There’s a worrying sound coming from the refrigerator of the world
A final column from the Arctic reflects on the area’s changing ecology and growing commercial pressures
Readership patterns: irishtimes.com imprinted on the Arctic snow by Charlie Bird
After about four months of complete darkness the sun has finally returned to this remarkable part of the globe, where I have lived for the past month. There is a lovely celebration in Grise Fiord to mark its comeback. Schoolchildren, teachers and others take time off to mark this annual event in the life of the hamlet.
But there are far bigger, more permanent changes coming to Grise Fiord, and they come in the form of exploration for coal, oil, gas and even diamonds.
Most experts agree that vast amounts of fossil fuels are trapped beneath the frozen Arctic waste. The region has about 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and about 15 per cent of its undiscovered oil, according to the United States Geological Survey.
Given the Arctic’s size and inhospitable climate, these are only rough calculations. But everyone seems to agree that new opportunities to explore the untapped minerals are opening up.
According to Transport Canada, “climate change models predict that the summer ice in the Arctic will decrease by up to 80 per cent by 2100 as a result of climate change . . . Reduced sea ice is likely to facilitate an increase of marine traffic in the Arctic and greater access to resources.”
But with the advent of faster sea routes across the Arctic come dangers to shipping from challenging weather, drifting sea ice and icebergs. People in Grise Fiord fear environmental disasters and the threats they pose to wildlife.
Who owns the North Pole?
ongoing debate about who owns the North Pole. Under international law no country owns the pole or the Arctic Ocean region, but the five countries that border it – the Russian Federation, the US, Canada, Norway and, via Greenland, Denmark – have their eyes on its mineral riches.
In August 2007 an unmanned Russian submarine planted a Russian flag beneath the pole. The expedition, called Arktika, also took samples of water and soil. The other four countries did not welcome this action, and since then each has been flexing its muscles over ownership.
Last year the Canadian foreign minister, John Baird, said his country planned to extend its territorial claim to the North Pole region. With the wider Arctic Ocean region opening up as a result of climate change, exploration in this part of the world is inevitable.
The Inuit of Grise Fiord are among the communities sitting in the firing line of any environmental change.
Although the federal government, or what they call the crown here, still controls the vast majority of the Canadian Arctic, the Inuit have some leverage. They have been given the legal rights to their traditional territories in Nunavut.
Terry Audla, a spokesman for one of the main Inuit groups across Nunavut, dealing with land-claim issues, says anyone “who steps on the ground for commercial purposes has to sit down with the Inuit”.
That has happened in Grise Fiord. A company called Canada Coal has active exploration licences covering more than 7,000sq km, mostly near the Fosheim Peninsula on Ellesmere Island, and it has been in discussions with the Inuit of Grise Fiord.
As a result the company has put on hold its controversial exploration programme in the area, because of concerns for caribou and polar bears, and possible damage to the wider environment.
Larry Audlaluk, one of the elders of Grise Fiord, expresses the Inuit’s concerns. “I think mining can be viable, but it has to be balanced. It cannot be disruptive to the environment, to the wildlife we depend on for our sustenance”.
In this community of
about 130 people, five babies were born last year. If we think women in Ireland have to travel a long way to a maternity hospital, spare a thought for the mothers of Grise Fiord: they have to make a round trip of almost 3,000km to give birth in the nearest hospital, in Iqaluit.
At the return-of-the-sun celebration, young mothers carry their babies in amauties , or harnesses slung around the back. The Nunavut they grow up in will be quite different from the one I have visited.
When I ask Susie Kiguktak, a young Inuit mother, about climate change she says, “The weather is changing a lot, I find. Every summer the tide is going a little higher.”
Looking out towards the frozen sea, she adds, “We used to have a lot of ice down there in the summer, but we hardly have any any more.”
If this place is the refrigerator of the world, as many call it, then a worrying sound is coming from it. And no matter where in the world we live, we need to be concerned about that.