Arctic voice drowning in climatic shift

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It is time for the industrialised world to wake up and change its behaviour before the Arctic, its people and its wildlife are lost forever, argues explorer Glenn Morris.

In this week’s Green Room, he shares his experiences of travelling by kayak along part of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic.

“It’s so hot,” an Inuit elder said, fanning herself while sitting on a bench outside the Northern Stores in Paulatuk. Her face, etched with lines, hinted at a past life that would be alien to the young people of the hamlet today.

Her complaints about the heat were said in a way that might have been comical if it were not for the sinister underlying reasons. I later learned that she had been born in a snow house.

She had, no doubt, watched as her father had dragged a harpooned seal across the snow, staining the ice crystals crimson in its wake.

He would have tenderly poured a little fresh water in the seal’s mouth, ready for the next life; held its claws and said “hello again” and “kuana” (thank you) before dividing the meat.

Change for the people of the north is both fast and relentless. Colin Adjun, an Inuit hunter, told us that he remembered winter temperatures in Kugluktuk often dropping to between -50 and -60C; now they are more likely to be between -25 to -30C.

The summers, too, seem much warmer. Before our journey, we had consulted the Admiralty Arctic Pilot manual, which gave the upper summer temperature for the part of the Canadian Arctic we were traversing as 21C.

Yet we experienced temperatures of 34C, and it was almost impossible to sleep.

Changing landscape

Rising temperatures are having an effect on every aspect of life in the Arctic. As the permafrost melts, homes and roads are affected.

Inuit hunters and other residents told us that new insects and flowers are appearing and animals that previously lived in the lower environs are now moving north.

During our journey we had often stared into the clear waters below the kayaks and remarked to each other on the complete absence of life below us.

Jack, an Inuit hunter and president of the hunters’ association in Kugluktuk, told us: “The waters are warming and the fish are moving north”.

We later discussed sport and the popularity of ice hockey in Canada. Jack told us that until a few years ago, youngsters used to play on the ice rink in Kugluktuk, “but now it no longer freezes over so the kids can’t play anymore”.

The warming of the Arctic, the melting of the permafrost and all the other changes to the environment and wildlife are causing considerable concern among the Inuit.

But other issues such as mining, and the quest for energy sources as the giant western economies move north, are equally powerful foes.

Losing control

The oil and mining companies now vie with each other for the opportunity to drill in areas that were once inaccessible.

Shipping companies too are looking at the commercial viability of routes through the once ice-covered Arctic Ocean, all without a care for how their waste will form the epitaph of this pristine northern wilderness.

We met Tommy, an Inuvialuit, on the Mackenzie Delta. He told us how a proposed pipeline would bring gas along the great Mackenzie Valley.

“Many people are against it,” he said. “It will be bad for the land and the animals.”