The Arctic is a barometer of the health of the planet. Its indigenous peoples, animals and plants are marvelously adapted to the harsh environment. Airborne toxins and global warming are rapidly altering life in the far North.
The area north of the 66th parallel is called the Arctic Circle. Eight countries -- Canada, Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States -- surround the Arctic. The Inuit, Denes, Metis, Inupiat (some still called Eskimos), Aleuts, Yup'ik, Chuckchi, Nenets, Saami and the Faroese -- all Arctic Peoples eat 194 different species of wild animals, most of them come from the sea.
Marine blubber is low in saturated fats and high in the Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids which significantly lower heart disease. Those fatty acids also reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and perhaps more importantly Omega-3's nourish and stimulate brain development especially in the womb. In addition, meat from marine mammals is high in antioxidants which prevent cancers.
Beluga meat contains ten times the amount of iron compared to beef, five times more vitamins and 50 percent more protein. Six ounces of narwhal (whale) contains the same amount of vitamin C as a glass of orange juice or a cup of strawberries. The indigenous Peoples of the Arctic are able to nourish themselves despite the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables -- truly a remarkable feat.
Today, over 200 toxic pesticides and potent industrial compounds are found in very high concentrations in animals and the peoples of the far North.
Polychlorinated biphenyl compounds known as PCBs have leaked from electrical transformers into the environment. Although banned in the 1970s by most countries at least 21,000 old transformers exist in the U.S. alone, and they contain at least 99 million pounds of PCBs.
When PCBs enter the environment they circulate in the air, land on the ground, re-enter the air and eventually deposit on the snow and the ocean in the Arctic. Essentially, PCBs hop around the planet like the movement of grasshoppers.
About 62 tons of PCB gases arrive each year into the Arctic. Two thirds of them stay put, the rest continue to move.
PCBs are endocrine disruptors. They alter sex hormones, significantly impairing fetuses by damaging the development of the brain in addition to disrupting all vital organs.
In the Arctic they accumulate on the ocean sediments. They infiltrate the single celled plants which are eaten by copepods. Copepods are eaten by cod, cod are consumed by narwhals and in turn narwhals are eaten by Inuits. Moreover, ringed seals eat cod, and polar bears and humans eat seals.
As the PCBs pass each level on the rung of the food chain, their concentration becomes magnified -- a process called bio-magnification. Polar bears and people of the far North are carrying at least millions of times more PCBs than the waters where their food originates.
PCBs are stored in fat cells, clinging to the body rather than flushing through it. Female mammals pass doses of PCBs to their offspring through their milk. Milk of Arctic women has ten times more PCBs and pesticides than mothers from any of the major cities in Canada. Woman from Nunavik have 22 chemicals, 10 insecticides and 12 PCB compounds in their bodies at extraordinary high levels.
Two thousand polar bears near the Kara Sea contain the highest recorded levels of PCBs, twelve times more than Alaskan bears.
Each year between five and 10 tons of mercury are entering Earth's atmosphere. Between 50 and 75 percent of the mercury in the environment is human-induced. Coal fired power plant, currently the main energy source on the planet, and chemical factories are emitting mercury.
Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin. 93 percent of the woman tested from east Greenland and 68 percent of Nunavut's region exceeded the guidelines designated to protect the fetuses from neurological damages from mercury poisoning.
Each year 50 to 300 tons of mercury gas flow up into the Arctic. It's transported from thousands of miles away. In the spring when the first rays of light interact with the salt in the air and the mercury gas a photochemical reaction occurs -- mercury sunrise -- forcing mercury into the snow and ultimately into the ocean.
Global warming is occurring at least three but perhaps as fast at five times faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet. Sea ice is disappearing at a record rate. A couple years ago the Arctic was forecasted to be ice-free in 2060. Today, it is predicted to be ice-free by 2020. Less ice translates into more toxins in the Arctic Ocean.
The sea surrounding Alaska's Aleutian Island's have been laid to waste by global warming.
One hundred and fifteen thousand sea otters are missing. And it only took four orcas or killer whales less than a decade to finish them off.
Orcas living near the Aleutian's traditionally ate Stellar sea lions and seals, both rich in blubber and loaded with calories.
In the early 1980s the Gulf of Alaska rose by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The sea lions and seals soon disappeared leaving just the sea otters. The orcas changed their diet and began to eat the otters. Once the otters vanished the number of sea urchins skyrocketed. The sea urchins have eaten most of the massive six metre tall kelp forests, formerly the otter's habitat.
Also, rising ocean temperatures killed off the plankton, which fed the copepods and krill, which in turn fed the shrimps and Alaska king crabs. Shrimps, crabs, capelin and herring are gone. A once brimming diversified ecosystem has today been reduced to just sea urchins, cod, Pollack and sharks.
The lightning speed in which all these species have been lost has been likened to that of the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Dr. Reese Halter is a Science Communicator: Voice for Ecology, conservation biologist at California Lutheran University and public speaker. Reach him through http://DrReese.com