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,
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.
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

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

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

How does that relate to what you are doing with
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

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

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

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

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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