Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Ice patterns and icebergs are seen in Croaker Bay near Devon Island in Canada's Arctic, Friday, July 11, 2008. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ice patterns and icebergs are seen in Croaker Bay near Devon Island in Canada's Arctic, Friday, July 11, 2008. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Arctic Circle panel

Is climate change a northern catastrophe or an Arctic opening? Add to ...

Wade Davis: Cloistered and insulated within urban space, in many cases living already in toxic conditions, city dwellers will not be the first to notice the consequences of global climate change. Nearly fifteen years ago I sat on the shore of Baffin Island with an Inuk elder, Ipeelie Koonoo, and watched as he carefully cleaned the carburetor of his Ski-doo engine with the feather of an ivory gull. He spoke no English, and I did not know Inuktitut. But with a friend translating, Ipeelie told me then that the weather throughout the Arctic had become wilder, the sun hotter each year, and that for the first time Inuit were suffering from skin ailments, as he put it, caused by the sky.

Some years later in Igloolik I sought out a remarkable man, Theo Ikummaq, who became a good friend. Theo was well known for having completed an epic journey by dogsled, 1,800 kilometres from Igloolik across Baffin Island, north along the shore of Ellesmere Island and across Smith Sound to Greenland. Theo thought he might have relatives living in the small Inuit community of Qaanaaq, the most northern settlement in the world. As it turned out he did, all descendants of legendary shaman Qitdlarssuaq and a small band of six families who had migrated north in the 1850s, taking two full years to reach Greenland. Theo had done the journey in two months. With a small film crew I invited him to return with me, on a charter flight of a mere six hours.

Almost immediately as the plane crossed over Baffin Island we could see from the expression on Theo’s face that something was wrong. It was April and our flight path was taking us 12 degrees south of the North Pole. The sea ice was not there. Smith Sound, which Theo had crossed with his sled dogs, was open water. He stared out the plane window in disbelief. A tear grew in his eye as he said to no one in particular, “The ice should be frozen by October. This year it didn’t come in until February. There were robins in Igloolik. We don’t even have a word for them birds.”

In Qaanaaq we introduced Theo to Jens Danielsen. Like Theo, Jens had made an epic journey with dogs, in his case retracing the route of Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition all the way from Greenland across the top of Canada to distant Alaska. In the company of these two remarkable individuals, Jens and Theo, our plan was to spend a fortnight on the ice, establishing a hunting camp beyond the western shore of Qeqertarsuaq Island, roughly two days from Qaanaaq. To get there we would travel by dogsleds.

As it turned out the dogs were of limited value once we reached the island of Qeqertarsuaq. There were great open leads in the ice, and we were obliged to hunt by boat. Jens was stunned. He had never seen open water in April. In his language the word sila means both weather and consciousness. Weather brings animals or leads them away, allowing people to survive or causing them to die. The ice, Jens explained, used to form in September and remain solid until July. Now it comes in November and is gone by March. The hunting season has been cut in half in a single generation. Jens told me of a trip he had made the previous summer. He and his family were hunting narwhal and it had rained every day. They had stood one afternoon alone on a headland, looking out to sea. “This is not our weather,” Jens had said. “Where does it come from? I don’t understand.”

Mary Simon has served as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council.

Tony Penikett was NDP premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Nunavut’s chief devolution negotiator until 2012.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker and author of 20 books focusing on remote and endangered cultures. He is a member of the University of British Columbia’s anthropology department.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.

Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History ofArctic Sovereignty in North America and adjunct professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.

John English is the author of Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council. He holds academic positions at the University of Waterloo, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail


Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular