When you think of the Arctic it’s hard to imagine what that really means. The first images that come to mind likely include vast tracts of ice and snow expanding far out into an infinite horizon full of emptiness. Seemingly hostile to all forms life this northernmost sector of our country conjures up thoughts of a desolate wasteland meant to be avoided, even feared.
But contrary to popular belief the region along the Alaskan coast of the Arctic Ocean is a diverse and thriving ecosystem. Rich with a wide variety plant and animal species the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ranges across a broad landscape of ancient geological wonder. When you explore this beautiful setting it’s impossible not to marvel at its grandeur and yet ache for its profound vulnerability. So delicately balanced between the ironic demands of an energy dependent nation and a rapidly warming planet the Arctic is a fragile environment whose ongoing protection is critical to the wellbeing of humanity. Though fewer than 2,000 people will visit each year our survival depends upon the preservation of this vital resource for the benefit of future generations.
I was invited by the Sierra Club to take a trip into the Arctic. Traveling by raft along the HulaHula River we traced the route of migrating caribou over 50 miles from the Brooks Mountain Range all the way to the Beaufort Sea. As the winter ice melted to reveal the green sod of the Tundra beneath our small team of eight paddled and camped under the light of the midnight sun. Within a week of the summer solstice we traveled through long days of full sunlight to see the Alaskan frontier in a dazzling display of wildflowers, grizzly bears, wolves, ptarmigan, loons, foxes and at least one wolverine. The constant presence of animals affirmed the health and vitality of the refuge. Like the native people, the Gwich’in and Inupiat, who thrived there for millennia our nation can take great comfort in the persistence of this habitat that sustains life. “As the caribou go,” a tribal community leader told me, “so do the Gwich’in”.
If the permafrost remains and the lichen grows the porcupine caribou herd will return to the Arctic Refuge. And with them will come the many different birds, insects and mammals that populate the Tundra. This subspecies of caribou numbers more than 150,000 animals that range over 30,000 square miles. And like the canary in the coal mine their continued success is a primary indication of the overall stability of our planet’s atmosphere. By limiting and ultimately reducing our combustion of fossil fuels we can lower the levels of greenhouse gases that raise the temperature of the Earth. We can help to maintain the Arctic ice that preserves water and nutrients through the winter and allows life to be renewed in the spring.
Those of us who live in cities, many who will likely never visit the Arctic, can be assured that their efforts to conserve energy at home are indeed helping to keep the caribou on the move. As urban communities across the globe create positive relationships with the natural world, even thousands of miles away, the impact is felt on the ground in the Arctic where every plant and creature is intimately connected. The collective actions of all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status can directly influence the safety and security of life today while helping to preserve the potential for continued longevity tomorrow. #wearethearctic
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