never even seen a barn.
Watt-Cloutier said indigenous peoples lacked well-known
words for all of them.
The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) report says
that the region is set to warm by 7-13 degrees Fahrenheit by
2100, twice the rate of the rest of the globe. The Arctic warms
fast partly because dark ground and water, once uncovered, soak
up much more heat than snow and ice.
"Overall, forests are likely to move north and displace
tundra," said Terry Callaghan, a professor of Arctic ecology at
the University of Lund, Sweden. "That will bring more species
-- birds that nest in trees, beetles that live in bark, fungi."
The lack of words to describe newcomers does not stop at
animals and plants. "Words like 'thunderstorm' don't exist
because they are phenomena indigenous peoples have never
known," said Robert Corell, chair of the ACIA study.