A little background: I was travelling as faculty with the charity
Students on Ice, based in Gatineau, Que., the creation of Canadian
adventurer Geoff Green. He takes high school students from all over the
world to the Poles and then lets them loose to explore with experts.
Since 1999, he’s taken over 1,500 students.
My first Pole, the
Arctic, was supposed to be a one-time volunteer gig in August that would
plug into two great loves for a couple of weeks: teaching teens and
hanging out with scientists in the wild. Instead, it set up a fierce
longing in me to kneel on the continent of Antarctica and taste the
southern ocean spray on my lips. It was as if I could not be whole until
I had understood these two planetary siblings that could not be further
Strictly speaking, the Arctic is an ice-covered ocean
surrounded by land. But the standard definition doesn’t hold up today
because the polar ocean isn’t covered by ice anymore, at least not in
The 120 or so of us on board the Russian ship M/V
Orlova for 12 days steered across the top of Quebec into Hudson’s Bay
and then doubled back to Baffin Island. We were on the eastern edge of
the fabled Northwest Passage.
During earlier expeditions, the
ship’s captain had used the Canadian Space Agency’s RADARSAT satellite
system to make sure he didn’t get stuck in the sea ice. On our trip in
August, the ship’s captain used RADARSAT to do the opposite — rather
than avoiding ice, he wanted to find sea ice to show the kids what it
looks like. He couldn’t find any.
This is more than a little
unusual. The Arctic Ocean has been covered with ice for the past 47
million years. I remember writing my first article about human-caused
planetary change in 2000 and reporting that the Northwest Passage might
eventually thaw enough to be a shipping route in the summer. It was
almost unimaginable at the time, just 11 years ago.
climate change scientists using supercomputers to make models of the
future went out on a limb to say that the Arctic might be warm enough to
be free of ice in the summers by 2100. A few scientists predicted 2050.
Even they missed the mark.
The melt has happened so fast that
the models can’t keep up. Instead of changing in a sedate, linear
fashion, it’s happening exponentially. Today, many of the models say the
Arctic will be reliably navigable the summer after next, 2013.
matters because the less sea ice there is, the more black open water.
The more open water, the more heat the water absorbs, leading to yet
more loss of sea ice and greater warming of the air as the water gives
up its stored heat. It’s a self-feeding loop. Last winter, air
temperatures in the Arctic were as much as 12 C higher than average.
turn, this warming trend is changing wind patterns from the Arctic,
bringing frigid air and lots of snow to the middle parts of North
America and other northern continents. It’s the so-called Warm Arctic,
Cold Continents phenomenon. That snowstorm along the eastern seaboard
after Christmas? Evidence that the planet’s Arctic thermostat is
The ice is melting because the air is getting
warmer, due to more carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere from the
burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gasoline.
years ago, carbon dioxide made up less than 0.03 percent of the volume
of the atmosphere, usually expressed as 280 parts per million (ppm).
Today, it’s more than 390 ppm, or nearly 0.04 per cent — dramatically
higher than it’s been for more than 20 million years. The higher the
concentration, the more heat the gas traps against the surface of the
Signs of warming were everywhere in the North. About a
third of the students on the trip were Inuit. They could catalogue
changes to the land, air and water in their own lifetimes. The tree line
at Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, where several of the students live and
where we caught our ship, has moved north. One day on Digges Island at
the top of Hudson’s Bay, we hiked up a hill surrounded by clouds of
mosquitoes — another newcomer brought by the warmth.
talk about the robins they see now, the ice that no longer forms even
during the winter in the harbours where their families used to hunt, the
permafrost that’s no longer frozen, the spring that comes earlier than
when they were little.
A small group of us cruised to within a
dozen metres of a young male polar bear one day. He stood stock still on
the shore of his island, snout pointed, staring at us with what might
have been curiosity. His fur was the colour of butter. He was fat and
glossy, but many in the North no longer are. They depend on the ice to
breed, rear their young and hunt, and the ice is vanishing.
There are only 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left on the planet. Photo by Lee Narraway
are only 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left on the planet. Of the 19
separate populations, eight are in decline, three are stable and only
one is on the rise, according to the World Conservation Union. The
others are too poorly studied for scientists to make a call, but some
experts are predicting that the last polar bear will die within decades.
A generation ago, biologists worried that the big threat to the bears
was the hunt. Now, it’s the heat.
It’s not just wildlife. Unlike
its southern counterpart, the North Pole has people and ancient
cultures. We visited a Thule archeological site on the southern tip of
Baffin Island, across the bay from the hamlet of Cape Dorset. In a
meadow of flowers, we saw the remains of oval earthen structures that
the Thule, forebears of today’s Inuit, inhabited as many as three
millennia ago. The shelters’ sunken entrances kept out the cold so five
or six people could sleep on a narrow shelf inside.
peaceful. Off in the distance, some of the expedition kids were laughing
and skipping stones. Next to the dig, Inuit elder David Serkoak,
dressed in his holy white robes, beat out an ancient rhythm on his skin
drum, turning it first to one side and then the other like a giant
resonant lollipop as his voice rang out, offering songs to his
I couldn’t help wondering what will happen to modern
Inuit and Inuvialuit as the Arctic warms. Already forced to adapt to
centuries of rules made by the British, the churches and Canadians, will
the people of the North be able to adapt to the assault of carbon
dioxide generated far away?
The day we piled into inflatable
boats to find walruses really brought the scope of the problem home to
me. Cruising around Walrus Island at the top of Hudson’s Bay, we had to
strip off layers of fleeces, undergarments and shells. We were sweating
in the heat of the day.
I smelled the walruses before I saw
them. And heard them: honk, honk, whistle, snort. The smell attacked my
nose and lungs, foul and fishy. And then there they were, nearly 1,000
on a single barren island, almost the same cinnamon colour as the rock.
Except for their undersides. Walruses cool off by sending blood to their
bellies. You can tell they’re too warm if their bellies change colour.
Many I saw were hot pink.
I watched the walruses for a long
time, marvelling. They lumber on land, dragging blubbery bodies across
the bare rock, the massive males rearing up to threaten each other with
ivory tusks, crashing comically into each other and sometimes sliding
into the sea in bunches like an avalanche. But once they hit water,
they’re fast and sure, more poetic than goofy. One of them came up to
the side of our boat, poked its head up out of the water and stared me
straight in the eye.
Like the polar bears and most other polar wildlife, they’re in danger, too, because they depend on the ice. And it’s melting.
at the ship, the crew had filled the outdoor swimming pool with sea
water and let it heat up in the midday sun. Most of the kids and some of
the staff put on swimsuits and jumped in to cool off. Some even sunned
themselves on the deck for more than an hour.
The Arctic, bikinis and suntans. How is this possible?
couple of days later in Kingnait Fjord off Baffin Island, we submerged
ourselves in the ocean itself. It was shudderingly cold for me. But it
was warm enough that some of the kids frolicked in it until the time
came to head back to the ship.
Back home, anxious and
distracted, I tracked the fate of the Arctic sea ice through the autumn.
A little before Christmas, the Washington-based National Oceanographic
and Atmospheric Administration put out a report card saying that there
was nearly one-third less sea ice through the Arctic last summer than
the average through the 1980s and ’90s. And things were already warming
up in those decades.
There isn’t as much snow on land anymore,
and it doesn’t last as long, the report card says. Last summer’s warm
air temperatures broke records across the Canadian Arctic and Greenland.
As the Canada Basin absorbs excess carbon dioxide from the air, its
waters are becoming acidic enough to corrode marine creatures’ shells.
The verdict: a return to previous Arctic conditions is unlikely.