Climate change you can see and touch

SIX TEENAGERS ARE at the rail of a ship. Though it’s summertime, they are bundled in warm clothing and life-vests. They are far above the Arctic Circle and looking out over water that’s as blue as the sky. In every direction, there are pure white icebergs the size of skyscrapers.

The teenagers then line up with two elderly shipmates, one in his early nineties, the other his mid-eighties. One after the other, they climb down into a Zodiac, a sturdy, stubby black rubber boat that will ferry them to an Arctic experience none of them will ever forget.

Once settled into the Zodiac, the teenagers have by now learned that they are sitting shoulder to shoulder with two of the world’s most decorated scientists and explorers.

By now the teenagers have heard extraordinary lectures and storytelling and perhaps even shared a meal. They are all now friends and shipmates.

The iceberg makes me think of every likeness of Buddha that I have ever seen.

They are even on a first name basis with Fred and Don, who have each been awarded the Explorer’s Medal by the prestigious Explorer’s Club of New York, an honour shared with Neil Armstrong, the first person to step on the moon; Robert Peary; Roald Amundsen, the first to reach the north and south poles; and Edmund Hillary, the first to climb Mount Everest.

What’s more, their guide and the driver of the Zodiac, a grizzled man in his early seventies, is a musician that every fan of Canadian folk music would recognize.

Welcome to Students on Ice.

The explorers are Fred Roots and Don Walsh. The musician is Ian Tamblyn.

On this day, I watch from my own place in a nearby Zodiac. We are all of us sliding over glass blue Arctic waters, manoeuvring around these floating ice mountains that have broken away from the Greenland Icecap. As we pass between two of them, I look to the bow and see the ice-sculpted likeness of a frozen hand towering twenty to thirty metres above the water. The words of the great Arctic anthem written by Stan Rodgers come to mind, is this the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea?

A moment later as we circle another iceberg with steep eroded walls, the light suddenly changes and the image of a face appears. It is a big face, solemn, with a furrowed brow and wide eyes. It makes me think of every likeness of Buddha that I have ever seen.

For five years, I have participated in this remarkable educational undertaking. I have met hundreds of students from big Canadian cities and small Arctic settlements as well as teenagers from the U.S., Europe and Asia. Their distinguished northern educators have led them on explorations of Arctic and Sub Arctic areas, from Labrador northward into the Northwest Passage, and the High Arctic and Greenland. Students and scientists become shipmates, mentors, and friends. It’s a special bond connecting elders and youth; a free exchange of curiosity, wisdom, knowledge, and unwavering mutual respect.

Ian Tamblyn with students in Zodiac.

On a later expedition, when we spotted the first of more than a dozen polar bears we would see on that trip, Fred provided an impromptu lecture on the bears. He lamented that not much is known about polar bears, saying: “Unfortunately, mostly, the polar bear is viewed through binoculars or through the sights of a rifle…It’s the nomadic nature of the polar bear,” he told us, “that makes it so difficult to study and understand.”

When Fred sat down, a student from Qikiqtarjuaq on Baffin Island stepped to the front of the ship’s lounge, which had been turned into the evening lecture theatre. Lindsay Evaloajuk nervously picked up the microphone. She looked out over the group, including her own peers, two dozen other Inuit students.

“I bet you’re asking what a nineteen-year-old little girl would know about polar bears?”

In fact, Lindsay knew quite a bit. She showed us how to tell the difference between male and female bears. The science journals will tell you that males are larger, which is not very helpful if you’re only looking at one bear or if you don’t know if it’s full grown or not.

Lindsay said, “Look at how they walk.” Then, spreading her arms wide and turning her hands inward, she demonstrated how the female will turn her paws more inward while a male’s paws will be more in a straight line.

This is basic life and death knowledge for Inuit. A female bear may have cubs that aren’t visible, which would make her more aggressive and unpredictable. Lindsay’s short lecture wasn’t a put down of a distinguished Arctic scientist. It was a gentle reminder that scientists would know a lot more about the Arctic and its environment if they spent more time talking to the people who live there.

Lindsay said that she also, in Fred’s words, “observed a polar bear through the sights of a rifle,” recounting that on a recent hunting trip with her father, she had shot a tenfoot male bear. This is the kind of teaching that Students on Ice offers.

If there’s a Students on Ice ritual, it unfolds like this. We sail to the head of Disko Bay and anchor at Ilulissat and then walk to a majestic, even magical, place at the foot of the Jakobshavn Glacier. It is nature’s own cathedral, where rocks, formed billions of years ago, provide a natural amphitheatre to watch and listen as icebergs peel away from one of the world’s greatest glaciers.

We are all directed to sit in silence for several minutes, to look and to listen to what lies before us.

In the silence, we all hear nature’s language and warnings. Spoken sometimes in soft tones, other times, almost musical notes from melt water cascading from frozen ledges into the still pools below. Then suddenly the raised voices of the icebergs groaning and grinding; even angry sounds as ice sheets peel from the edges and crash below.

We sit in silence but our eyes and ears hear and see a world changing. It’s no wonder Geoff Green describes Students on Ice as the “Greatest Classroom on Earth.” At the front of this class are two exceptionally skilled professors and communicators: Erik Mattson and Bianca Perren. The melting and receding glacier is their backdrop.

They offer both a eulogy for a great glacier and a prophecy for the climate and our environment.

Bianca and Erik are experienced in handling the rigours of the outdoors, and comfortable operating the Zodiacs in choppy water, with its currents and shifting tides. They can also be seen standing sentinel with a shotgun while scanning the horizons for the wandering polar bears that are a threat every time the expedition goes ashore.

Erik Mattson is a professor at Nipigon University in North Bay, Ontario. For the past 25 years, he’s studied and measured melting glaciers and their impacts on the climate in general and fresh water production specifically.

Bianca Perren works for the British Antarctic Survey and her work is devoted to the study of how the eco system is responding to climate change.

Erik and Bianca have both done the math. The Jakobshavn Glacier is losing an estimated 60 metres every single day.

A hundred years ago, it was losing less than a kilometre in a year — now it’s losing more than that in a single month. They estimate that this glacier which can be eight hundred to a thousand metres thick will, within a decade, stop grinding and sliding its way down the ice choked fiord, but instead stop, and become “grounded” about 60 to 80 kilometres away. The face of the glacier will continue to break away and the meltwater will feed a glacial river roaring down a rock gorge to the harbour where we sit.

Bianca and Eric, and now all their students, know how special this place is in the unfolding climate change era. Few places on Earth offer a more graphic and even daily barometer of our changing climate.

The Students on Ice “classrooms,” in my view, also bring out the best in the northern and Inuit students who now comprise about one quarter of the student participants. Northern governments, land claim organizations, and businesses have recognized the value of the program and offer generous scholarships for Inuit and other indigenous students to participate.

They are certainly the students most comfortable getting in and out of the Zodiacs, considering that water travel remains a key means of transportation in the communities. Sometimes, they have a much different and more practical perspective on the lectures. It’s also common for the Zodiacs to be in the company of whales, including Humpbacks, Minke, and the largest of all, the Fin Whale.

As the whales or other mammals move near the ship or the Zodiacs, marine biologists will describe their size, age, migration routes, their impact and contribution to nature’s cycles.

At the same time, the young Inuit men will invariably offer their experience about where and how to properly place a harpoon. Often one or two would have already participated in a community whale hunt.

Long ago, I was taught that, without context, there is little understanding. Most of the southern students were likely raised to shudder at the idea of killing a whale. Yet they recognize that here, when Arctic youth look at the whale, or the walrus, the seal, or the polar bear, it is in the context of food and survival in a way of life that maintains harmony with the cycles of nature. In all this vastness and beauty, no matter the season or climate, all there is to live on is wild.

In my experience, the southerners, regardless of age or background, come to accept that reality.

The author can be reached at www.whitfraser.ca.