For some, the issue of global warming is a very real and alarming prospect, while for others, it’s a vague and distant concept with no real bearing on day-to-day life. For Ed Cassano, the founder and expedition leader of Integrated Marine Education and Research Expeditions (InMER), global warming is something that affects everyone on the planet, he said, and he wants to relate this to people who may not have a tangible or emotional connection to it.
Tuesday morning Cassano, his chief pilot Kyle Ogden, and cinematographer Richard Theiss embarked from Santa Barbara Municipal Airport upon a reconnaissance expedition to map out what will become a four-year, ship-based study of global warming in the Arctic and its effect upon the Inuit people who live there. Flying in a twin engine King Air C90 airplane, the trio will visit five Inuit villages along the historic Northwest Passage, in the semi-autonomous Canadian province of Nunavut. They will stop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to refuel and pick up co-pilot Clayton Neufeld.
Cassano is someone many Santa Barbarans have come to know well over the years. Formerly a Captain in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Officer Corps, he managed the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary before moving on to found and direct the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. It was there that he met Bob Duncan, who is on the Maritime Museum’s board of directors. Duncan lent the aircraft and pilot for the current expedition, and his family is one of the major financial backers of the project.
Why the Northwest Passage? According to Cassano, it is because of the region’s significance to human history. Inuit people have inhabited what is today Northern Canada for a thousand years. For the past three centuries, maritime explorers have tried to map a route through the Arctic ice in order to shorten the trek from Europe to Asia by nearly 5,000 miles.
Much study of global climate change has been conducted in the Antarctic, but Cassano prefers to look at the Arctic. “What’s different about the Arctic compared to the Antarctic is that people live there,” he said. “We want to create an emotional connection with the Inuit. It’s not the Inuit that are changing the Arctic, it’s the rest of industrialized society.”
Armed with two maps of the Arctic-one from 1979 and one from 2005-Cassano explained that the size of the Arctic ice sheet has reduced drastically over the past three decades. According to statistics provided by non-profit lobbying organization the Aspen Institute, there has been an eight percent per decade reduction in the Arctic ice cap since 1978. Cassano maintained that the dreams of explorers past may become a reality in as little as ten years-due to the rapidly disappearing ice sheet that has traditionally blocked the Northwest Passage-and that this has huge implications for the native people inhabiting the area. A people who have traditionally relied upon hunting and fishing for survival, climate change is already having an impact upon their way of life.
Cassano said the project will be science-based in that extensive research into the entire water column, including biological, current and bathymetric surveys will be conducted in an attempt to characterize the Arctic’s marine ecosystem. However, he also said he wants to involve cultural icons with whom mainstream American society has a connection to serve as a conduit for the scientific information about global climate change. “There’s a lot of data out there sitting on shelves,” Theiss said. “What InMER is trying to do is utilize any type of information by getting it to people and motivating policy makers to institute change. Good science is critical, but we want to be a good conduit.”
Becoming a good conduit will begin on the current reconnaissance mission, where they will meet with tribal elders-in the Inuit villages of Gjoa Haven, Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Holman Island, and Sachs Harbor-collecting anecdotal evidence of the impact global warming has had upon those places. Furthermore, Theiss is filming a National Geographic Wild Discoveries documentary, which will be shown on PBS.
In addition to the National Geographic documentary, Cassano plans to use live webcasts from the ship, rebroadcasts on YouTube, news briefs and blogs, and possibly even base television shows from the expedition. “Ideally, we’d take everyone up there, but we can’t, so we’ll utilize technology to reach people,” he said. “We could possibly have Jon Stewart do The Daily Show from the ship, or something along those lines.”
Furthermore, InMER is working with the Aspen Institute to create an effective dialogue with policy makers. One of the institute’s major environmental programs focuses on the problem of global warming, as they feel the polar environments are so crucial to regulating climate, ocean temperatures and sea level on the rest of the planet. “We want to bring high-level policy makers on the expedition to see what’s going on,” Cassano said.
The costs of communications and supplies plus leasing a Canadian ice breaker ship for the voyage are fairly high, so InMER has a lot of support from financial backers. In addition to the Duncan family, the BlueWater Advisory Group and Dr. Silvia Earle-NOAA’s chief scientist from 1990-1992-will provide funding, among others. “Non profits are about friends and supporters and people who bring expertise and money to the table,” Cassano said.
The main, ship-based expedition is slated to begin sometime in 2009. For more information about InMER, visit www.inmer.org.