A letter to Santa in these troubled times

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2014, 9:52am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2014, 10:44am

You 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. Santa's website features a LiveCam in northern Finland, which reassured me that he is living happily in his cold and snowy place.

But lately the Arctic region is less snowy and less cold than it used to be. Surely not all inhabitants in the cold North will be so untouched as Santa by the drastic new conditions. 

The IPCC this year has warned of food insecurity and a lack of reliable and safe drinking water in the Arctic region, as a result of the changing physical environment. Climate change will not only impact the economy of standards of living in the region, it also threatens to damage the cultures of the people who live in the Arctic, just as the response of these people to climate change is also mediated by culture. Professor Neil Adger of the University of Exeter and others have written on the importance of acknowledging cultural factors in adaptation and mitigation responses. Efforts to address climate change won't be effective if they do not reflect what matters to individuals and communities. 

Santa has reasons to be worried about his Arctic home. Last week, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 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 diminishing ice cover. As the sea ice melts, less sunlight will be reflected and the dark seawater will absorb more solar energy, which in turn will help to further increase the melting of the sea ice. This opens up the Northern Sea Route that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean via northern Canada. Presents ordered by Santa in Shanghai can now reach Finland in the summer months across the Arctic, which is about 40 per cent shorter than the traditional route via the Suez Canal. But the increase in shipping in this vulnerable 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. In many places, he will be able to see the signs of coastal erosion caused by the rise in sea level, 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 people had to relocate inland.

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 these can only be used when the ground is completely frozen. In Alaska, the warming climate has shortened the period when these roads can be used from 200 days to only a 100 days per year in the past 30 years. The cost of building infrastructure on melting permafrost can increase by 10 percent or more.

The effects of climate change on wildlife are also noticeable. Sailing through the southern Beaufort Sea, Santa might notice the reduced survival rates of the young polar bears. In the last decade, their numbers have been reduced by almost 40 per cent. The caribou are also in trouble. The US Environmental Protection agency reports that climate change leads to an invasion of shrubs in the tundra, sometimes replacing lichens and other tundra vegetation. This might lead to a decline in the number of caribou, which form a critical food source for predators such as bears and wolves, as well as for the native peoples of Alaska.

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. Like their cousins, the caribou, reindeer are in 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 per cent from historic highs. In some northern regions it is worse, especially the mass die-offs of the Peary reindeer, where up to 84 per cent 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 a heavy icy rain. It is freezing over the plants so the reindeer can’t reach them.

Perhaps I should just ignore the fact that I am a grownup, and simply 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. Awareness of the consequences of our destruction of the global commons is a necessary prerequisite for individual action and for agreement on collective action to safe our planet. Thank you Santa, wishing you all the best in these challenging times.


Alexander Verbeek is Strategic Policy Advisor on Global Issues in the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Yale World Fellow. He can be followed at twitter @alex_verbeek