C o l d P h o t o
Exploring the North
I am Laurel McFadden. I have spent the last few months travelling through Arctic Canada, Greenland, and Norway studying high-Arctic culture and ecology. As a researcher, I study changes in the ocean’s chemical makeup, marine animal populations, and chemical release in the northern permafrost. I try to capture the traditions of the north, along with the changes that are occurring as a result of climate change. From melting ice flows to changing hunting patterns, the culture of the north is being drastically altered by global warming. Here is what I experienced…
My first stop was northern Canada, where I worked for three months as a research assistant with the Canadian Coast Guard. I collected water samples from the Northwater Polynya to study the amount of carbon and other chemicals that were layered in the water column. The scientists there were worried. There was not enough ice. Although it technically made our work easier, it was an extremely unusual trend.
The areas we were travelling should have been nearly impossible to break through, and we found open water! In the Northwater Polynya, the movements of the ice flows create a space in the ice that stays open all round the year, creating a very unique place for marine life to thrive. With changes in the ice flows, the Polynya has been expanding into new areas, altering the chemical flow (particularly of organic nutrients) through the region.
On our way up the northern coastline, we stopped at a number of Inuit community settlements. We had an Inuit representative onboard for the entire trip, to ensure that we do not disturb any wildlife or hunting activities. Most of these communities have extremely limited resources and poor economies. We invited the local leaders onboard for dinner, and the school children for tours in the ship. We told them about the scientific research that we were doing.
My next stop was the northeast coast of Greenland in Ittoqqortoormiit (also known as Scoresbysund). I lived with a half Danish, half Greenlandic family in a tiny town of 500 people, and taught English at the local school.
The land is gorgeous but dangerous.
Examples of the societal and emotional effects of climate change are rampant everywhere. On one hand, stricter hunting laws and depleted resources have ruined many families and much of the native culture, making it literally impossible for the Greenlanders to support their traditional lifestyles. On the other, people are often stalked by polar bears, compelling them to move around with rifles.
This is because global warming has affected the ice flow patterns, melting the pack ice where Polar bears and other animals live and hunt. So they move to other areas to survive. Moreover, the ice melt has forced the Greenlandic hunters to travel further to capture animals, devastating the basic economy of these northern societies.
Canada struggles to find balance between demands for fisheries, oil drilling, and native hunting rights.
Greenland’s glaciers have melted to the extent that new land has been revealed under the disappearing ice, permanently changing the land’s topography.
Norway’s dynamic ocean currents are manipulating marine populations around the world with each rise in temperature.
In Russia, melting permafrost is releasing methane gas into the atmosphere, exaggerating the greenhouse effect, and changing the habitat of the reindeer herding communities.
I spent the next four months in Longyearbyen, Norway – a modern Arctic community. The support of the Norwegian mainland allows it to enjoy a very modern standard of living. It is located in a prime area for studying many aspects of the Arctic, and about half of the 2,000 townspeople are associated with the local Arctic University, and the rest work in the coal mines.
The ocean currents provide a rare opportunity to observe the impact of changing temperatures in the ocean water on every organism. My next stop was a permafrost research station on the northeast coast of Siberia. The work here was to explore the way in which the local communities were adapting to climate change.
Worldwide, people are aware of climate change, but seeing the ice melt, the land change, and living with both scientists and natives, make it evident that these areas are being changed forever – naturally and socially. I hope that my experience reminds people of the unique communities and cultures that are being devastated by global warming.