They never used to need air conditioners up in the Arctic.
But earlier this year, officials in the Canadian Inuit territory of Nunavik authorized the installation of air conditioners in official buildings for the first time. Artificial cooling was necessary, they decided, because summertime temperatures in some southern Arctic villages have climbed into the 80s in recent years.
Inuit families in the region never used to need to shop in grocery stores, either. But the Arctic seas that always stayed frozen well into the summer have started breaking open much earlier, cutting off hunters from the seasonal caribou herds on which their families depend for sustenance.
And experienced Inuit hunters, as comfortable reading ice conditions as professional golfers are reading greens, had seldom fallen through the ice and drowned. But this year in Alaska, more than a dozen vanished into the sea.
"These are men used to running their trap lines, people who know the area well, yet they are literally falling through, they are just gone," said Patricia Cochran, executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission in Anchorage and chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. "The ice conditions are just so drastically different from all of their hunting lifetimes."
Effects on aboriginal societies
It took a while, but global warming, the relentless greenhouse gas phenomenon that most scientists believe has altered climates across much of the rest of the world, appears to have finally breached the northern polar redoubt. And the effects on aboriginal societies trying to hold fast to traditional ways have been jarring.
The people of this far northern Canadian hamlet of 250 used to hunt eider ducks every summer, using the meat and eggs for food and the soft feathers for clothing. But this past summer was the third in a row that the Inuit couldn't reach the nesting grounds because the ice around them was too thin.
The seals have changed, as well.
"Now when we are trying to take the fur off the seals, it's very hard to do," said David Kalluk, 65, a village elder and veteran hunter. "It's like it's burned onto them. Maybe this is because the sea is warmer."
Wayne Davidson, the resident meteorologist in Resolute Bay for 20 years, says monthly temperatures throughout the year are 5 to 11 degrees higher than recent historical averages. For example, Davidson said, the average daily temperature last March was minus 13.4 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with an average of minus 24.2 degrees from 1947 to 1991.
"Science for us in the Arctic is experience," Davidson said. "Resolute used to be a horrible place to live as far as weather is concerned, absolutely brutal. Now it's much milder."
The signs of warming in the Arctic are not merely anecdotal. Last month, NASA climate experts reported with alarm that for the last two years, Arctic sea ice has been melting in summer and winter at rates far higher than anything seen before.
Summer sea ice coverage in 2005 was the smallest recorded in a century and was not much larger this year, the NASA researchers said, and winter coverage in 2005 and 2006 was 6 percent smaller than the average over the last 26 years.
The recession of ice coverage in the winter is especially alarming, experts said, because it suggests the fundamental climatic engine that creates Arctic ice may be impaired.
"The greenhouse phenomenon is becoming more apparent in the Arctic," said Josefino Comiso, a senior research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland who studies Arctic zones. "It has been late. But a winter warming signal is finally coming out."
Not everyone is convinced that global warming is to blame for changes observed in the Arctic and elsewhere. A handful of scientists and conservative politicians doubt the widespread theory that humans are causing climate change by burning increasing amounts of fossil fuels, which release heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These skeptics attribute the warming patterns around the world to natural fluctuations in the Earth's highly complex climate systems.
"There isn't a lot of doubt that the temperature has gone up about a half-degree in this century, and there isn't a lot of doubt that carbon dioxide has increased, but that's where the agreement ends," said Richard Lindzen, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading critic of global warming theory.
"Where there is argument is over things like: Does the Arctic represent global warming as opposed to natural variability?" Lindzen continued. "The Earth is always warming or cooling. Industrial output has nothing to do with global warming. There is no evidence so far that we've gotten beyond natural warming."
But a majority of climatologists around the world harbor no such doubts, experts say.
"The basic question of global warming is no longer a subject of dispute in the scientific literature," said Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at the University of California, San Diego, who reviewed 928 scientific papers about climate change published between 1993 and 2003 and found none challenging evidence of human contributions to global warming.
"The discussion has moved on to how quickly will things change in the future, the rate of ice melting and differing climate models," Oreskes said. "There's almost nobody left anymore who doesn't accept that global warming is real."
It certainly feels real enough to the people of Resolute Bay. From their perch on the edge of the Barrow Strait, they watched this summer as the waters of their rocky bay melted and filled with drifting icebergs _ a view as depressing as it was picturesque, because in years past the water remained frozen solid enough to traverse aboard sleds and snowmobiles to their traditional hunting grounds.
"The heat of the sun is different now," said Kalluk, the village elder, trying to make sense of the changes. "I think there is global warming, because snow that has never melted before is starting to melt now."
They never used to need air conditioners up in the Arctic.