In his first journalistic role since leaving RTÉ, Charlie Bird is preparing to spend a month in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic, to document what it's like to live in one of the coldest places on Earth.
His trip is designed to give readers of The Irish Times, both in print and on irishtimes.com, a deeper understanding of the region, its complicated history and the people who live there. It will begin in late February and is a follow-up to his RTÉ television documentary about the region, in 2008, when he first met the Inuit people.
“My whole image of the Arctic and the people who live there changed completely as a result of that visit,” he says. “Sitting at the edge of Ellesmere Island, in an icy wilderness, I discovered one of the most magical and enchanting places in the world – and indeed some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.”
Bird will be based in the town of Grise Fiord, more than 1,000km north of the Arctic Circle, in Nunavut. This vast province, which is more than 50 per cent bigger than India, is home to little more than 33,000 people, of whom about 28,000 are Inuit. Grise Fiord, its most northerly town, which is accessible only by seaplane, has about 130 residents.
The region is said to experience two seasons: light and dark. Twenty-four-hour darkness in winter is matched by 24-hour sunshine in late spring and summer. Bird will be in the town as the light returns. The average temperature will be minus 30 degrees. Temperatures remain far below zero for 10 months of the year.
Hunting remains part of life in Nunavut, including the hunting of polar bear, for which the Inuit have a special permit. Seals also form a part of the traditional hunt, but, while tradition is central to their identity, these are a modern people. They are Canadian citizens and enjoy many of the opportunities and advantages that this brings, including technology, industry, healthcare and education.
“The Inuit people in Grise Fiord have experienced rapid change in the past 50 years,” says Bird. “Just over half a century ago they lived in skin tents. Now they live in their wooden houses, sitting [on stilts] above the permafrost, and, like the rest of us, are citizens of the computer age.”
Bird will publish a daily diary, using video and photography, on irishtimes.com. He will cover stories about the local people but also explore international issues such as climate change, the race to find natural energy sources, such as oil and gas, and cultural identity. "The Inuit people of Grise Fiord have a ringside seat on what is happening to the world as a result of climate change," says Bird.
He will also examine issues of mental health and loneliness, which can be an effect of living in such an extreme environment. The project will have an educational dimension, encouraging school students in Ireland to communicate with those in Grise Fiord.
And we'll get more than Bird's account of the expedition. A wearable monitor will feed data on his sleep patterns and physical activity to irishtimes.com. With the help of Dr Johnny Walker of Health Founders, we will compare this to data recorded before his departure from Ireland, to assess how the climate affects his sleep and exercise.