Living the Arctic Meltdown

An Inuit Community Struggles with Climate Change

by Russ Spencer

When polar explorer Will Steger comes to town to visit Montecito philanthropist Virginia Castagnola-Hunter at her 1919 Reginald Johnson estate, he likes to sleep on the back lawn. Granted, it’s a pretty great lawn. But it’s nothing compared to the home’s posh interior. To Steger, though, maintaining a connection to the natural world is more important than luxury, largely because it represents humanity’s best hope for combating global warming.

Last week, Steger addressed 30 local luminaries — including noted journalist Sander Vanocur, biologist Dr. Eric Hochberg, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist David J. Gross — in a salon setting in Castagnola-Hunter’s home. Steger came to spread the word about his new organization, Global Warming 101, an education and exploration initiative aimed at bringing the reality of human-induced climate change into the hearts, minds, and voting habits of everyday Americans.

Few people are more grounded in these realities than Steger, who has spent more time on the ice than any explorer in modern history. He led the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without resupply in 1986, the first dogsled voyage across Antarctica from 1989-1990, and the first dogsled crossing of the Arctic Ocean in 1995. Since his 1988 traverse of Greenland, Steger also claims the longest unsupported dogsled expedition in history, at 1,600 miles. His numerous awards recognize his achievements in a league with Jacques Cousteau, Amelia Earhart, and Robert Peary.

Steger’s new frontier is putting a human face on the climate changes that have already inexorably changed the lives of native peoples in the Arctic region. He is currently planning a 1,400-mile, four-month dogsled expedition across the Canadian Arctic’s Baffin Island, a vast region of island land masses and frozen waterways located halfway between the Great Lakes and the North Pole. People throughout the world will be able to experience vicariously the changing Arctic landscape by visiting for daily video, image, sound, and text updates from Steger’s team of eight.

Steger arrived at Castagnola-Hunter’s home with Theo Ikummaq, another global warming expert who has lived the changes more intensely than even Steger. A 51-year-old Inuit from Baffin Island, Ikummaq is a small man who looks and talks not unlike the Dalai Lama, with a gentle, singsong voice that belies the importance of his story. Steger and Ikummaq met in 2004, when Steger spent some time on Baffin Island as part of his Arctic Transect Expedition. Steger was immediately impressed by Ilummaq’s understanding of global warming and its impact on his culture and region. Ikummaq, who will help guide Steger on his upcoming expedition, came to California to let people in the United States know that he and his ancestors have lived in the same way in the same place for 6,000 years, and now that place is melting. Ikummaq recently spoke of his time in the States.

This is your first time in the United States, right? Yes. I was flabbergasted when I got to San Francisco. I always thought it was a movie prop, a soundstage, and then there it was: the real thing. That’s how isolated we are from the real world. Mind you, we have access to the world now, through the Internet. We are just getting it.

Tell me how life used to be before the Internet and, more importantly, before the climate began to change. I was born in an igloo, meaning a snow house, 51 years ago. We were living a nomadic life, living on the land — no electricity, no running water. Everything was as life had been since about 6,000 years ago, all the way up to when I came to be. And the first six years of my life were spent that way, living off the land, living with my parents and my relatives, dealing with the environment. At six years of age, I was taken to a boarding school by missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church. And for seven years, I was stuck there. I was forced to go there, as a matter of fact. It was not my parents’ choice. They had to follow the missionaries’ will. We weren’t allowed to speak our language or participate in our culture.

How long did this go on? I did that for seven years. After I completed school, I went back to Igloolik, where I’m from. And my brother, in his wisdom, said, “Brother, you need to learn the ways of the land.” I was fortunate in that he brought me back to the land. It took him seven years to teach me all the basics, such as living in igloos, where the heat source is a stone oil lamp with marine mammal fat used as fuel — or peat moss, or whatever is available to burn. After seven years, my brother let me free.

So you got the education of the Western world, and also of the land. That must be rare. Yes, I was educated in both cultures. I went on to get degrees in renewable resources management, teacher education, and interpretive translation of my language. Then I got into the working field, doing wildlife management and teaching. But I made sure all of my nephews were taught the ways of the land; I took them in because my brother took me in. The philosophy is, you look after the environment and the environment looks after you. That’s the main philosophy we go by.

How does that relate to what you are doing with Will? The reason I got involved in what Will is doing is that we had been connected to the land from day one, but then it all started to change. None of the rules that we had previously lived by were relevant anymore. Until then, life in my culture never really changed. We lived off the land, looked out for the environment, and the environment looked after us. Then it stopped looking after us. In about 1975, things really started changing. The climate changed, the wildlife changed, and our mode of life changed almost overnight. Our elders were in culture shock, and therefore became useless. So those of us who were educated in Western culture and our culture, we took it upon ourselves to look at what was happening to our elders. They were just sitting idle. There was too much change for them to reflect on. They were lost.

Give me an example of how things changed. Even just 15 years ago, summers were two months long. But then they started getting longer — three months, four months, now they are up to five. And the ecosystem cannot handle that much of a change. The nutrients from under the ice are not flourishing because much of the ice is gone. The animals are changing. For example, polar bears don’t have ice on which to hunt from. They used to be the top predator, and now they’re not. In our culture, we don’t look at the environment as something to control, something below us. We are just part of it. Therefore, the polar bear and the human had equal footing until about five years ago. Now the polar bear is losing, and there is a new predator coming in: the killer whale. Large pods of killer whale are coming into the bays, and, because these spaces are now ice-free, they are wiping out the seal population in those bays. So the polar bear suffers. And killer whales, polar bears, and humans are all going after the same animal: the seal.

That’s bad enough. But the effects of climate change go even further. We don’t really know it as global warming in my part of the world; it is more like climate change, because our climate really changed. Look at the lemming. They live under the snow, with tunnels to go to feeding places. They reproduce four times a year, multiplying in the safety of the snow so the predators can’t get to them. But what is happening now is that the climate change doesn’t allow the snow to harden as it once did, and therefore the lemmings are not as protected. In one incident in April of this year, on a fairly large island — 15 miles long and 10 miles wide — where lichens and grasses grow in abundance, snow fell, and the snow was not the right temperature for that time, so it didn’t crystallize in the usual way. It totally wiped out the lemming population there. And who suffers? The arctic fox, the wolverine, the wolf, and the snowy owl. The owl has no alternative. It has to move on or die. The other three look for alternative food sources, so they go after ring seals and the polar bear faces even greater competition.

Are there other animals coming north because of the warmer weather and lack of ice? Yes. The ice used to be about seven feet; now it’s about three, maximum. Because of that lack of ice, the current of the water is swifter and new animals that we don’t even see are getting into the food chain. We know this because when we hunt marine mammals, we look at the stomach contents to see what they are feeding on. And we are finding that the animals coming in to the bays are now squid and octopus, and we don’t have a clue what they might do to the environment. We can see what is coming on land. For example, we now have ground squirrels that we never had before in my area. You could only find them about 150 miles south. Lynx and grizzly bears are also migrating further north, showing up where they never showed up before.

What’s the impact on your culture? It is changing so rapidly that what was once relevant to our culture is now irrelevant. What we enjoyed for 6,000 years now means nothing. The intimate knowledge that our people had about the environment has changed, more in the last five years than in the previous thousands of years of our history. It has been changing that rapidly. Our sons and daughters are turning to diamond exploration and government jobs. They are getting more into the working field now because that is the alternative to living off the land, since traveling on ice is now impossible for about six months of the year.

It is the animals especially who are losing. If you take away one part of the food chain, the whole chain is affected, even if it is the smallest animal there. So any little change that occurs becomes humongous. For instance, the introduction of the killer whale wiped out the populations of other animals.

What’s at stake for you, Theo? Why did you leave your community to come all the way down here? The future of my children and my children’s children is what’s at stake. My youngest one is 9 now, and her life is going to be totally different than the way I grew up. She has to adapt to what is happening, to a totally new concept of Inuit culture. She knows the language now, but she is going to lose it 20 years down the road because it won’t be relevant. The culture is going to change so drastically that what I knew as a child will have no meaning for her. She is going to have a different take on the environment than just about all the rest of the world. And that, to me, is not healthy. That is what is at stake for me.

The way I look at it right now, if we were to lobby the government to do studies on this, it’s too late. The changes have to be instantaneous in order to slow the changes currently affecting the globe. We can lobby the government and they are going to do what — 20 years of study? That’s 20 years wasted. That’s 20 years faster toward the extinction of the human race. It’s not just animals who are going to stuffer in the end; it’s the whole human race.

So what do we need to do now, immediately, to help bring about a solution? The problem is that we create boundaries. People go places and create boundaries. The U.S. has a boundary. Canada, Greenland, Siberia all have boundaries. In order to do an effective job, we will have to overlook those boundaries and work with each other to correct the problem. Animals don’t have boundaries. If we want to look after the environment, we also have to have no boundaries. We Inuit know what the problem is: The climate is changing. But we don’t know the remedy for that. How do we correct it? How do we stabilize it? The Inuit can’t do it alone, the United States can’t do it alone, and neither can Canada or Siberia or any other country. The world has to unify on this in order to make a difference.

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