With trees growing ever farther north during longer summers, beavers are colonizing new Arctic regions, engineering entire habitats, though their resurgence could spring from a historical drop in trapping. Their stick dams bloat tundra streams into wetlands, easily counted on satellite images, which accelerate permafrost thawing by decades: A waist-deep pond can warm bottom muck 50 degrees Fahrenheit above the surrounding air temperature. On average in Northwest Alaska, beavers are advancing 5 miles per year. James Roth, an ecologist colleague of Tape at the University of Alaska never expected to see them on the treeless North Slope, yet he estimates that within two to four decades, they’ll probably settle in there. Fishes and insect larvae will live in the ponds these rodents create, which are deeper and do not freeze solid.

Moose and snowshoe hares similarly follow willows up Brooks Range drainages across the Continental Divide. Moose now thrive hundreds of miles beyond their mid-nineteenth century range. Coastal plain grizzlies and wolves welcome this supplement to their menu. Hare populations, peaking about every decade, however, can curb moose numbers by stripping willows of buds and bark — moose and beaver food. Predators in turn kill more ptarmigans when the birds’ willow cover is depleted.

Arctic Ocean trends mirror terrestrial ones. In June 2019, Beaufort Sea surface temperatures hovered up to 38 degrees Fahrenheit above the average from 1981 to 2010. Such “baking” repeatedly caused extreme seabird die-offs in the neighboring Chukchi and Bering seas. Erosion and sea level rises that force Native communities to relocate also threaten common eiders, which nest at the waterline. Orcas, not adapted to pack ice, stick around northern Alaska’s coast longer now, competing with polar bears and Inupiaq hunters for seals and belugas. Several have starved to death in separate incidents in Canada’s Hudson Bay, trapped by rapidly moving floes. And with ice in the famed Northwest Passage vanishing, Atlantic and Pacific whale populations split by the last ice age currently mingle. During the 2010 record sea ice low, satellite-tagged bowheads from both ends of the Arctic crossed paths in the passage.

Roger Kaye, who has visited the refuge for more than 40 years as a USFWS pilot and wilderness specialist, says differences he’s witnessing there are dramatic and prospects “really scary.” As founder of the Anthropocene Working Group, he has studied “best science” prognoses for the Arctic and this part of Alaska, which tend to be conservative. “We’re zooming past them already, and it’s not realistic to think this will be kept as a natural landscape.” He asks, “Should we try to resist change?” contemplating rewilding, assisted migration, and other scenarios.

What does it say about us as a species, a country, if we can’t guarantee the integrity of such enclaves?

An attempt has been made in Siberia to fill mammoths’ ecological niche — they formerly roamed Alaska, knocking down trees and compressing snow, and thereby kept soil cooler and permafrost from melting — with similar grazers and browsers, such as buffalo, in a “Pleistocene Park.” Shoring up crumbling coasts now pummeled by waves no longer restrained by sea ice is another form of mitigation, though the magnitude is daunting and it would have to be limited to human settlements.

Overall, Kaye seems to suggest that we let the Arctic change, which is inevitable, and that we learn to live with those changes. He never raises the subject of geo-engineering, a whole new, scary level of quick technological fixes with unknown repercussions.

THE GRIZZLY AT THE Canning River had bedded down for the night, night that looked like afternoon. Sunset painted the northwestern horizon with a garish smear. A string of geese sailed right through it, black cutouts drawn by instinct to staging grounds near Beaufort Lagoon. To the north, orange gas flares and red strobes turned the night into a mad carnival. They spelled the potential undoing of all we’d experienced that week. They marked Prudhoe Bay, home to North America’s largest oil field, where extraction outweighs procreation, where stillness yields to big business, where Earth and its creatures take second billing.

photo of arctic refuge
The author at Ivishak River, which flows through the northern foothills of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to join the Sagavanirktok River on the coastal plain, 50 miles south of Prudhoe Bay. Photo courtesy of Melissa Guy.

I can’t help but wonder how the refuge will change in the next 15, 30, or 60 years. Will I have to bushwhack through willows and alders farther up north, as I already routinely do on the range’s south side? Will thunderstorms become a normal hazard like stream crossings in June? Will the days be too hot to hike, too smoky to see mountaintops? Will the animals leave, die, or lie low much of the time? Where could they go? And what does it say about us as a species, a country, if we can’t guarantee the integrity of such enclaves, not even for the duration of one person’s lifetime?

I won’t be around for the 100th anniversary; but on the 60th, it would be a great comfort to know that this wildlife haven has a chance to endure, to be loved and enjoyed by others who will succeed me.

The fight for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not just a fight against creeping privatization of public lands, against the erosion of wilderness and of democracy. As Adam Kolton says, it’s “a fight for a cleaner energy future and safer climate for all Americans.” Each barrel of crude that stays buried buys precious time for the planet’s nonhuman inhabitants, and for us. As our attention is riveted elsewhere, on this pandemic, racial injustice, and economic woes, and the current administration continues to sap environmental protections and science, we should heed the far north.

What happens there today will concern us all tomorrow.