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Last Updated: Monday, 15 October 2007, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Arctic voice drowning in climatic shift
Glen Morris
Glenn Morris

It is time for the industrialised world to wake up and change its behaviour before the Arctic, its people and its wildlife are lost forever, argues explorer Glenn Morris. In this week's Green Room, he shares his experiences of travelling by kayak along part of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic.

Rain damaged street (Image: Glenn Morris)
It is as if we all know that a meteorite will hit Earth in about 10 years' time; yet we continue to behave as if by some miracle it might just miss us
"It's so hot," an Inuit elder said, fanning herself while sitting on a bench outside the Northern Stores in Paulatuk. Her face, etched with lines, hinted at a past life that would be alien to the young people of the hamlet today.

Her complaints about the heat were said in a way that might have been comical if it were not for the sinister underlying reasons. I later learned that she had been born in a snow house.

She had, no doubt, watched as her father had dragged a harpooned seal across the snow, staining the ice crystals crimson in its wake.

He would have tenderly poured a little fresh water in the seal's mouth, ready for the next life; held its claws and said "hello again" and "kuana" (thank you) before dividing the meat.

Change for the people of the north is both fast and relentless. Colin Adjun, an Inuit hunter, told us that he remembered winter temperatures in Kugluktuk often dropping to between -50 and -60C; now they are more likely to be between -25 to -30C.

The summers, too, seem much warmer. Before our journey, we had consulted the Admiralty Arctic Pilot manual, which gave the upper summer temperature for the part of the Canadian Arctic we were traversing as 21C.

Yet we experienced temperatures of 34C, and it was almost impossible to sleep.

Changing landscape

Rising temperatures are having an effect on every aspect of life in the Arctic. As the permafrost melts, homes and roads are affected.

Fisherman holding his catch (Image: Glenn Morris)
Inuit fishermen say fish are heading further north
Inuit hunters and other residents told us that new insects and flowers are appearing and animals that previously lived in the lower environs are now moving north.

During our journey we had often stared into the clear waters below the kayaks and remarked to each other on the complete absence of life below us.

Jack, an Inuit hunter and president of the hunters' association in Kugluktuk, told us: "The waters are warming and the fish are moving north".

We later discussed sport and the popularity of ice hockey in Canada. Jack told us that until a few years ago, youngsters used to play on the ice rink in Kugluktuk, "but now it no longer freezes over so the kids can't play anymore".

The warming of the Arctic, the melting of the permafrost and all the other changes to the environment and wildlife are causing considerable concern among the Inuit.

But other issues such as mining, and the quest for energy sources as the giant western economies move north, are equally powerful foes.

Losing control

The oil and mining companies now vie with each other for the opportunity to drill in areas that were once inaccessible.

Shipping companies too are looking at the commercial viability of routes through the once ice-covered Arctic Ocean, all without a care for how their waste will form the epitaph of this pristine northern wilderness.

We met Tommy, an Inuvialuit, on the Mackenzie Delta. He told us how a proposed pipeline would bring gas along the great Mackenzie Valley.

"Many people are against it," he said. "It will be bad for the land and the animals."

Kayaking through the Arctic ice (Image: Glenn Morris)
We are witnessing the destruction of a wonderful culture, a culture whose roots lie in a deep understanding and respect for the land
I asked him what he thought. "I am for it," he said with a shrug. "It will bring jobs.

"My brother is against it though," he added wistfully.

Like most tribal or aboriginal peoples, the Inuvialuit find themselves driven into the modern economy and the world of consumerism.

Those hunters and trappers concerned about the damage to their lands might voice concern and resist the pipeline, but their protests will undoubtedly be crushed under the steel tracks of the bulldozers, as they begin to smash their way inexorably through the willow and spruce on their way to Inuvik.

The wind snatched at our paddles. We lost sight of each other in the troughs, spray stung our faces and the crests of the waves broke over the decks of the frail craft.

We decided to attempt a landing. With difficulty we managed to reach a rocky beach. Large car-sized boulders were strewn across the shore.

There were huge cracks along the edge of the coast; sections were falling away as the sea steadily broke down its defences. Ice that has up until now moderated and placated the erosive power of the waves is shrinking, and the coastline is changing.

Changes in the air

The winds are also changing, becoming stronger and more unpredictable, according to the people we met. I talked to Mary, an Inuit elder living alone in her tiny, sparsely furnished house.

Kayaking in the midnight sun (Image: Glenn Morris)
Arctic natives fear industrialisation will harm the environment
She told me how her mother had taught her to sew skins and make clothing. She told me stories of hunting and fishing, of a happy time when wolves and caribou could be seen from the hamlet.

"You could tell the weather by the smell of the wind. The fragrance of leaves and flowers meant rain from the south; the smell of sea meant rain from the north."

She looked out of her window at the quad bikes whining down the dusty roads. "The only smell now is petrol".

It seems now that records in relation to weather are being broken with increasing frequency as the planet, like a giant waking from sleep, begins to respond to the activity of mankind with hurricanes, heatwaves and floods.

At the end of our journey, we heard reports of huge floods in the UK which caused vast amounts of damage; but the UK was not alone. Kugluktuk, which usually receives very little precipitation, was deluged with a rainstorm.


No-one could remember such rain. The residents called it: "the great Kugluktuk Monsoon".

Roads were washed away and houses undermined. Their foundations buckled as the floodwater cascaded through the town, sweeping rocks and road signs towards the ocean.

As the Arctic Voice expedition progresses and we move east, our thoughts and conclusions may change. But at this moment, I feel that we are witnessing the destruction of a wonderful culture, a culture whose roots lie in a deep understanding and respect for the land; a culture based on sharing and sustainability.

It is almost as if we all know that a meteorite will hit Earth in about 10 years' time and entirely change our climate and wipe out countless millions of people. Yet still we continue to behave as if by some miracle it might just miss us. We are simply destroying our children's future.

Forget the rhetoric, the niceties, the political soundbites, the attempts to justify for economic reasons - every scientist, every hunter, every elder I spoke to, when asked when something should be done, were unequivocal in their response: "Now".


Glenn Morris is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He is also the founder of Arctic Voice, an organisation dedicated to highlighting the impact of climate change on the Arctic and its people

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Glenn Morris? Is it time to take the gloves off in the climate change debate? Are industrial nations forcing Arctic natives to lose their sustainable way of life? Or do we have to learn to accept that all things change over time?

It appears that Ray Hartman thinks the world was created as a resource for Industrialised Nations. That's why are where we are now. One half of the world, pillaged to feed 'Progress' in the other half. It's not so Ray... but as long as your 'Culture' survives, yeah?
Rob Kirbyson, Pershore, UK

Seems like the climate has been pretty stable in Kugluktuk since at least 1996. Last year it was downright frigid there on this day. Global warming - I mean climate change, has been always ocurring on this planet. It is utopian wishful thinking that climate will be stable over periods of time. 1000 years ago the climate was significantly warmer than it is today and 250 years ago the climate was significantly cooler than it is today - a period known as "The Little Ice Age". Al Gore conveniently left that story out of his movie.
Viola Smith, Scranton, PA USA

I agree with the assessments made by Glenn Morris and congratulate him not just for the bravery and foresight shown in having undertaken such a journey across the cutting edge of the sea as it begins to react but for having said it so well. I was particularly struck by his comparison of the impending tipping point in global warming to an asteroid strike. In terms of geologic time a mere moment away. Hope lies with more people getting involved to vividly experience and document mankind's current effect on our planet. Short term denial or unwillingness to change won't change the facts. Mankind is now the sole catalytic agent about to be responsible for setting off runaway global warming.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA

If your serious about the enviroment, change your life. Use minimal power and fuel, grow your own food and live a simpler lifer. Our society is prime for thinning out,we have a population crisis and were driving it.
Neil, Tabua, Portugal

ray hartman, JAX Fl. USA tells us to stop wimpering about climate change as the Inuit have survived several ice ages. Perfectly true. The United States of America has never faced an ice age though but the plight of the Inuit should be an early warning signal for the USA. We should all remember ray's words when he and his family are wimpering for help in the aftermath of the next hurricane...
Rod, Edinburgh, Scotland

To Larry Kealey: Erik the Red founded the colony in Greenland, falsifying reports as to conditions there (including naming it Greenland) in order to lure his political adversaries there. there is a slim possibility that climate change is either natural or not as extensive as all our scientific research indicates - but weighing up the 'win' secenario of a few dollars extra GDP against the 'lose' scenario of rendering human life on the planet unviable leads any sane individual to the conclusion that erring on the side of caution must be neccessary.
Joel Furze, London

Ray Hartman: ". Since they keep a low population density and let the weak die off they will succeed again." If only we could follow their example and drown all the idiots. Then maybe what's left would be people who can recognise an elephant when it's in the room.
S Burns, Cardiff Wales

Change is normal-all hunting/gathering societies and most simpler agricultural societies have alternative plans for each season, because they knew that weather is subject to climatic shifts. Those groups that do not make alternative plans do not survive long. Our plan seems to be is that somehow we must make the climate behave in a uniform manner. Sorry! Using so much fossil fuel is foolish, but attempts to manipulate climate could be equally disastorous. We truly overestimate our power. Accept change, quick destroying our environment, and dramtically reduce our use of fossil fuels.
Richard Wisecarver, Wasilla, Alaska, USA

As night follows day, it is inevitable that there will be another ice age after a period of rapid warming. It will manifest over a 2 to 5 year timescale. I suggest you stop talking, start researching and get prepared for the sake of your children and grandchildren, just as my husband and I are now doing.
Barbara Day, Phoenix, USA

Without sounding like some hippie, what makes economic imperialism any better than the old kind? Once the damage is done, the Inuit gone and the resources milked, we will say sorry [or not] and write research papers on how we could have done it better and saved an entire culture from obliteration, disease and alcoholism.
Stephan Gyory, Sydney, Australia

I am a chemist working toward renewable energy. There is no question that something must be done. Anyone who thinks burning fossil fuels isn't causing global warming obviously isn't very educated. It is frustrating living in a country where nobody seems to care that our standard of living is destroying the planet. But I am not just standing idly by; I am an American who is trying to do something about it.
Matthew Bruzek, Marshall, MN, USA

Life is so precious! Some beautiful values of respect of the environment already exist but are not so popular in our consumerism societies... We need to learn from the cultures that are close to the nature instead of watching them as strange museum creatures! '' a culture whose roots lie in a deep understanding and respect for the land; a culture based on sharing and sustainability'' is what we should strive to build.
Alice Rousseau, Montreal, Canada

A sad story of environmental change and its impacts upon a traditional culture. But it is a story, and an emotive one at that. If the public are to take climate change seriously perhaps we need to move away from schmaltz like this?! To start, since when did 'living memory' become a gage of anthropogenic interference with the climate system? Are the scientists currently dredging the Northwest Passage for algal evidence of ice cover over the last few hundred years wasting their time? Why, they should have asked a local; they would have told you stories of the 'happy times' of yesteryear. My point is that while stories such as these are good at engaging the public and making us think about the impacts of human-induced climate change, they are not based on hard scientific evidence and can easily be shot down in flames due to their inaccuracies. When this happens (all it takes is a one climate sceptic and one eager news hack) the debate over climate change reopens, leading the pu! blic into confusion and distrust of climate scientists. This does, however, pose an interesting question: how much do the public need to understand about climate change before they care enough to take action?
Tom Lowe, Melbourne, Australia

The warming trend that we are now experiencing began far before the industrial revolution. To say that we are causing the warming is false, and the current state of alarm over the issue disproportionally highlights the disadvantages of accelerating the cycle. Warmer temperatures create new habitats, and I would assert that warm temperatures are more conducive to life than ice ages that cover entire continents in glaciers.
Ryan Smith, Houston, Texas, USA

The same thing is happening here in sunny Florida. The old way of Florida life is being eliminated by industrial modern society. People here do not seem to care very much about our situation so they even more so do not care about the Inuit culture or people. The problem is not one of adjusting it is one of caring at all. Which could just as well mean the end of all our city modern life. Will we hold up anything to protect anyone? The headlong rush to build another shopping center and housing development is not the end and crown of creation. Treating everything and everyone as expendable means we are all in the Inuit position.
tom j, Jacksonville USA

Are we not due a naturally occurring ice age some time soon? Would'nt that wipe out more species across the globe and cause more economic devistation than global warming? If global warming actually prevents an ice age is it really such a bad thing? Clouds always have a silver lining.... I think we ought to be more concerned with issues such as air and water pollution, soil loss and humanitarin issues (Burma?). If we can't fix the simple things in life, how can we expect to takle the big challanges ahead?
mathew , South Korea

To Larry Kealey, Sugar Land TX, USA I know exactly what Glenn Morris means when he writes "Jack told us that until a few years ago, youngsters used to play on the ice rink in Kugluktuk, "but now it no longer freezes over so the kids can't play anymore". I live in Edmonton, Alberta. We are known for cold winters but I have not seen an outdoor ice rink that lasts more then a couple of weeks for years. The snow is dry. There is no moisture to it at all. I believe there will be many challenges for the Inuit people ahead. It saddens me to think these people will have to "westernize" in order to survive.
Gerri Gordon, Edmonton, Alberta Canada

We could all be driving around in electric cars that almost never break down, emit probably next to no fumes, and last for a whole lot longer than the petrol cars. Give us those to buy and maybe we'll buy into all of this rediculous talk about fixing the planet. We can fix it just fine when the money movers get out of the way. Please don't insult the intelligence of the rational person by telling us we need to do something. Our hands are tied.
Irene, Greensboro, NC USA

Can anybody tell me if the North West Passage was open in the Viking times. I suspect there were old stories about it otherwise why did people keep trying to find it. Curiosity of course!
David , Oslo, Norway

We have lost that sense of closeness to, and inclusion within the natural world, indeed we think ourselves as external to it. Is it feasible that what we are doing to the planet is simply an unavoidable trait of the human condition, but is just as much a part of the natural way of things. It's an interesting thought, and one that therefore leads us to conclude that nature will trigger some event to offset our actions, or effect balance. Incidentally, this is not me advocating doing nothing, I have a very strong social conscience on this subject and believe we need to take action now. I'm just presenting another point of view.
Mark, Leeds, UK

I don't understand what these people want us to do to stop climate change. The underlying issue is the shear amount of humans on the planet. If you really want to stop climate change you will have to eliminate 5-6 billion humans... If you are just patient and wait I'm sure the climate will accomplish this for us.
Craig, Edmonton, AB, Canada

I think the message that this article is trying to get accross, is that the climate is changing in one of the most sensitive areas on earth. When anything happens, it happens near the poles first. It is a prediction of things to come within the next 50 years. What this indigenous culture is trying to tell the world is "wake up, you're destroying this planet at a rate where it can no longer sustain itself". In 20 years, there will be 9 billion people on the planet. This will drive the demand for more energy, food and resources for every country. That means more drilling, mining, shipping, manufacturing, ocean fishing and subsequently more pollution & degradation to the earth's natural resources as a result.
Dave Lujan, Huntington Beach, CA, USA

Human beings are the only animals which are smart enough to be stupid.
peter johnston, Edmonton, AB, Canada

The most frustrating aspect is that for every individual who does want to cut back on carbon consumption to at least 'slowdown' the rates of predicted change....there still seems to be an army of 'high consumers' with absolutely no intention of trying to cut back on say fuel consumption. Big manufacturers (eg car companies) still pander to these people by happily still producing (because they sell well) large 3 -6 litre vehicles. Rampant consumerism is the first problem that has to be dealt with.
Tony Flux, Weymouth, Dorset. U.K

This "debate" is pathetic. OK, there is some degree of merit to the argument that there is a natural warming trend going on. But this does not invalidate the argument that we are accelerating it by our industrial activities. The scenario we will live out may not be as drastic as "The Day After Tomorrow", but it puts our descendents in a precarious situation. The faster climate changes the less chance a species - any species, even our own - can adapt to the new circumstances. Our global culture is increasingly pawning the future to pay for the present. We constantly ignore the affect our actions have on others with a thinly veiled social "darwinist" view. A Jewish rabbi was murdered by the Romans for speaking out against such behaviour and now we fall right back into the Roman way, with dire consequences.
Gor Rivenshield, Colby, KS, USA

All things change over time and it is time for us, in the industrialized world, to change our way of living. We are on a downward spiral for the greed of power. It is time to stop talking, convening, negotiating and pointing fingers; it is high time we take responsibilty and act before nature has the final word.
Neha Gabhawala, Pittsburgh USA

I agree with Mr Morris whole heartedly. I began my letter writing campaign in the mid 70's addressing the hazards of mining in the Arctic and the lethal impact on our environment. My approach was based on scientific fact and not the rantings of a irrational environmentalist. So here we are, thirty some years later, where I feared we would be. We are now at a point where we cannot conceivably repair the damage to our fragile planet that has been brought about man's glutenous greed.
S Stegemoller, USA

(I am a U.S. citizen) Mandatory international norms are the only way to effect any meaningful change fast enough. Mandatory norms create a level playing field without which competing corporations and countries can only see change as financial suicide.
Odile Brock, Kinshasa, Congo

I quote from the article:"Jack told us that until a few years ago, youngsters used to play on the ice rink in Kugluktuk, "but now it no longer freezes over so the kids can't play anymore". " - yeah, right, you are going to tell me that the ice rink in Kugluktuk doesn't freeze anymore - with winter temps in the -20 to -30C range - ok - your credibility is now zero...maybe it does not stay frozen during the summer anymore - but it is certainly frozen for most of the year. Let us not forget that Eric the Red established a colony in Greenland 1000 years ago - and it is just now becoming uncovered from the ice which has covered it the last 1000 years - due to the warming of the last 150 years - so "unprecidented" does not really fit the situation...
Larry Kealey, Sugar Land TX, USA

"Or do we have to learn to accept that all things change over time?" The human race in general will never learn to accept it. When "Waterworld" or something approaching it finally becomes reality, it won't be the climate which will affect humans so much as the totally merciless wars of survival which will account for most human casualties. If we are lucky, we could end up with a total world population about that of neolithic times. Rats, scorpions, cockroaches - and their highly adaptable like - will be the great winners! Whether the surviving human enclaves will have "learned the great lesson" and avoid restarting the same cycle all over again is anyone's guess! Add to that the loss of current and future hightech solutions (now in the planning) to avoid meteorite collisions with earth which will mean that our descendants will be as helpless as the dinosaurs in the face of such catastrophies - even if they are able to see them coming and appreciate their effects. YES - WE MUST DO IT NOW!!! Sadly, the only kind of thing which would really work would be the kind of scenario as in "Childhood's End" (Arthur C. Clark) where some higher benevolent intelligence steps in to save us from ourselves...
Roger Cary Oliver, Le Soler (near Perpignan) France

Quit simpering over climate change. The Inuit have seen a couple ice-ages and survived. Since they keep a low population density and let the weak die off they will succeed again.
ray hartman, JAX Fl. USA

Who could not feel bad about changes occurring in the Arctic, which is ahead of the planet in registering the effects of climate? I certainly do. But a geologist will know that a geological force is not switched off overnight. And human culture is now a geological force. We must learn to deal with some changes.
Caroline Webb, San Rafael, CA, USA

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