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How the North is getting burned
If you doubt global warming is serious, visit the Arctic with
ALANNA MITCHELL. At first, the big melt confused the people
of Sachs Harbour, who found themselves suddenly catching salmon
and spotting bizarre bird species from the south. But now
they're worried -- the rising temperatures are wreaking havoc
with the environment and with their way of life


Tuesday, June 5, 2001

To someone who doesn't live up here at the top of the world, the cold is as hard to take as the perpetual polar night.

It's late January and bitter as a twin-engine Beech 99 coasts in the half-light of the season's endless dusk, a few hundred feet above the Arctic Ocean. The unheated 10-seater is on its way to the tiny hamlet of Sachs Harbour on Banks Island. Everybody on board is wearing heavy goose-down parkas, mitts, and unwieldy Sorel winter boots. Knees are pressed together and hands are stuffed under arms. Some of us are numb.

On the ground, the trees disappeared nearly two hours ago as the plane took off from the Western Arctic frontier town of Inuvik, and even there, they were stumpy and sparse. At Sachs Harbour, the permafrost is so tenacious trees can't even take root.

At least, not yet. The temperature is about - 35 degrees but, as frigid as that is, it's still 25 degrees higher than normal.

Global climate change has had an incredible impact on the Far North. Winters are milder than before and summer temperatures are rising to such a degree that barn swallows and robins have appeared for the first time in the collective memory of the Inuvialuit. To widespread local astonishment, salmon are swimming in the sea.

Mosquitoes, once unheard-of this far north, can now survive here, in one of the handful of human settlements that cling to the biggest polar desert on the planet.

In fact, the warming has been so significant that the Arctic ice, which for thousands of years acted like a thick insulating tuque keeping the entire planet on climatic course, has begun to shrink -- alarmingly.

  • Rosemarie Kuptana
  • The Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic to 1902
  • DFO Arctic Research Division
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  • Henry Hengeveld
  • Places
  • Sachs Harbour
  • Science
  • Inuit observations on climate change
  • NWT Environmental Protection Service reports
  • Arctic System Science Data Coordination Center
  • State of the Cryosphere
  • Ice Station SHEBA
  • Ice core expedition 2001
  • Ice Albedo Feedback
  • As the Beech 99 nears Sachs Harbour, some of the Inuvialuit on board, long-time residents of the hamlet, point down through the eerie afternoon twilight and shake their heads. The sea ice looks like a sheet of frosted glass that has been dropped on a concrete floor. Parts of it are shattered. Between the shards, great dark stretches of the Arctic Ocean are visible.

    This is not right. It is deep winter. This ice should be thick. It should be dependable. The Inuvialuit know that the changes threatens the way of life they have had for thousands of years.

    So even in such a remote corner of the world, humanity's ability to influence the course of nature -- to serve as a "fifth element" along with earth, water, air and fire -- is taking its toll.

    And there is no relief in sight. Greenhouse-gas pollution doesn't stop at the dissolving Arctic: The big melt in turn sets in motion planetary weather patterns that range from dire to catastrophic to lethal, climate scientists say. And they fear it's evidence that humanity has condemned itself to go the way of the dinosaurs.

    The Inuvialuit are trained in subtleties. That's how they have learned to live at the outer limits of what humans can endure. Where the uninitiated look at the Arctic landscape and see numbing sameness, the Inuvialuit read critical differences.

    For the past few years, their hunters have been patiently noting changes in their surroundings for the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. The data are compared with the minutely detailed knowledge the hunters' forebears have handed down orally for hundreds of years.

    Rosemarie Kuptana
    Rosemarie Kuptana
    Photo courtesy of
    IISD/ENB-Leila Mead
    Rosemarie Kuptana, 47, the most famous product of Sachs Harbour, is a member of the institute's board. She caused a sensation last November when she presented her community's dramatic findings during the international climate-change talks held in The Hague in a video that has now been broadcast around the world.

    For the first time, delegates to the negotiations charged with finding a way to implement the Kyoto protocol on curbing greenhouse gases saw hard evidence of how pollution in the atmosphere is affecting the once pristine polar desert. They will wrestle with the issue again next month, at talks in Bonn.

    Kuptana rose to international prominence through her lifelong efforts to have national and international governments respect her people's language, culture and geography.

    She was born in the Arctic (just after her father William had come back from sealing) and sent to residential school in Inuvik at the age of 7 (where she was known as No. 475). She was president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada for much of the 1990s, and worked with the Inuit Circumpolar Conference for many years. Now, she lives just outside Ottawa and works with the IISD.

    She turned her attention to climate change in the early 1990s, long before it gained its current high profile. She has known of the issue all her life. Her grandfather John Kaolok, a respected community leader and visionary, had prophesied years ago that the sea would grow warm.

    His vision is kept alive today in the stories told by his daughter, Kuptana's mother. Sarah Kuptana was born sometime early in the century -- she isn't sure when -- and is now the eldest of the community elders, the keeper of the Sachs Harbour legends.

    Her people are not scientists, Sarah says in Inuvialuktun, the ancient, richly descriptive dialect of the people of the Western Arctic. Her cadence rises and falls like an incantation. But they understand how the ice is supposed to work, how it has worked for centuries, and they have read its changes with fatalism.

    Her father saw the coming warmth as good for the Inuvialuit. They would stop suffering so much from the cold, he predicted, and begin to live more like people down south -- at least until the heat took hold.

    "My dad even said: 'It's going to be so changed down south. People are going to be hungry.' And I heard this long ago," Sarah says. " 'The weather is going to change. The animals are going to suffer first. They are going to be gone.' "

    Three years ago, in the spring of 1998, the people of Sachs Harbour suddenly knew the legends were right. The changing weather went far beyond normal Arctic capriciousness. Usually, spring is a leisurely affair. The sun -- asleep through the winter -- vaults full into the sky, drenching the frost-blasted ground with the beginnings of colour. Then the residents, long cooped up in their sturdy houses, move onto the land -- travelling about 30 kilometres to the west to set up camp for fishing and hunting.

    It's a convivial time, marking the end of the great, six-month darkness. There is a steady supply of meats such as muskox and caribou. First, the people spend weeks fishing in Kuptan Lake, Middle Lake, and Fish Lake. Then, once the geese begin to fly overhead, the yearly hunt for them begins. The spring ritual usually takes weeks.

    In 1998, however, the spring melt happened in just three days. The people went out on snowmobiles to make their fishing camps and then couldn't get back to Sachs Harbour because snow had given way to mud. The community was shocked.

    John Keogak, a master hunter, says he couldn't help but think of what the ice was like back in the early 1970s when he went polar-bear hunting for the first time. It was solid, limitless, he says, sitting on his living-room floor as a chunk of the muskox thaws on his kitchen counter. He would stay out for days at a time, even weeks.

    Now, the ice goes out only four or five miles from shore. It's thin and shifts around a lot. He can't risking camping on it. In fact, he won't set foot on it without a hand-held global positioning unit that tracks his whereabouts via satellite, plus a barometer to tell when the air pressure drops. When the pressure blows out, it's time to turn back because the ice is dodgy.

    The sea ice isn't all that's melting. The permafrost is in retreat as well and has begun releasing strange, dark pieces of wood that have been frozen for all living memory -- they are the almost-fossilized remains of a forest that grew here thousands of years ago when the climate was warmer.

    Usually people here find wood only when it washes ashore from much farther south; now they have something that Keogak says burns like coal once it has been dried out.

    Sarah Kuptana gave birth to Rosemarie on the ice, and thought nothing of it. The ice was part of her domain. She can look across miles and miles of it in the half-light and tell where the cracks are, reading it just as she reads the sky and the stars and the land.

    Now she is sitting cross-legged on the dark-green chesterfield in her living room in one of the 50 or so snow-encrusted houses that hug the forlorn coast near the Beaufort Sea. Next to her, hands on her belly, sits her younger sister Edith Haogak, who is in her early 70s.

    On the low table in front of them, next to the television remote control, is a hunk of raw flesh Sarah has been eating. The house carries the dark scent of old blood and fish.

    She lifts a frail arm. Her voice deepens. Her father's visions -- and the growing evidence that they are coming true -- have a secret potency here because of the story she's poised to tell. Long ago, she says, a little boy died in their community. Her father came upon him and began to pray. The boy got up.

    She takes off her glasses for emphasis and waves her hand in front of her face. "I saw it with my own eyes."

    Edith nods in agreement. The boy was Phillip Haogak, her late husband.

    Of course, people here do not rely exclusively on ancient parable or empirical evidence to understand how the world works. Keogak, for example, has ventured south of 60 degrees and seen for himself.

    In November, as Sachs Harbour hit the international stage, he went to Ottawa to help lobby for action against climate change. He was widely quoted on what's happening in Sachs Harbour. The next day, people recognized him in the streets of the nation's capital and greeted him as a hero.

    In 1997 he travelled to Harare to attend a meeting on the international trade of endangered species. Some of the local Zimbabweans -- Mr. Keogak has dubbed them "campfire people" because they burn freshly cut wood -- were trying to revive trade in elephant ivory. He supported them and the indigenous way of life they were trying to protect.

    Back in Sachs Harbour, he chuckles about his travels and especially about all the recognition he got in Ottawa. But there's a sober message underneath.

    "I don't think the rest of the world is going to stop at anything," he says. "I don't think there's anything we can say or do that will turn things back."

    Already, the Arctic sea ice is 40 per cent thinner than it was 40 years ago, scientists reckon. It has shrunk in area by 14 per cent in 25 years and the decline is projected to get far, far worse.

    The state of the ice has been the subject of anxious scrutiny. Scientists have concluded that the Arctic, with its brutish weather, is the first place on Earth where the effects of climate damage are being felt and where they will cut the deepest over time. By its very nature, ice is exquisitely susceptible to the changes sparked by the human damage to the planet -- in this case gaseous emissions.

    The best scientific analysis, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this year, shows that there is a greater concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than at any other time in 20 million years. Methane levels -- from cattle and landfills -- are at their highest in at least 420,000 years. There's more nitrous oxide, given off by the chemical industry and agriculture, in the air today than there has been for a millennium.

    In turn, those gases affect the climate, causing warmer average temperatures and a greater tendency to storms, floods, droughts and other extreme weather. The fallout for humans is unknown. Projections, though, are that this amount of climate damage will be cataclysmic for the human species and for the planet systems that support it. No aspect of modern life will remain untouched, from the security of food and water, to the spread of disease, to the global economic systems.

    Scientific and political experts face a bleak prospect: The next few decades must provide a transition from the industrial age to a new era based on other sources of power. Europe is working on a solution, but the requisite alchemy is not even on the horizon for the huge population of polluters who occupy North America.

    Even if humanity stopped pumping these gases into the air today, the Earth's surface temperature and sea levels would continue to rise for centuries.

    And as for the ice, it will continue to react to the warming of the climate for thousands of years to come, long after humans have lived through or died from all the other catastrophes projected to hit.

    The ancient ice, first to change, will be the last to stop.

    Despite the warming, Sachs Harbour in winter still seems fiercely Arctic to an outsider. My lungs close up from the cold as I walk outside. The snow is squeaks under my feet.

    But that sense of the immutable Arctic disappears at the top of a hill behind the hamlet where the Inuvialuit bury their dead. The graves, each surrounded by a circle of rounded stones, should be flush to the permafrost ground.

    Instead, as I stand here with the freezing wind burning my skin, facing the Arctic Ocean, I see that some of the graves have begun to sink. The permafrost, a living thing to the Inuvialuit, seems to be melting from underneath.

    Rosemarie Kuptana is the bridge between this bitter, sunken graveyard and the powerful people who could slow down the damage. To her, the sorry graveyard of Sachs Harbour is just the latest sign of the invasions of her land. There was the church, the state, technology, industry, business. All these have tried to erode her culture. Now, even the climate -- the real definer of her people -- is being damaged.

    "This could be the ultimate intrusion: the pollution of global warming," she says in an interview. "Most of the people polluting our climate probably don't know we exist."

    For Rosemarie, though, the battle to make those in power aware of what's happening goes far beyond her people, her land, even her country. She uses the skills and subtle knowledge of her mother, aunts, and grandfather to tell people they are fouling the planet. She delivers her message not only as an Inuvialuit, but also as a mother and a citizen of the Earth.

    "People don't get the big issues sometimes."

    Polluters may not get the point, but the residents of Sachs Harbour can't avoid it.

    Tonight, most of them have gathered in the school gymnasium, braving the brittle cold for a hamlet meeting. They are to see for the first time the film the IISD crew has made of their startling chronicle of climate change.

    It's also a feast. The tables are laden with such exotic foods as turkey, ham and macaroni salad, along with homemade fried bread, which is a staple here. The children race around in glee, holding styrofoam cups filled with Jell-O.

    Later, some of them will slip up under their mother's open outside shirt -- mothers always wear two here -- and sleep against her back as she ties its loose ends around her waist. It's like a Snugli in reverse, keeping the child safe and warm.

    Sarah Kuptana is here. She has been carried in and now sits in a wheelchair, bright eyes taking it all in. Before the meeting begins, she offers a prayer. Her voice fills the air, an urgent voice speaking in Inuvialuktun, a language now known to just a handful of people. The children are stone silent, taking in the power of her words, although many do not understand them.

    She is giving thanks -- for the food, the scientists, the meeting of two cultures. But most urgently of all, she is praying -- for the Earth.

    Why the ice matters

    More than the Inuvialuit way of life depends on the ice. The snow and ice at the top of the world are critical to regulating the global climate system. Even small changes in the status quo can spark major change.

    Snow and ice act as insulation, keeping heat in the sea and land rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. As they melt, that barrier weakens, pushing a massive amount of heat energy into the air, which, in turn, helps to melt more ice and snow.

    Some climate models conclude that if all the Arctic sea ice were to vanish, the heat of the ocean would warm the air above it by 20 to 40 degrees in winter.

    Along with the heat comes evaporation, and then, inevitably, precipitation in the form of rain or snow. The most likely scenario is that climate change will transform the forsaken, frigid desert that is the Arctic today into a humid, far warmer place.

    The ice and snow also bounce light into the atmosphere; as they melt, the exposed land and water absorb that energy instead. It's a phenomenon that feeds on itself: As the surface melts, it absorbs more and more energy, melting more surface and then absorbing yet more energy. And so on.

    In the end, as more heat enters the atmosphere, temperature and wind patterns change. Henry Hengeveld, the Canadian government's science adviser on climate change, explains that winds move around the world primarily to equalize the heat. And where they go, so goes rain.

    As for the northern sea ice, scientists estimate that it is 40 per cent thinner than 40 years ago and covers 14 per cent less area than 25 years ago. They predict that things are going to get a lot worse.

    Feeling the heat
    When it comes to the big melt, Canada's Far North is not alone. Glaciers in the Peruvian Andes also are vanishing, as are the icefields of Africa's mighty Mount Kilimanjaro. The changes are so fast and so dramatic that the experts predict many glaciers that are not near the poles will disappear within as little as a decade.

    North America, meanwhile, has glaciers in the Columbia Icefield melting at what appears to be an exponential rate; so-called "permafrost" that no longer lives up to its name; and, of course, the old, blue-tinged, multi-year sea ice in the Western Arctic that is turning to water. Climate scientists now talk freely about the days to come when the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean will open as a trade route.

    All in all, the study of the cryosphere (Earth's frozen parts) has gone from being a bit of an academic backwater to a celebrity field of study. The profession now has an inside joke -- there are more of them but they have increasingly less to study.

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