We Ignore the Voices from Canada’s Rapidly Changing Arctic At Our Peril

Yesterday the documentary Arctic Re-Imagined aired on CBC Radio’s “The Current”. In it, journalist Chris Wodskou explores what it means for Canada to be an Arctic nation in a time of dramatic climate changes in the far north.

One of the voices featured in the half-hour documentary is that of  Zacharias Kunuk, award-winning director whose films include Atarnarjuat: The Fast Runner. Kunuk was born in Kapuivik in Nunavut, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Here are some of his reflections, from Arctic Re-Imagined, on the changes that are happening in real-time for the Inuit who inhabit the far north:

“The ice used to be so thick in springtime when we were hunting for seals. Now, it’s like everything is a month early and a month later in fall before freeze-up.”

“We used to have a lot of multi-year ice. Now we only have first year ice; the heat – what we’re noticing – most of the hunters think it’s coming from the sea. What the elders are noticing the most is the sun doesn’t rise where it used to.”

This change in the appearance of the sun is an unexpected aspect of climate change. When air that is warmer than before blankets a still-cold landscape there are changes in the refraction of the sun’s rays, bending the sun’s light in different ways.  Keep in mind that the high Arctic is plunged into darkness when the sun disappears in December and only starts to reappear weeks later in the middle of January. With only an hour or so of “day glow” each day, the Inuit are keenly appreciative and aware of the sun when it does appear.

“…In the second week of January the sun starts to arrive over the horizon . And the elders noticed, because they are always observing the environment, they’ve noticed  that it had shifted to the right from where it used to rise. They are saying the sun is a lot higher in the summertime…”

“Even in the high Arctic one of the hunters was telling me in the 1950s they used to have one hour of day glow in the winter. Now they have two hours. So you think the world really tilted.”

“We still use the old techniques [of predicting weather], and add new ones. Climate change…well, you notice it. We have to adapt to it, have to change our routes, our travel routes.”

“We are already noticing this last summer due to climate change there’s more fresh water on top of the salt water. Because in the summertime when we shoot seals they float and we just pick them up.  For the past two years, we’ve been noticing seals that we shoot have been sinking when they’re not supposed to…”

To listen to the entire documentary, click here and scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Listen to Part 3”.  Click here for Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s message on 350.org, and here to read the Inuit Call to Global Leaders: Act Now on Climate Change (give the pdf a few minutes to load).

Click here for actions you can take to make a difference on climate change.

Inuksuk Point (Inuksugalait, “where there are many Inuksuit“), Foxe Peninsula (Baffin Island), Nunavut, Canada. Photo by Ansgar Walk

Confessions of a Climate Change “Avoider”

I don’t know about other people, but I have been aware of climate change/global warming as a concern “out there” for years.  It was frustrating to have the Canadian government under Jean Chretien and after him Paul Martin pay lip service to the Kyoto Protocol after making Canada a signatory to it, but ultimately do nothing about it.  Then the Liberals were replaced by our current minority government led by Stephen Harper, who as recently as 2002 called Kyoto “a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.” In the same letter, addressed to supporters of the now-defunct Canadian Alliance Party, Harper writes that the Kyoto agreement was based on “tentative and contradictory scientific evidence” and that it focused on carbon dioxide, which is “essential to life“!!

Now I’m getting sidetracked – Harper can bring out the “ranter” in me. My point is that for “average” people, even ones who try to be informed about issues and who care about the environment, it’s easy to feel confused and overwhelmed by the enormity of the climate change issue. And our confusion isn’t helped when our politicians fail to give us real, visionary leadership. Despite the huge impact global climate destabilization will ultimately have on the planet, it is almost too big for our human minds to grasp. Although change is occurring now, the climate destabilization effects will become more noticeable and widespread over decades, and the ecosystem shifts will occur over generations.

I confess, in the not-too-distant past,  to having turned off the radio or television when the topic of climate change would come up. I only watched An Inconvenient Truth a few weeks ago! The prospect of climate change/global warming disturbed me, and I felt helpless at the same time.  This changed for me after participating in the International Day of Action on October 24 and learning about the “350” campaign.  I realized that I didn’t have the luxury of continuing to be silent and inactive on this issue. My daughters’ futures  are at stake. The 350 campaign is helpful because it makes the issue very clear – 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is where we should be, and we are now above that.  And what was negotiated in Copenhagen in December will leave us with a level of 770 ppm!

I recently came across an excellent CBC News InDepth Report on Climate Change from March of 2005.  I may well have turned it off when it first aired – but it is very comprehensive  and includes stories that put a human face on climate change, as well as excellent photos. Click here to check it out.

Here are some of the voices from the CBC report:

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair, Inuit Circumpolar Conference, in November 2004:

We have to give climate change a human face – it is not all about ‘sinks,’ ’emission trading schemes’ and technology. Climate change is about people, children, families and of our relationship with the world around us. To Inuit it is a question of our very survival as a hunting people and a hunting culture. Our human rights – to live our traditional way – are being violated by human-induced climate change.”

Mark Nuttall,  Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta and lead author of Chapter 12 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment:

The main message that has to get out to politicians … is that climate change has a human face,” Nuttall says. “It is not simply an environmental issue. The real issue [of] climate change is one that affects us as people, affects survival of culture. I think the hope is to try to get that human aspect highlighted.”

Inuit living in the small community of Sachs Harbour, Nunavut had never experienced thunder or lightning until a few years ago.  But what really concerns them is the moisture that comes with the thunderstorms – the Far North is getting rainier, by about 8% a year.  The extra precipitation can increase the rate of melting of the ice and permafrost, and change the ecosystem by introducing new plants and animals.

Across the north, the story is the same – elders say that winters aren’t as cold as they used to be, and summers are hotter.  Environment Canada’s records show a general warming trend over the Canadian North for the last 57 years.

Let’s join together and send our leaders a message that climate change/global climate destabilization is the most urgent issue facing humanity and we  need action now, not in 2020 or 2050.  Humans are infinitely creative and are capable of great things – let’s harness that creativity now!