While the politicians fiddle, the world keeps warming. The Arctic may be down to its last few summers of being white. Johann Hari, in Greenland, asks hunters and scientists how climate change really feels ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009

The ground beneath my feet is trembling. In front of me there is a great white wall of frozen water 700 metres high, sparkling in the sun as though threaded with silver dust. I have been deposited by a helicopter on a rock nearby, to watch the fastest-retreating glacier in the Arctic. For a moment, there is silence, and the ice sheet looks as durable as rock. But then there is a low sound, like a slow sigh from the bowels of the ice, and suddenly a bomb blast seems to echo in all directions. A gargantuan chunk of ice has crashed off. It smashes down onto the earth as a newborn iceberg. From here, it will sail out to sea, and liquefy. It leaves behind a gash in the ice sheet that looks like a long scar. However many times you may have seen this on television, there is nothing like seeing it for yourself.

Soon there is silence again. The ice seems as serene as it ever was. But then there is another sigh, another explosion, another iceberg. And on it goes, all day, all summer. The people of Ilulissat in Greenland watch the corpse of the ice sheet floating past them in the form of freakishly large icebergs.

The last days of the Arctic as we know it appear to have begun. Since the year I was born, 1979, nearly 40% of the Arctic’s summer sea ice has melted into the oceans, and the rate is accelerating. One day–some scientists predict around 2015, others say 2030, and a few hope for 2070–there will be nothing in summer but a silent stretch of water at the top of the world. The North Pole will be a point in the open ocean, accessible by boat. Perhaps somebody will found Sir John Franklin Shipping, in memory of the man who died in an unrecognisable landscape trying to reach this spot. The Arctic as it has existed for all of human history will be over.

The scientists who study the glacier before me say it is vanishing, leaving an open wound at an entry-point to the Greenland ice sheet, a gash through which the ice is beginning to bleed away. But this great Arctic ice sheet locks up 10% of the world’s fresh water, and holds seven metres of sea-level rise in its frozen grasp. It is 1,570 miles long, 680 miles wide, and up to two miles thick. It is much harder to melt than sea ice, but if even a seventh of it goes–as now seems probable this century–then chunks of the most populated parts of the world, from London to Bangladesh to Manhattan, go with it. We have all been living on the edge of the Greenland ice sheet; we just didn’t realise it till now.

I came to the Arctic because no matter how many warnings we read, these descriptions still seem unreal, unfathomable. How does one of the most evocative parts of the map–one seen ever since it was discovered as a sign of indomitable nature–become transformed? How can it change our lives in our warm, dry cities far away? The journey took me to some of the most immediate evidence of global warming, and to the two shellshocked groups living through the last years of a frozen Arctic: the climate scientists and the Inuit.

“We knew about global warming long before you read about it in your newspapers,” says Niels Gundel, as he cocks his rifle and peers out across the water. He is speaking Greenlandic, with a tour guide acting as interpreter. “We knew something strange was happening, something we hadn’t seen before.” He is a 50-year-old Inuit hunter, a small, drawn man swaddled in a big blue jacket, and he has taken me out to hunt seal in Ilulissat bay on a tiny white boat with a chug-chug engine. We weave between the drip-dripping icebergs, looking for the flapping of a tiny black hand in the water for Gundel to take aim at. The waters are still and the icebergs clink: it is as if we are sailing across a gigantic gin and tonic.

Gundel says that for 2,000 years, the Inuit–formerly known as “eskimos”, which to many is a derogatory term that means “eaters of raw meat”–have lived at the edges of the Arctic ice. It is their life and their world. “In all this time we Inuit have always had two seasons,” he says. “In winter, we go ice-hunting and dog-sledding. In summer, we fish and hunt in boats. But now we have lost the winter, and summer has changed completely.” Starting in the 1980s, with each passing year the winter ice has formed later in the year, and become thinner. Now it is just slush. “You can’t go hunting on ice like that. It’ll break. So now we can’t gather food in the winter at all. If you couldn’t get to the supermarket, you couldn’t get food. If we can’t get to the hunting areas, we can’t get food.”

arcticIn a second, his body tenses, and his rifle is clicked straight. He has seen a seal’s head ripple through the water. He moves the boat quietly closer, and a bang echoes around the icebergs. A thick streak of blood stains the blue murk of the water. He hauls the seal’s body onto the boat and lets its leaking head remain flopped out. It is surprisingly small: about the size of a one-year-old baby. He pinches its fur, which is loose; the seal is thin. “This is one of the other changes,” he says, shaking his head. “Even in summer, the seals are so much thinner. I don’t know why. The fishing is worse too. The halibut are gone. Some have gone farther north because they don’t like the warmer water that has come here…Some are being eaten by all the narwhals that we used to hunt in the winter, but now live and eat them all. There has been a return of cod, but cod prices are very low. Nobody wants cod.”

We are drifting again, silently, looking for more seals. “Hunting is our identity,” he says. “Hunting is life for Inuit.” Niels was taught to hunt by his father and grandfather when he was five. They showed him how to navigate by the stars, steer a sled, predict the behaviour of prey. A boy’s first hunt–when he turns 13–is considered a turning-point, the moment he becomes a man. In every Inuit home, there are taxidermied beasts staring out, mementoes of hunts gone by. He once went hunting for a polar bear, he says. Is that dangerous? “Yes,” he says. “For the polar bear.” He smiles–a big warming smile–then seems to remem­ber himself, and frowns. “In ten years, there will be no hunting if this warming carries on,” he says. How does that make him feel? His eyes flicker, but he doesn’t answer.

Across the Arctic, the Inuit are seeing the world they know leak into the seas. An area the size of France, Portugal and Spain has melted in just 30 years. In Alaska, in Siberia, in Canada, villages are falling into the sea because the ice that once protected them from storm surges is gone. In other places, the hardened permafrost that has stood beneath their feet for 120,000 years is melting, and anything above is simply sagging into the mud. Collapsing trees and houses jut out of the ground at weird angles. The Inuit joke that these trees and homes are “drunk”–drunk on greenhouse gases.

When they talk about the Great Thaw, the Inuit are reserved and respectful. They note the facts. They tell you in a level tone that the things they value most will vanish. But they do not emote. You sense that, as with the icebergs all around them, six-sevenths remain frozen below the surface, and you will never see it. A rare exception is Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the former head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which draws together the 155,000 Inuit across the Arctic. Over the telephone from her home in the thawing Canadian tundra, she tells me: “People are always talking about the polar bear becoming extinct by 2070 because there will be no ice they can hunt seals from, but the Inuit face extinction for the same reason and at the same time. We know the planet is melting and with it our way of life. We are an endangered species too.”

Greenland–the corner of the Arctic I have come to–seems like the most unlikely venue for a world-shaking change. This is not a sedate society; it’s comatose. The island is a vast, almost entirely empty patch of rock and ice, inhabited by just 56,700 people. There is a rubbish dump in Rio de Janeiro that has more inhabitants. You arrive in one of the tiny Air Greenland planes that look like toys and get booked up weeks in advance. On my first flight, I stumbled to the front of the poky cabin and opened a door that I assumed led to the toilet. I found myself in the cockpit, as if in some strange pre-9/11 flashback. “Hello,” the pilot said with a smile. “I am flying.”

As you fly or sail along the coast of Greenland, you see only a sterile icy stretch: miles and miles of compacted snow and frost. The oldest travel writer’s cliché is to declare “this is a land of contrasts”. Greenland is a land of no contrasts. There is one expanse of ice covering almost everything, with only odd patches of brown rock jutting through, a smattering of which are inhabited by Inuit communities. There are so few contrasts that the ice plays tricks on your eyes: with nothing to focus on, the horizon seems impossibly distant, and straight in front of you, all at once. You can’t turn its two dimensions into three: you don’t know what you are looking at.

No trees or grass grow anywhere: even though they love football, the Greenlanders aren’t allowed to join FIFA, because the rules require one grassy pitch somewhere in the country. The name “Greenland” was a PR trick–perhaps the most enduring in history–invented by the Viking leader Erik the Red to lure people here, and away from the more fertile Iceland. But now, it seems, life is going to imitate PR, a thousand years behind schedule.

The Inuit live in little wooden houses painted in bright primary colours to cheer them up in the long winter darkness when the sun sets for six weeks. Their lives move slowly, with the rhythms of the ice. If you try to arrange a meeting, they will tell you it will happen “emahaj”– maybe. It’s like the Arabic shrug “inshallah”, only even more vague. I was there in the darkless summer, when time doesn’t seem to pass: your watch ticks, but the skies stay unchanged. Shops usually have a simple wooden sign saying only: “Shoppen”. The island has this year been granted self-rule by Denmark, the former colonial power, but nobody seemed excited by the prospect: they noted it quietly and impassively, as they note everything.

They mark the changes happening here by the season, and with uncomprehending awe. In one town I visit–Tasiilaq, on the bare eastern coast–the Inuit say the weather is becoming weird: in 2004, for the first time anyone can remember, there was a snowless winter. “We couldn’t understand it. This is totally beyond our understanding,” says Aksel Thule, a 52-year-old fisherman and hunter. “We had to kill our dogs, because we didn’t have anything to feed them.” Starving polar bears have started to stagger into the town in search of food.

The Arctic writer Barry Lopez described the Inuit as hibakusha, the Japanese for “explosion-affected people” who continue to suffer the effects of Hiroshima. “Eskimos are trapped in a long, slow detonation,” he wrote. “What they know... about a good way of life is disintegrating.”
How did this happen to the Arctic? Why is this place warming twice as fast as anywhere else? In Nuuk, the soporific capital of Greenland, I attend a conference of 150 climate scientists from across the world, who sit in a warm, dry theatre to hear a battery of presentations. Most argue that the sea ice is doomed, and the Arctic ice caps are more vulnerable to melting than anybody thought.
Each night I carry back piles of scientific papers to my hotel room and pore over them. I drag scientist after scientist into the bar and ask them to explain this process to me. It soon becomes clear the most important concept for understanding why these changes are happening so fast–and will be irreversible–is “feedback”. This is where a small amount of warming triggers a change that then causes more warming. This then causes another change which makes the Arctic warmer still. Warming leads to more warming–and on, and on.

You can see this most plainly with the process that lay at the beginning of the current meltdown. The Arctic sea ice has performed a simple and crucial job for us since humans began to walk upright. It is perfectly white and smooth, so when the sun’s warming rays hit it, 80% of them bounce back into space. This is called the Albedo effect. But once warming gases started to accumulate in the atmosphere, the Arctic sea ice began to falter and shrivel, so it bounced fewer of the sun’s rays away from us. It was replaced in patches by the open ocean, which has the opposite effect: it absorbs 90% of the sun’s rays. This melted even more of the Arctic ice, which meant we then absorbed even more of the sun’s rays. This is feedback in action: we have replaced a mirror with a sponge.
Beneath the dense thickets of climatological data, there is a sense of shock here–and a terrible exhilaration.

arctic seaWhen most of these men and women signed up to be climate scientists a generation ago, it was a sleepy field that measured changes across millennia. Now it is measuring change by the season–and it is discovering that the release of warming gases into the atmosphere by man has wrought a dramatic change. Professor David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey says: “Just over a century ago, the first human footprint was pressed into the Arctic and Antarctic ice. Today, we all have our footprints in that ice. Every one of us.”

As they scramble to gather evidence, there is a growing conviction among many scientists that once the Arctic begins to unravel, it could trigger a series of climatic (and climactic) feedback-disasters. How? Perhaps the wildest wild-card lies buried beneath the Arctic soil. Locked up in its frozen claw is a gargantuan amount of methane. This matters because methane causes 25 times more warming by weight than carbon dioxide. Methane is stored in the Arctic in two different forms–and both are vulnerable to breakdown. On land, it is stored in organic matter that rots when the permafrost thaws. Underneath the seas, on the continental shelves, methane is trapped in a crystal structure of water ice in a form called “methane hydrates”.

There is reputed to be more carbon stored in these methane hydrates than in every lump of coal and barrel of oil in the world. “If even 1% of the methane stored in Arctic-shelf hydrates were released to the atmosphere, it could cause really abrupt warming,” says Susan Joy Hassol, the analyst who along with 300 climate scientists wrote the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the most widely respected summary of the science affecting the Arctic. Some scientists believe that when this happened 250m years ago, it triggered the largest extinction event in history: 95% of marine animals and 70% of land-based animals died. 
We know the permafrost is already going. It’s why concrete buildings are sinking into the defrosted mud across Siberia. But how much of it will go? How fast?

Nobody knows yet. The scientists have only in the past decade realised how significant this issue is, and started gathering data: they aren’t sure if it is highly likely, or highly unlikely. They do know the most vulnerable methane hydrates are located on the East Siberian shelf, where methane is stored very close to the earth’s surface. A research expedition this summer found 250 methane plumes bubbling up. If you held a lit match to the ground, a flame would spike out, like a lit blowtorch. Ronald Cohen of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, said it was “amazing” to “see such enormous quantities of methane.” And they know that every degree of warming is a terrible gamble, bringing closer the prospect of the great fart at the end of the ecosystem. 

I find myself grasping at reasons to be hopeful. The Arctic has been subject to some natural warming in the past: there was a brief heating in the Middle Ages. Couldn’t it be happening again? I couldn’t find a single scientist who said this was the primary cause. The warming in the past was localised, affecting only parts of the Arctic; this is affecting everywhere, all at once. 

My mind keeps sagging back to the Greenland ice sheet, and its capacity to wash away much of the world we know. Hassol tells me: “Melting on Greenland is increasing. If we stay the current course [with increasing emissions]… it will only be a matter of time before most of Greenland melts. People say, what’s the rush to address climate change, can’t we wait and see? But soon we could cross a tipping point that triggers the irreversible melting of the ice sheet. You can only adapt to so much. How do you adapt to such dramatic change?”

The last IPCC assessment report issued in 2007 was deliberately agnostic on the question of the ice sheet, saying that we didn’t have the data to predict how fast it would go. Its relatively modest predictions on sea-level rise were based on the assumption that Greenland would only melt a little–one the authors conceded was based on ignorance. Since then, scientists have come here in numbers to gather the missing data.

Professor Gordon Hamilton, from the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, is carrying out the most detailed ice-face study of the Greenland ice sheet. I find him next to a hut-hotel on the coast of east Greenland, stumbling from a helicopter, looking as if he has just stepped off the set of a movie in which he is playing the role of Panicked Climate Action Hero. His muscles are showing beneath a ripped T-shirt, and he speaks in a Scottish-American drawl. He pioneered the method of descending from a chopper on wires onto a moving glacier to measure its melting drip by drip.

“Very few scientists ever get a Eureka moment,” he says, but it happened to him, here. In 2005 he sailed out in a boat to measure how far the glaciers–the great tributaries by which the ice sheet breaks up and flows into the ocean–were retreating. He was expecting some retraction to have happened, probably a few percent, in the year since it had last been monitored. Arriving at the spot, he assumed with irritation that he had written the GPS co-ordinates down wrong. “When we got there, there was no glacier to be seen.” He checked everything; this was the right place. The glacier had vanished. Far up the fjord, he found its depleted corpse, churning out icebergs. “The glacier really had undergone this enormous change. We were in awe.”

arcticThere are only 17 glaciers that regulate 80% of the ice that comes off the ice sheet. Each one matters–and most are receding like this one, biting deep into the ice. It is agreed that it will take thousands of years for the whole ice sheet to go, but there is so much water here that even if the ice sheet sheds 10% of it, the map of the world will change dramatically. This process has already begun. In 2007, the melt-rate was the most severe since records began: the area experiencing surface melt has increased by 60% in just a decade.

On the basis of what he’s recorded, Hamilton says: “I now expect a metre of sea-level rise this century.” From this ice cap alone? “Yes.” This is the consensus view of Arctic scientists. The latest report from the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment team says bluntly: “Sea level will rise more than one metre by 2100, even more than previously thought, largely due to increased mass loss from the ice sheets.” Hamilton says this would displace more than a billion people, and condemn whole states–from Bangladesh to Florida–to “disappearing from the map. You only need a metre…to screw up the world! Because almost all the world’s mega-cities are at the coast.”

As Hamilton reels off statistics about how this sick ice sheet will change our world, I find myself staring at it in the distance. Blue veins of deeper ice are showing through the snowy flesh. It occurs to me that humanity and the Arctic have traded places in less than a century. To the first Europeans to trudge into the Arctic, it was a vast indomitable force that could destroy us with an indifferent shrug of snow. Today, we are the vast incorrigible force, destroying it with an indifferent shrug of warming gases. It is the ice that should be standing in awe before us, because now we are bigger, and we are bringing it down, glacier by glacier–while we can.

In one of his short stories, Edgar Allan Poe called the Arctic the “ramparts of the world”. He didn’t know how right he was. These ramparts hold in the world’s water; they hold up our great cities. They depend on this ice staying in this place. I walk away from my meeting with Professor Hamilton and watch the Inuit fishing in the harbour. What becomes of them? In the answer to this question there lies a strange twist in the tale of global warming–an ironic postscript that helps us understand how the story began. This melting is happening because, even after we knew the rock-solid scientific evidence, we couldn’t stop ourselves burning oil and coal and gas. Because it is easy; because some people get very rich from our doing it. And now the victims themselves–the Inuit–may be about to buy into the system, just as the end-game begins.

As the ice recedes, fossil fuels that have been forever frozen away are becoming accessible for the first time. A quarter of all the undiscovered oil left on earth is below the Arctic ice, and slowly coming into view. The government of Greenland, and those in the rest of the Arctic, suddenly face a dilemma. Their culture, their world-view and their landscape is vanishing, yet they could gain unimaginable riches in return, at the cost of then warming the world even further.

This dilemma is made flesh in the form of Aleqa Hammond, the woman tipped by many as a future prime minister of Greenland. Currently the minister for families and justice, she is a fiercely intelligent, round-faced Inuit woman who sits upright and responds to questions with torrents of detail. As I sit in her office, she makes black coffee, and drinks it in great gulps. “I come from a hunting and fishing community,” she says. “My grandmother was born on a dog-sled. We are born hunters, and we have it in our blood. Everybody hunts. I hunt. It’s part of our understanding of what life should be. But because of climate change, we are having to rethink every­thing…For the first time ever, in the history of hunters, they have to come and beg for money from the government because they don’t have money enough to make a living.” She says her uncle, “a great hunter”, is lost in this thawing landscape.

And then her tone shifts. She leans forward, eyes alert. “If we are standing there, feeling sorry for ourselves, we can’t gain anything. So, we have to think: what does [global warming] bring? Some places will lose everything, and I feel very bad for them, but we are not in that position. The retreating of the ice gives Greenlanders a greater survey of what the country contains–the riches. We know that there is oil in Greenland. You can touch it, you can feel it...Now there are companies around the world showing interest in it.”

She begins to present a vision of Greenland as a new Dubai emerging from beneath the ice to power the final spurts of global warming. She stresses proudly that when Greenland negotiated self-rule from Denmark–starting in June 2009–they made sure that the rights to profit from the new resources remained entirely with Greenlanders. “So, the economic interest now is absolutely of another level for us,” she says, with a smile. But wouldn’t it be a kind of madness to melt the Arctic with fossil-fuel emissions, and then see it as a great chance to burn even more fossil fuels? Her eyes–and suddenly evasive answers–seem to say: you are telling me you will melt our world with your emissions, and then shut us out of the last hours of the party? Greenland will, she says, demand looser restrictions at Copenhagen, so they can sell their oil.

This is the dilemma we all face now, albeit with a twist. Do we allow some people to profit, at the price of catastrophe for many more? The main beneficiaries up to now have been oil companies and Arab tyrannies. Can the Inuit join that list?

It is not a deal all of them are prepared to make. Aqqaluk Lynge, current head of the Inuit Circum­polar Conference, is “very sceptical” about the notion that ordinary Inuit would benefit from oil exploration. He thinks it is naive, or worse. “We are already seeing conflict brewing between the great powers, with us in the middle,” he says. The Russians have planted a flag on the Arctic sea bed in an early attempt to stake a claim to its oil. “Even Canada and the United States, two very close and friendly powers, are having big arguments about who has the rights to exploit parts of the Arctic. Do we want to start this kind of rush for oil? Why do we think there was a war in Iraq?” It is another irony that just as Greenland has broken free from colonial rule by Denmark, its fate may hinge on climate talks in Copenhagen.

Throughout the 19th century, Europeans came to the Arctic and blithely ignored the warnings of the Inuit. They chose to bring tinned food rather than feed on the local wildlife–so they sickened with scurvy. They chose to build tents rather than igloos–so they sickened with frostbite and pneumonia. They insisted on pulling their own sleds rather than using dogs–so they sickened with exhaustion. The price of ignoring the warnings was death. Will we ignore them again now? “The Inuit helped guide some explorers who were prepared to listen, and because of us, they survived,” Lynge says. “We would like to help guide you to survival again...Please–we don’t have a lot of time.”

Picture credit: Alban Kakulya

(Johann Hari is a columnist on the Independent. In 2008 he won the Orwell prize for political journalism and was called "fat" by the Dalai Lama. His last article for Intelligent Life was a profile of Andrew Sullivan, a widely read blogger who is Catholic, conservative, gay and pro-Obama.)