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Authors: Gretel Ehrlich

In the Empire of Ice

BOOK: In the Empire of Ice
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Drinking Dry Clouds


Arctic Heart

To Touch the Body

Geode/Rock Body

Young Adult

A Blizzard Year


A Match to the Heart


Heart Mountain


The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland

John Muir: Nature’s Visionary

Yellowstone: Land of Fire and Ice

Questions of Heaven

Islands, the Universe, Home

The Solace of Open Spaces




Published by the National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036
Copyright © 2010 Gretel Ehrlich. All rights reserved. Reproduction of the whole or any part of the contents without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ehrlich, Gretel.
    In the empire of ice: encounter in a changing landscape / Gretel Ehrlich.
        p. cm.
    Includes bibliographical references.
    ISBN: 978-1-4262-0605-4
    1. Arctic regions--Discovery and exploration. 2. Arctic regions--Description and travel. 3. Arctic peoples--Social life and customs. 4. Nature--Effect of human beings on--Antarctica. 5. Climatic changes--Arctic Regions. 6. Global warming. I. Title.
    G608.E57 2010


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I stepped off a small plane onto a gravel runway and was taken two hours west by snowmobile to a seal biologist’s camp on the sea ice between Cornwallis and Griffith Islands in Arctic Canada. It was spring, and the sun moved in a halo around our heads. A polar bear visited, and an arctic fox. A ferocious three-day storm battered our tent and buried our food cellar. There was no night. Days, I scratched the bellies of ringed seals the biologist caught and released. Evenings, I read from the ethnographic notes of Knud Rasmussen and watched mirages take the island archipelago and give it back again. Sun dogs shifted, clouds scuttled by as the top layer of sea ice grew soft.

The horizon was the one line that held me in place; the sea ice was evanescent. Its boundlessness, like the all-day, all-night light, was illusory and marked the coming of night. What looked smooth was rough. As the sparkle melted, my curiosity caught fire. How had people and animals thrived for thousands of years in such a place? By mid-June, the 13-foot-thick “floor” on which the camp had been set up completely dissolved, leaving no trace. Little did I know that such a sight would become common as the world warmed, causing sea ice to decline, that by 2007 the Arctic Ocean would become a partially bald pate.

Two years later, in 1993, I began my first of 17 years’ worth of journeys to northwestern Greenland, traveling by dogsled with Inuit subsistence hunters in every season. During those years I inadvertently felt the coming of a great climate shift: The sea ice on which we traveled and hunted and which was routinely 13 to 14 feet thick thinned to 7 inches. From 1998 on, I literally felt the ice go out from under my feet and the dogsleds on which I traveled.

In 2007 I received a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant to make a circumpolar journey, exploring the environment and lives of indigenous Arctic peoples and how they were being affected by climate change. Who are you? I asked them. Who were you a hundred years ago? How are you coping with vanishing ice, coastal erosion, pollution, wind and current changes, and changes in the migratory patterns of the animals on which you depend for food?

One year was not enough. A lifetime might have been more suitable. Travel in the Arctic in winter and spring is weather restricted, but I managed to get to Arctic Alaska, Nunavut, Greenland, and northwestern Russia. Sadly, I never got to my Saami friends and other hard-to-reach hunters and reindeer herders on the northeast coast of Siberia. To say that you are writing about Arctic peoples means you are also writing about whole ice-adapted Arctic ecosystems and their vanishing ice.

Arctic peoples are unique because of their environment. Isolated by ice and fierce weather, theirs represents a continuum of culture that spans tundra and ocean, ice sheets and glaciers, fjords and open-ocean ecosystems, steep coastal mountains, ice-flattened benchlands, and valleys that are verdant for the one-month-long Arctic summer.

For many seasons I was a passenger on Greenland dogsleds as the hunters roamed the frozen coast searching for seals, walruses, and polar bears. The sea ice was their highway. We lived on the ice, drinking melted multiyear ice, wearing polar bear pants, sealskin boots and mittens, and fox-fur anoraks. We ate when there was food—whatever the hunters could catch—and when they caught nothing, we humans and the sled dogs went hungry.

It was in Greenland that I saw the complexities of ice and the peregrinations of marine mammals. The men and women whose lives depended on them required a rare kind of genius, almost a second sight coupled with patience and self-discipline. Who else in the world hunts animals they can’t see? How can they know where exactly under the ice these animals might be, animals that provided them with their food and clothing? Out on the frozen sea for weeks or months at a time, no day passed when they did not mention the beauty of their drifting icebergs, ice-capped rock cliffs, or the ingenuity of the polar bear.

I spent one winter in Greenland—a time when there is no light in the sky at all for four months. I imagined the top of the world as the black cap of an arctic tern. As a migrant from warmer latitudes, I tried to see this large ice-covered island from a bird’s-eye perspective: the seasonal cycles of ice and animal migrations, ecosystems within ecosystems, and the circles of life and weather that bound everything and everyone together.

The first word I learned in Greenland was
It means, simultaneously, weather, the power of nature, and consciousness. For humans and animals that have co-evolved with ice and cold, there is no perceivable boundary between a “knowing” sentient being and the strong forces of weather.

The Inuit language and its many dialects, along with the Yupik language, are spoken from northeastern Siberia to Greenland. Words and word endings in these often tell something about the environment. Place-names describe precisely the internal, deep links among earth, ice, water, animal, wind, snow, and spirit, and cautionary tales that come from that commingling. Narratives about place, people, and animals animate the unpopulated environment, and the same stories are told all the way across the Polar North. The story of the Orphan Boy told in Qaanaaq, Greenland, is the same one told in Point Hope, Alaska.

The traditional ecological knowledge of Arctic peoples is connected deeply with their icebound world. Deep ecology in the Arctic means that the sound of the walruses’ clicks and whistles, humming whales, and the ululating songs of bearded seals rise through the kayak paddle. One’s whole body becomes a listening post, receiving messages from under the ice.

Four months of darkness and four of bright light, storm, and stillness, and the seasonal freezing and thawing of ice, is equivalent to the circulation of human blood and thought. Animal and human minds are inextricably linked, and the ecological imagination arises from the forehead of each morning, shaped by cold and pushed into being by weather.

How we see and know a place is partly shaped by the language we speak. There is no word in English like Sila. It links natural facts and human meaning and the Inuit hunters’ world of “together-doing-knowing-things” directly.

An Arctic ecosystem is small in numbers of species but highly specialized. Food webs are simple; plant and animal species are few. Their adaptation to short summers and long winters is unique. At 79° N purple saxifrage germinates, flowers, and goes to seed in three weeks, while butterflies can take fourteen years to move from chrysalis to winged creature, then live for only a few days. The narwhal’s twisted tusk is really an extrasensitive tooth used to gauge weather and barometric pressure; walruses can be docile or bite a kayak in half; lemmings and musk oxen live side by side in the wide valleys at the top of Greenland and Ellesmere Island, ringed seals are sunbathers, polar bears are the top predators, little auks arrive by the thousands in swooping swarms to nest on rock cliffs almost every year on the same day. I’ve seen them darken the sky, their frantic fluttering like buzzing electricity, erasing all other sounds.

Pushed to the top of the world, Arctic flora and fauna have no colder latitude, no place else to go. As the climate heats up and the ice disappears, they will become extinct. Diversity is important not only to the functioning of ecosystems but also as a reminder of all that we are, as well as all that we aren’t. All that “otherness” is also us.

Biological and cultural diversity is of the utmost importance. It enables land- and ice-based ecosystems to work. It ignites empathy and the power of the human imagination and functions as a survival tactic: If one language or one crop of berries fails, there are others to choose from. From polar bear to lemming, bowhead whale to ringed seal, eider duck to little auk—there’s not much there, and the loss of even one element results in harsh consequences for all.

The circumpolar Arctic is topped by a white knob of ice, now melting, which is the Arctic Sea. Around it is an apron of tundra, also melting. The straits and bays between Arctic islands are the “highways” for animals and people. Though the news these days is all about the Greenland ice sheet—the remnant of the last ice age that ended about 11,500 years ago—it is sea ice where the people and animals live. For thousands of years
—ice—has been a reliable lifeline for terrestrial and marine mammals, fish, birds, and humans who depended on these beings for food, shelter, watercraft, dogsleds, and clothing. The freeze-thaw cycle was predictable: nine months of sea ice (except for polynyas, areas of continuous open water) and three months of open water. Now there may be three months of ice but not necessarily in consecutive days.

Multiyear ice—ice that never melts, even in summer—has almost disappeared in the past eight years. According to scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado in Boulder, since September 2008, 150,000 square miles of second-year ice and 73,000 square miles of multiyear ice have been moved out of the Arctic by ocean currents and winter winds.
—new ice that freezes, thaws, and refreezes—is thin, salty, and unstable. Now most of the Arctic Ocean is covered by new ice.

The high Arctic is a polar desert that in the past has seen no more than two or three inches of rain a year and very little snow. Today there are flash floods and sudden, prolific snowstorms. Ice with little snow cover thickens faster; snow holds in heat. Spring and autumn storms cause wind waves that break up sea ice from beneath, so that even at minus 60°F, more ice is being lost. The ice that is “buried” in the ground and in rock—permafrost—is beginning to melt, and as it does, billions of tons of methane are being released.

Glaciers in retreat are like rivers running back up to the mountaintops where they formed. As more storms come, wind waves break up the sea ice; Greenland’s ice sheet is not just melting at the top but is coming apart at the bottom. Moulins, the natural drainpipes in an ice sheet, are drilling down to the base of the ice, carrying meltwater to the glacier’s sole. Basal sliding, the bottom of the glacier sliding on bedrock, causes friction, resulting in more melting. Seawater intrudes under the ice tongues of outlet glaciers, causing the tongues to break off.


THE EARTH IS A BREATHING, pulsing, lively thing, wobbling about in its own cosmic ecosystem. Oceans exhale and inhale, there are seasonal carbon dioxide sinks and sources, freezing and thawing of ice, and plants that “eat scraps of sunlight,” as the science writer Oliver Morton wrote, thus bestowing on us the possibility of life. Earth is not a singular organism but a complex of living systems that maintain a planetary homeostasis—a balancing act among physical, chemical, biological, environmental, and human components. Arctic ice, including sea ice, glacier ice, permafrost, and ice sheets, drives the entire planet’s climate. Weather systems are global, and the Arctic is the natural air conditioner for the entire Earth. Its seasonal blankets of snow and ice send solar radiation—heat—back into space, thus keeping our Earth temperate.

Unimaginable alterations have been occurring, the whole of which we can’t see or imagine. Our carbon “sins” have pushed every major ecosystem into collapse. In March 2009, 52 climate scientists gathered by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany evaluated the five so-called tipping elements of the climate system—elements that can change “quickly and irreversibly” if the world keeps warming. Climate scientist John Schellnhuber advised all countries to commit to deeper CO
cuts of 85 to 90 percent by 2050, in order to give the world “a one in five chance of evading the worst that climate change can dish out.” All the scientists agreed that major changes in the global climate system will probably occur if global warming proceeds at the current rate. These changes include the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the disintegration of the west Antarctic ice sheet, a large-scale dieback of the Amazon rain forest, the increased occurrence of the El Niño phenomenon, and—if global temperatures were to rise 3.9°F—the probable collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation, better known as the Gulf Stream. In addition, the snow cover over the Tibetan plateau is growing skimpy, the Indian monsoons are weakening, and the burning of grasslands and forests in Africa and South America is causing more desertification and adding to the morass of air pollution. African wildlife biologist Allan Savory said that humans have been influencing climate for a long time, long before the industrial revolution. They’ve been using fire as a tool to clear trees for pastureland and they’ve been burning grass as a natural fertilizer. “But the African savannah sequesters carbon dioxide just as forests do. Burning sterilizes the ground, and every good size fire adds as much CO
to the atmosphere as 4,000 cars,” he said.

“The earth has a morbid fever,” says British scientist James Lovelock, who forged the concept of Gaia in the 1970s. It is a description of life on Earth as a self-organizing, open system made up of ocean, atmosphere, land-based ecosystems, weather, geologic weathering, and the planet’s surface temperatures. None of these ever operate in equilibrium—that would mean death. Instead, feedback loops, both positive (ones that amplify, called climate forcing) and negative (ones that counterbalance), maintain the interlocking physical, chemical, biological, and land-based systems. Amplifications of heat are corrected by negative feedbacks such as wind, ocean currents, ice dams breaking into the ocean, volcanoes, global dimming, or the Gulf Stream slowing down. All these cool the climate, but it is the Earth’s orbital cycles, the tipping, tilting, wobbling of Earth on its axis, that has always paced the comings and goings of ice ages.

In 1975, the year James Lovelock introduced Gaia, scientists informed President Nixon that we were headed toward an ice age. No one paid much attention, and few predicted what was coming next. Few understood that as population and carbon emissions began to rise, the natural fluctuation toward ice ages was being erased. Global temperatures had long before begun their steady march upward, not the normal unruly ups and downs. The global temperature graph with which we are all living is shooting straight upward.

BOOK: In the Empire of Ice
9.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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