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A slow earthquake

An Inuit hunter jumps across a gap in the sea-ice. Climate change is causing the ice to melt, making hunting increasingly perilous.

Photo: Bryan and Cherry Alexander Photography

Bruce Inglangasak scans the gleaming white coastal plain with expert eyes. He’s searching for caribou. Spring has finally come to the Arctic and the animals are starting to make their way down from the mountains. The villagers of Kaktovik greet the change in season with understandable enthusiasm. It’s been a long winter for this 300-strong Inupiaq village, perched at the edge of the Arctic Ocean where the sun doesn’t rise at all for three months and temperatures regularly reach -50°C.

Me and my woolly hat out on the coastal plain.

Last week, Bruce made his first successful hunting trip of the year with two other men from the village. They returned with 12 caribou, 90 fish and a moose – a welcome feast of freshness after so many months living off food stored from last year’s harvest. Now the sun is beating down and as we travel towards the dramatic Brooks Range of mountains spiky tundra grass is starting to poke through the snow.

It’s not the most comfortable excursion I’ve ever made, being pulled along in a crude wooden sledge behind Bruce’s snowmobile. But as we skim over yet another bump in the ice, rattling every bone in my body for the 743rd time today, I feel only elation. I’m finally here, speeding across the famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and it’s every bit as breathtaking as I’d imagined. The endless expanse of whiteness glitters in the sun like a sea of diamond dust. Every time we stop I am struck by the silence of this place, broken only by the comical mating calls of newly arrived ptarmigans (like a duck trying to gargle, then being swiftly strangled), the odd distant bark of an Arctic fox and the muffled roar of a river flowing somewhere beneath the ice.

But my impression of eternal emptiness is an illusion. Soon the snow will melt and the coastal plain will be transformed. The Porcupine Caribou herd – one of North America’s largest herds of wild reindeer – comes here every year to give birth and with them a dazzling range of fauna and flora, including grizzly bears, wolverines, musk ox and Arctic hares. ‘You wouldn’t believe your eyes,’ chuckles Bruce. ‘In the summer this place looks like Africa!’

I don’t want to destroy the magic of my moment in one of the world’s last great wildernesses, but I can’t help but let reality intrude. ‘If they get the go-ahead to drill here,’ I ask, ‘where will it be?’ Bruce sweeps his hand across the full range of what I have just been visualizing as America’s Serengeti. ‘All along here,’ he answers, with what sounds a lot like resignation.

Bruce scans the horizon.

Photo: Jess Worth

The world intrudes

Kaktovik exists on a knife-edge. There has only been a settled community living here since 1923. But this small lump of land off the north coast of Alaska – known as Barter Island – has been a hunting and trading spot for nomadic Inupiaq (termed Inuit in other parts of the region) for 10,000 years. Here, 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, humans live well in the harshest of climates, still practising many of the subsistence hunter-gathering traditions of their ancestors, while embracing new technologies that make this life so much easier, such as motor boats, and snowmobiles with Global Positioning Systems for navigation.

Indigenous people across the Arctic have been treated appallingly by governments and corporations claiming rights over their historic homelands (see History, page 14). Kaktovik is no exception. The outside world first intruded on the community’s relative isolation in 1956 when Cold War paranoia led the US and Canadian governments to build a series of radar bases along the Arctic coast. The entire village was displaced to make way for a runway, the majority of homes bulldozed into oblivion. In the following years, some were forced to move again as the base changed and expanded.

If the Arctic is the canary in the climate coalmine, then its indigenous inhabitants are the ones being suffocated.

But Kaktovik’s problems really started in the 1970s following the discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas along Alaska’s ‘North Slope’ coastline. After much wrangling, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created, with Kaktovik at its uppermost tip. But this has been a mixed blessing. Over the last three decades the unwilling villagers have been periodically thrust into the US political and media spotlight each time the oil companies and their political cronies attempt to get access to the Refuge’s hidden hydrocarbons. The emotive drilling debate has divided the community and continues to dangle a sword of Damocles over its future. (I investigate the Arctic indigenous peoples’ love-hate relationship with Big Oil in more depth on page 10.)

The ice pressure ridge with Kaktovik in the far distance.

Photo: Jess Worth

Local warming

Now Kaktovik has an even more formidable force to contend with: climate change. Fifty years ago the Arctic’s native inhabitants were already starting to notice subtle changes in their environment. Today, global warming is a daily reality – and I found evidence of it everywhere. For a start I arrived in Kaktovik during a heat wave, with remarkably warm temperatures for late April. Rather than being too cold I got sunburnt; the conspicuous white sunglass-circles on my otherwise scarlet skin earning me the affectionate nickname ‘raccoon face’ for the rest of my visit.

Flying in on a tiny bush plane (there are no roads to most of the native villages dotted across the region) it was hard to see where the land ended and the water began, as the sea-ice was still frozen solid, as it is for much of the year. Or used to be. While our plane circled over the pure white ocean, waiting for the fog that had suddenly cloaked our destination to disperse, I saw huge faultlines in the ice which was starting to break up. There were even some areas of open water. Arriving in the village I learned that this was happening early again, a sign of the dramatic shrinkage affecting the whole Arctic Ocean. Two summers ago, I was told, the sea-ice had melted away to an unprecedented 400 kilometres north of the village. Then last year it was 640 kilometres out. Arctic ice is shrinking by a staggering 72,500 square kilometres a year and a summer free of sea-ice, recently thought to be a century away, is now predicted within a decade.

The Arctic is a harbinger, bringing us a message from our future that is impossible to ignore

The day after our trip along the coastal plain Bruce took me on to the village’s lagoon, which looked like a giant meringue topped by swirls and peaks. We climbed the ice pressure ridge, where the Beaufort Sea crashes into the already frozen lagoon, thrusting up huge chunks of ice to form a jagged wall for the winter. He explained that at the same time as the summer sea-ice is receding, the storms they are experiencing have been getting more vicious. Without the natural ice barrier that has always protected them, serious erosion is starting to take place on the island. In a few years, mused Bruce, they may have to think about shifting the whole village into the mountains.

Walking back past small wooden houses, I saw a few caribou carcasses spread out on the snow. ‘Has someone just returned from a hunting trip?’ I asked. ‘No,’ replied Bruce. These were part of last year’s hunt. The villagers dig holes in the permafrost to store food to see them through the long winter months – a practice common across the Arctic. Except now the permafrost is thawing, releasing terrifying amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. So the people of Kaktovik are losing their natural freezers and having to dig up food before they’re ready to use it. ‘It’s a growing problem for us,’ explained Bruce. People here couldn’t possibly afford to buy and run freezers big enough to store seven months’ worth of meals. This is forcing them to rely even more on expensive, imported, processed food, helping to drive an epidemic of diabetes and obesity. And this in turn fuels the need to earn more money, making the oil companies’ offers of jobs and revenue from drilling in the Refuge harder to resist.

A polar bear feeding at Kaktovik’s whale bone pile.

Photo: STEVEN KAZLOWSKI / still pictures

Bear necessities

And then there’s the impact of climate change on the Refuge’s animals. Migratory patterns are starting to shift, meaning that animals are turning up at different times, in different places – or not at all. This makes hunting much harder and is upsetting the balance of this finely tuned ecosystem. For example, they’re starting regularly to get freezing rain here rather than snow in the winter. This forms a layer of ice over the snow, which caribou find it hard to walk on, thus restricting the distances they normally travel. It also ices over the lichen they feed on, causing disturbing levels of starvation in the herd.

But perhaps of most urgency is the impact on the polar bears. Kaktovik, like the other Inupiaq villages dotted along the Arctic coast, is a whaling community. Every September they catch two or three bowhead whales, which are shared by everyone and are enough to see them through the winter. They are careful to ensure that this does not deplete the fragile whale population. Once they’ve taken what they need, they dump the whale carcasses in ‘the boneyard’ at the northernmost tip of the island. This happens to be just when the local polar bears are at their hungriest, having spent all summer depleting their fat reserves waiting for the sea-ice to re-form and allow them to hunt their staple diet of ringed seals. So an extraordinary symbiotic relationship has developed between the people of Kaktovik and the world’s largest land predator. The bears come from miles around to feast on the whale carcass, lounging around and playing when they’ve had their fill, perfectly happy for people to come down and view them. In turn, this free lunch has proved very effective at keeping them from wandering into the village looking for food and imperilling its inhabitants.

But things are changing. The number of polar bears that visit each year has dropped off alarmingly and many of the bears that do make it are skinny and ravenous. This winter four starving bears ventured into the village and attacked people’s dogs. Residents tried everything they could to shoo them away, but ultimately the bears were too hungry and therefore too dangerous. So, with great reluctance, they were shot.

The view from my bedroom window in the Arctic!

Photo: Jess Worth

The human cost

Climate change is warming the poles up to six times the speed of the rest of the planet and Kaktovik is far from alone in experiencing its effects. Before travelling there I spent a week in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, at a summit of indigenous peoples who had come from all over the world to discuss the common threat of global warming. By the end of the week it was clear to me that, if the Arctic is the canary in the climate coalmine, then its indigenous inhabitants are the ones being suffocated before our eyes – although they are certainly not taking it lying down (see ‘When the ice melts’, page 18).

The stories I heard from Greenland, Siberia, Canada and northern Scandinavia wove together into a single tapestry of lives and livelihoods affected in profound and disturbing ways. Thinning ice is making travelling and fishing difficult, dangerous and sometimes fatal. New kinds of animals, birds, plants, insects – and diseases – are appearing as Arctic species struggle to survive. Rising sea-levels are contaminating water supplies. Buildings and infrastructure are cracking and crumbling as the permafrost they are built on thaws. Some coastal communities are already drawing up plans to move – a wrenching last resort for people whose identities are intimately entwined with the land on which their ancestors have lived for countless generations.

And while the Arctic’s original people struggle to survive, the Johnny-come-lately nation-states who now claim to ‘own’ the region are increasingly bickering over questions of sovereignty (see page 16.) Their grandstanding has less to do with national pride than with one of the most thumping ironies of climate change. The thawing of the Arctic is opening up major new sources of natural resources: up to a quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas reserves plus a bonanza of mineral deposits and a host of teeming fisheries. There’s even a roaring new trade in ivory, as the melting permafrost belches up ancient mammoth tusks, particularly coveted by the Chinese nouveaux riches. Ancestral lands and subsistence-hunting sea-routes are being scoured, surveyed and claims staked as never before, by state and private corporations preparing to exploit fully the world’s final frontier – a new phase of thoughtless imposition in a history of colonial upheaval.

This relentless assault on the far North in the name of perpetuating Western lifestyles is hard to reconcile with the special place the Arctic occupies in our imaginations. For those who don’t live there it is a place of fable and legend; the land of Santa Claus, the northern lights and the midnight sun; breathtaking in its natural beauty and terrible in the violence of its winters. It is a land of discovery that for centuries enticed many an explorer to their doom, a destination for intrepid travellers seeking the ultimate adventure. It is a ‘crucible of mystery’1, a home to magnificent creatures, a wilderness of scintillating otherness that we hold to be precious, perhaps even sacred, though most of us will never set foot anywhere near it.

And now it is a harbinger, bringing us a message from our future that is unwelcome yet impossible to ignore. Because what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The frozen North acts as a global thermostat, regulating the planet’s temperature. Messing with it could throw the entire climate out of whack and not necessarily in a gradual fashion – it could happen very suddenly. The slow earthquake rocking the top of the world is happening to all of us. We need to listen to what the Arctic and its people are telling us. And we need to act: very, very swiftly.

Majestic mountains: the beginning of the Brooks Range, beyond the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain.

Photo: Jess Worth

  • Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, Harvill Press, 1999, p.412.
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    The Arctic: facts
    The Arctic region consists of the Arctic Ocean – which is largely frozen – surrounded by land. There are a few ways of defining its boundaries including:

    > the Arctic Circle: the line at which the sun does not rise at winter solstice and does not set at summer solstice.

    > the northernmost treeline above which the landscape shifts from plains of tundra into the ice fields of the high Arctic.

    > where the average temperature for the warmest month (July) is below 10°C.

    Who lives in the Arctic?
    Around four million people inhabit the Arctic, some in remote villages dotted along the coastline and some in large cities such as Murmansk. There are also many seasonal workers who live in the region for part of the year.

    Indigenous people make up around 10 per cent of the Arctic population:

    > the many ethnic groups include the Inuit of North America and Greenland, the Saami of Northern Scandinavia, and the Chukchi, Yakuts, Evenki and Nenets of Siberia.

    > in northern Canada the Inuit represent half the population, and in Greenland they are the majority.


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