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.”
In 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.”