New Internationalist

When the ice melts

Issue 424

What’s in store as the world’s coldest dwelling place heats up? Jess Worth gazes into an uncertain future with the help of five people on the front-line.

Photo by: Bryan and Cherry Alexander Photography
No place like home: Roberta and Johnny, two residents of Shishmaref, sit where their house used to be before it was eroded by the sea. Photo by: Bryan and Cherry Alexander Photography

Katey Walter regularly camps out in the Arctic. A rising star in the world of climate science, she studies methane release from lakes. When we met in her Fairbanks University office she was somewhat sunburnt: she had just got back from a few weeks on the Seward Peninsula, ‘coring’ lakes to discover how today’s rapid thawing compares with thawing hundreds, even thousands of years ago.

I ask her about her research. ‘The Arctic is very sensitive and we are already observing dramatic changes,’ she tells me. ‘The ice is melting in the sea, in glaciers and in the ground. When the permafrost melts it creates sink holes that fill up with water. They expand into small ponds, which in turn expand, ‘eating’ the frozen ground around them, thawing it further. Any organic matter in the permafrost sinks to the bottom of the lake where it gets digested by microbes, which make methane.’

What are the implications of this, I ask? ‘Well, methane is a very strong greenhouse gas – 23 times stronger than CO2. So the implications are huge. There is a vast amount of carbon stored in permafrost.’

Katey is one of a growing army of scientists studying the minutiae of the momentous changes taking place in the Arctic. Along with thousands of academics, she has just participated in the ‘International Polar Year’ (IPY). Focusing scientific activity on both poles as never before, it involved 60 countries and will result in a blizzard of research papers. To get a sense of the big picture, I spoke to the IPY’s Director, David Carlson, an affable man who right now probably knows more than anyone else about the pace of climate change in the Arctic. There was really only one question I wanted to ask: based on the very latest research, exactly how bad is it?

We have already reached a tipping point where we will soon see an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer,’ Carlson confirms. ‘There’s nothing we can do about that. It could be in 2015, it could be in 2025, it almost doesn’t matter – it’ll happen in this generation. As a result, the whole weather system could change. It’s hard to predict exactly, but the system depends on sea-ice.’

There is slightly better news about the Arctic’s two other major bodies of ice. ‘It will take us longer to reach a tipping point with permafrost, because a lot of it is very deep. If we instigate a very aggressive carbon reduction policy, a lot would survive. And it will take another two to three centuries to melt the whole Greenland ice-sheet.’

Like so many scientists with the unenviable task of trying to predict what the infinitely complex global climate system is going to do next, he continues to be confounded by the speed of warming. ‘One thing we’ve discovered is that the Greenland ice-sheet is disappearing much faster than we had thought. Just three years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted a sea-level rise of 40 centimeters over a century. We’re now looking at between a metre and a metre-and-a-half.’

Whether or not the world gets its act together and makes the kind of drastic emissions cuts Carlson says are necessary, the Arctic’s near future has been decided. The delayed effect of the carbon we have already pumped into the atmosphere means that it is certain to get much warmer. Everything is going to change.

Caribou people

For the inhabitants of the circumpolar world, both human and animal, the question is: will it be possible to survive the turmoil of such an unstable environment? Of course, the Arctic’s indigenous people are used to living precariously, adapting to extreme changes in season and a certain level of climatic unpredictability. It won’t be all bad, some commentators say. Yes, the prognosis for the animals that depend on ice is dire. But there will be new species to hunt and more vegetation to harvest as the tree line continues its inexorable march north.

Yet to imagine that warmer weather will be welcomed by those who have to endure this planet’s harshest winters is to misunderstand the central role the frozen landscape and its disappearing ecosystem play in Arctic peoples’ identities. This connection, both practical and spiritual, came alive for me when I met Sarah James, a warm and wise Gwich’in elder from Arctic Village.

We are caribou people. Caribou is everything to us,’ she explained. ‘It is food on our tables, but it is also our song, our story, our dance. We have always believed that the creator gave us these wild things and gave us a chore to do, to keep the earth healthy.’ And so, as climate change began to affect the caribou herd, compounded by plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the elders from her village decided to stand up to these threats, both to preserve their culture and to educate the world. ‘We have spoken loud and clear, in battle after battle,’ says Sarah, who has won awards for her environmental campaigning. ‘We have told our story and turned it into a celebration.’

Like many of the indigenous people I met, Sarah and her community believe the world has much to learn from them when it comes to ‘keeping the earth healthy’, and this drives some of their actions. For example, a couple of years ago, she told me, the young people in her village held an emergency gathering to talk about how to create the future they wanted. They decided to demonstrate their intentions in a most practical way: they bought a solar panel. They had to buy it from India, Sarah chuckled, because the big energy companies in the US have made access to this kind of small-scale technology so difficult. But they got it, wired it up to their laundry facility, and had a ‘turning on’ ceremony to dedicate it to the future. ‘We did it to tell the world that there is a solution. Alternative energy, renewable resources. We just need access.’

Sarah is matter-of-fact about this decision to embrace non-traditional technologies. ‘We have to live in two worlds,’ she shrugs. ‘We try to teach our children to use good tools from both worlds and go forward into the future.’

Communities in crisis

Arctic Village has not been alone in sacrificing a degree of the isolation it holds dear to engage with the outside world. An increasing number of indigenous Arctic communities have been compelled to reach out, because climate change is rendering their villages uninhabitable.

At the Indigenous Summit on Climate Change in Anchorage, I met Tony Weyiouanna. He lives in Shishmaref on the coast of Northwest Alaska. His people have subsisted there for 4,000 years, but now their village is literally falling into the ocean. A combination of a rising sea-level, disappearing sea-ice and more ferocious storms has been tearing chunks off the shoreline for years. ‘In 2002, we voted overwhelmingly to move, knowing that we would eventually have no choice,’ he told me. The villagers of Shishmaref will be among the world’s first climate evacuees, along with residents of several low-lying Pacific Islands.

‘We installed a solar panel to tell the world that there is a solution’

Since 2002, Tony – a soft-spoken, shy man – has played a leading role in finding an alternative site on which to settle, and getting the funding to do so. And there’s the rub. The cost of relocating the 600-strong community is upwards of $100 million. ‘If it had been 60 or 70 years ago our people would have just got up and moved,’ Tony tells me. ‘Nowadays we can’t do that. We have too much Western infrastructure in our lives, so it forces us to reach out and try to find assistance.’

Numerous appeals and lobbying missions to the state and federal governments, bolstered by a media campaign that has attracted reporters from across the globe, have so far failed to bear fruit. ‘In 2005 we got legislation passed that would pay for the relocation of communities, but Congress just repealed the Act so we’re back to square one.’ Tony is understandably deflated: they have also just been refused funding to pay for repairs and coastal reinforcements that would protect the community while it is forced to remain. ‘We can’t get Government to help us stay or to help us relocate. There’s a complete denial of the problems we face because there is a denial that it is due to climate change – and a denial of any responsibility to help us adapt or deal with its impacts.’

We explore other possibilities. How about international help? After all, the rest of the industrialized world bears some responsibility for Shishmaref’s suffering. ‘Well, the US didn’t sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, so we’re not eligible for UN funding. But perhaps other governments or private foundations would be a good source of assistance. The international community could be our only hope, with the slow progress we’ve been making at home.’

Shishmaref is rapidly running out of options. Discouraged, perhaps, by its predicament, a community just a few miles north is trying a more daring approach. The native village of Kivalina, which also faces the painful necessity of moving, announced last year it was suing ExxonMobil, along with 23 other fossil fuel companies, for contributing to the global warming which is destroying its homes. The villagers are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to pay for relocation and are currently waiting for a court decision.

Victory seems unlikely – though what a precedent it would set! But no matter the outcome, communities like Kivalina and Shishmaref are asking a question that needs to be answered: whose responsibility is it to help communities survive this disaster? Can those driving global warming be made to cough up the cash to pay for its consequences?

This question took centre stage at the Indigenous Climate Summit in Anchorage. The meeting was held in advance of December’s UN climate talks in Copenhagen precisely because indigenous people across the world are being hit first and hardest by climate change, and yet have no formal voice in the negotiations. The Summit concluded that funding to provide immediate assistance for those already in a state of crisis must be found urgently.

But an even more pressing responsibility lies on the shoulders of all industrialized nations when they meet in Copenhagen. They must agree to make the deep and lasting cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are the only ticket out of climate catastrophe in the Arctic and – as a consequence – everywhere else.

Full of hope

Yet it would be wrong to regard the Arctic’s indigenous peoples as helpless victims, rabbits in the headlights of the industrial juggernaut hurtling towards them. They would not have survived this long without being self-sufficient and resilient.

Climate change is just the latest way in which they have had their rights violated – but they are fighting back. The key to a sustainable future for the Arctic, according to Aqqaluk Lynge, a prominent Inuit leader from Greenland, is for indigenous rights to be restored.

I have been fighting for rights all my life,’ this bespectacled man, bursting with energy, told me when I met him at the Summit. ‘Ever since the multinational companies became interested in using our resources. We were losing the ownership of our territories, so the fight has been about the difference between our way of doing things and others’.’

One village is suing ExxonMobil for contributing to the global warming which is destroying its homes

As climate change intensifies the pressure for economic development in the far north, Aqqaluk believes the Inuit are being ignored. And he has not shied away from pointing out to the Arctic nations some uncomfortable home truths. At a meeting last year that brought together ministers from all the Arctic states to discuss the fractious topic of sovereignty, he told them quite bluntly: ‘New questions are being asked, such as “who owns the Arctic?” Well, we have a history that spans thousands of years across the lands that others now claim. This question is an old one for Inuit. While we are uncomfortable with the word “own”, I say it is all Inuit who “own” much of the Arctic.’

His country is leading the way in realizing this vision of indigenous sovereignty. Greenland, which is 90 per cent Inuit, was granted Home Rule by the Danes in 1979. Then last November it took a leap towards full independence, voting overwhelmingly for more autonomy, including control over its own judicial system and police force. In June this year the official language of Greenland became the local indigenous dialect – a world first. ‘We are all celebrating,’ beamed Aqqaluk.

Some other Arctic nations are not lagging too far behind. The Norwegian Government began to give the Saami more control over their lands, leading to their own parliament in 1989 and similar arrangements are developing for Saami people in neighbouring Sweden and Finland. In Canada, land claims settlements resulted in the establishment of Nunavut in 1999, a largely self-governing Inuit region of more than two million square kilometres covering 20 per cent of Canada’s vast territory.

It is still early days for these political institutions, and for indigenous organizations like the Inuit Circumpolar Council that transcend borders and are demanding a seat at the table. ‘We are looking forward to a future where we can make our own contributions to the solution of global challenges,’ Aqqaluk says. ‘But at the same time, we will protect our way of life as a distinct and unique people. We need to find a balance between old and new ways. Between change and stability.’

He is refreshingly upbeat about their chances of success. ‘Indigenous peoples in the Arctic are full of hope,’ he reveals. ‘While we face the considerable challenges that climate change has brought to us, we are still looking forward to the future with optimism and enthusiasm.’

This is, perhaps, because the traditional custodians of the Arctic are used to taking a long view. Sarah James summed this up for me. ‘We didn’t come from anywhere. We are not going anywhere. We are here to stay,’ she said emphatically. They are doing what they can to preserve their precious homeland for future generations. The rest is up to us.

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