Above the Arctic Circle, the community in Kotzebue, Alaska, is watching sea ice disappear as the climate gets hotter. In the Western U.S., firefighters are battling increasingly explosive wildfires driven by hot, dry weather.

Scientists are finding these two extremes could be connected, a sign of how melting ice is causing ripple effects across the planet. You can see images and video from Alaska and California in our visual interactive.

This story is part of the NPR Climate Desk series Beyond the Poles: The far-reaching dangers of melting ice.

This audio story was edited by Neela Banerjee and Sadie Babits. It was produced by Ryan Kellman.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



All this week, NPR's Climate Desk has been looking at the far-reaching effects of melting ice. This story is about two places thousands of miles apart but with an unexpected connection. One is the Western U.S., where wildfires have ravaged communities in recent years. The other is the Arctic Ocean, where vast areas of sea ice are disappearing. These extremes of fire and ice have a surprising link, one that scientists say is getting stronger as the climate changes. Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk has the story.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: It's early July, 30 miles above the Arctic Circle. And in the small coastal village of Kotzebue, Alaska, kids are swimming.


SOMMER: They launch themselves off a seawall into the ocean. It's getting late, but it doesn't matter too much. The sun stays up for 24 hours this time of year. Boats are still speeding by on the open water. But just a few decades ago, this would not be swim season because huge pieces of ice would still be floating by. Most of the year, the ocean around Kotzebue is frozen for as far as you can see. For the Alaska Native people here, ice is a way of life.

CYRUS HARRIS: For the Inupiaq people that's living along the coastal areas, we're here for a reason, and that particular reason is the resources out in the waters.

SOMMER: Cyrus Harris grew up around Kotzebue. Like many people here, he relies on hunting and fishing, as has been done for generations.

HARRIS: I'd like to say 70% of my diet is from the lands and waters.

SOMMER: Harris runs the elders traditional food program, where hunters donate food to supply the long-term care facility in town.

HARRIS: On this side, I got...

SOMMER: He opens a big walk-in freezer with caribou, fish and seal.

HARRIS: We're going to be making fresh seal oil this winter with the...

SOMMER: Bearded seals are an important traditional food, and they're only nearby for a short time, when the sea ice starts breaking up in the spring. But that hunting season has been getting even shorter, he says, because the Arctic is changing undeniably. It's warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

HARRIS: Our colder temperatures throughout the winter are no longer colder temperatures throughout the winter. Earlier spring thaws, it's obvious. Late fall freeze up, that's obvious.

SOMMER: To measure that, Harris and other village elders teamed up with scientists from Columbia University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They combined traditional Indigenous knowledge with scientific data and found since 2003, the sea ice breaks up three weeks earlier on average.

HARRIS: If these changes continue to go on as they are, it's going to be a big challenge for the many of us. It's going to be a big challenge for the younger generation.

SOMMER: And the changes aren't just affecting people here.


ALEX WHITING: The thing about the Arctic is that it only works when it's cold.

SOMMER: Alex Whiting is environmental director for the Native Village of Kotzebue.

WHITING: So that means when it's not cold, a lot of things start to become disrupted.

SOMMER: We're walking on the shoreline at the edge of town. There aren't any roads beyond here. Kotzebue can only be reached by boat, plane and snowmobile when there's ice. Whiting says what happens in the Arctic matters because it influences the rest of the planet.

WHITING: The Arctic is a major thermal regulator for the planet, right? It's a air conditioner for the planet. It drives weather systems.

SOMMER: All that cold at the top of the planet shapes the weather, including weather that's thousands of miles away.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tonight, wildfires are leaving a trail of destruction amid record-breaking heat in the West.

SOMMER: Scientists are finding that Arctic ice seems to be shaping weather that fuels major disasters, like wildfires.

HAILONG WANG: The change in the Arctic could affect anywhere people live.

SOMMER: Hailong Wang is an Earth scientist at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He says this is how it works. When the Arctic Ocean is covered in ice, it's super bright white, so it's really good at reflecting sunlight. It acts like a shield. But when there's less sea ice...

WANG: The ocean can absorb and store more heat from the sunlight.

SOMMER: That heats up the water, which warms the air above it. The warm air forms a weather system, one that's strong enough to push something you hear about a lot in weather reports - the jet stream. The jet stream is what steers weather across the lower 48.

WANG: The shift of this jet stream can have a big impact on weather events.

SOMMER: Like bringing hot, dry air to the Western U.S. Wang's research shows this connection from less sea ice to more arid heat in the West is likely to become more common as the climate gets hotter. And it would happen in the fall, a time when hot, dry air is especially dangerous. Mark Macias has seen that firsthand in a wildfire three years ago.

MARK MACIAS: Fire of this magnitude, how fast it moves, you can't get in front of it.

SOMMER: Macias is a fire captain with the St. Helena Fire Department in Northern California. We're in a rural part of Napa County, with rolling hills and oak woodlands. In late September of 2020, he and his crew were the first ones here after getting a call about a wildfire. They had already been on high alert because of the weather.

MACIAS: It was windy. There was no humidity.

SOMMER: The wildfire was moving fast. The priority became just getting people out.

MACIAS: It's a bright orange everywhere. You're constantly getting burned with embers. Yeah, it's something.

SOMMER: The Glass Fire, as it was called, exploded, jumping hundreds of acres overnight. The dry air sapped the moisture from vegetation, priming it to burn. Macias spent the next 60 hours straight evacuating people. Eventually, more than 1,500 homes and buildings were destroyed. This isn't the only fire like this Macias has seen. He and his crew have been called to fight them around California.

MACIAS: It just seems like there's more of them, more and more of them.

SOMMER: It's taken a big toll, not just on the local communities but on Macias and the firefighters he works with. He gets choked up talking about it.

MACIAS: You try to do a lot, and it feels like you can't win. I know that was a huge thing that I've talked to with other guys. It's just like when you just feel like you can't win, and you're trying, you know? Those are the tough ones.

SOMMER: There are a lot of reasons wildfires explode into something unstoppable. The land may be overgrown with vegetation or the terrain too steep. But hot, dry weather - fire weather, as it's known - has been the deciding factor in the most destructive wildfires in recent years. Forecasting this weather and knowing when it could be more common would be a big help for Western states, and that may be a matter of understanding its faraway connection to the Arctic Ocean and its blanket of white ice that's shrinking more and more.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

MARTIN: You can find interactive stories from this series online at npr.org/icemelt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.