A Manageable Way Forward in the Arctic - Pacific Standard

A Manageable Way Forward in the Arctic

In Edward Struzik's new book Future Arctic: Field Notes From a World on the Edge, he avoids the apocalyptic and offers a vision of how pragmatists could tackle some of the region's many environmental problems.
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(Photo: Public Domain)

(Photo: Public Domain)

Discussions of climate change are often discussions of apocalypse. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth encapsulates the rhetoric; something must be done immediately, or rising seas will swamp us all. The scale of the imagined devastation seems to prompt an equal and opposite rhetorical dissent, at least in the United States, where conservative politicians often argue that climate change isn't happening, and if it is, so what? Either everything must be done all at once, it seems, or nothing at all needs to be done. There's little middle ground.

In this overheated debate, Canadian author and photographer Edward Struzik's Future Arctic: Field Notes From a World on the Edgeprovides some welcome coolant. Struzik doesn't hem and haw about the existence of global warming; it's happening, and as a writer on the Arctic, he can see it with unusual, and depressing clarity. He opens his book with a discussion of the worsening fire seasons in the Arctic, including the 2004 season in which a record 1.5 million hectares burned, and the rare, massive tundra fire of 2007, when the ground itself burned. Many experts believe that as ice and frost recede across the Arctic, these sorts of events will become increasingly common; experts think "we have already entered a new fire regime that is more extreme than anything experienced in the boreal forest and tundra in the last ten thousand years."

Recent research suggests that 55 million years ago the Arctic was "once a tropical paradise forested by giant sequoia-like trees" and populated by diverse animals like alligators, giant tortoises, and hippos.

The fact that we have "already entered" a new period of Arctic wildfires is important. Even if people vanished from the Earth tomorrow (as in Alan Weisman's thought experiment The World Without Us), the Arctic would still transform. Greenhouse gas emissions have already done their work; we can, and should, try to restrain them, but if there's an apocalypse, it's already upon us.

You could see that as a reason to despair, but Struzik doesn't. Rather, he points out that the Arctic has always been changing, in multiple, complicated ways. Recent research suggests that 55 million years ago the Arctic was "once a tropical paradise forested by giant sequoia-like trees" and populated by diverse animals like alligators, giant tortoises, and hippos. The Arctic is not likely to become the tropics anytime soon, but still, global warming seems to have created new and beneficial opportunities for some species. Coyote and grizzly bears are moving north, lured by falling temperatures and an expanded range. Wood bison, once driven nearly to extinction, seem to be thriving in the changing climate. Musk oxen also seem to be doing well, and there's even a possibility that cougars, absent for more than 12,000 years, may return.

The presence of bright spots doesn't change the fact that the shifts could be disastrous for some species, and some people. Sea level rise is causing massive problems with erosion in many coastal communities. The small community of Inupiat people on the island of Shishmaref, for example, is seeing a rapid loss of coastline, sometimes as much as 100 feet in a stormy year. The island is expected to be virtually gone in 25 years. Polar bears and caribou, two species central to the lives and culture of native peoples in the Arctic, both face serious hardships as the weather warms. Among other things, those grizzlies moving north compete with polar bears—and sometimes mate with them.

These problems are serious, but they aren't necessarily insoluble. Caribou populations have indeed declined precipitously, but this actually seems to have less to do with temperature rise and more to do with the way the rise in temperatures has helped to encourage a feeding frenzy of oil and gas exploration in the north. "The biggest threats to caribou ... may be energy, forestry, and mining developments," Struznik argues. To protect the caribou, Canada doesn't need to instantly and drastically lower greenhouse gas emissions; it needs to stop destroying habitat and be smarter about conservation.

Struznik suggests that giving up on the most reduced herds in order to concentrate on preserving so-far undisturbed habitat might be more cost-effective in the long run than current efforts, which channel resources toward the most weakened populations. Similarly, relocating the people on Shishmaref sooner rather than later would probably save money and seems like the best move since the island seems almost certainly doomed. Native peoples have every historical reason to mistrust relocation plans—which is why such plans need to be addressed early, with as much input as possible from the people affected.

In short, the warming Arctic is a fact that isn't going to change, but individual problems caused by the warming can be tackled given a modicum of political will and imagination.

In short, the warming Arctic is a fact that isn't going to change, but individual problems caused by the warming can be tackled given a modicum of political will and imagination. Unfortunately, as Struznik shows, Canada, at the moment, has little of either; Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly refused to address global warming issues and slashed money for research, while ordering government scientists not to share information with other researchers or the press.

As the climate warms and the Arctic becomes potentially more hospitable and navigable, Canada and other countries have also been eager to push ahead with more oil and gas exploration. Struznik argues, convincingly, that this could be a disaster. There is no good technology for the clean-up of oil on ice. If there's an accident drilling or excavating in a remote location, it could also be prohibitively difficult to get crews and equipment to the site. Given the extreme risk, what is needed is caution, planning, and patience—and possibly, in some cases, a commitment to put the environment and safety ahead of the interest of energy companies.

The cost here wouldn't have to be prohibitive. In fact, Struznik writes, the cost of further research in the Arctic, and the cost of environmental preservation, is often substantially lower than the government subsidized roads planned for energy development. And this is to say nothing of the cost of clean-up if there's an oil spill or environmental disaster.

Even with good choices, Struznik emphasizes, dealing with the changing Arctic is going to be difficult and painful. Scientists can help prepare for some of the challenges, but by no means all; the wave of forest and tundra fires over the last decade, for example, blindsided most in the scientific community. "Arctic scientists have been surprised so often over the past fifteen years that some of them say that they will be surprised if there are no more surprises in the future," Struznik writes.

Recent research suggests that people (and especially conservatives) tend to reject explanations that depend on system failure; people reject the idea that the whole of which they are a part is completely broken. Future Arctic convinces in part because it urges readers to see the big Arctic puzzle in manageable pieces. We don't know what's going to happen in the Arctic, or the world. But that uncertainty shouldn't prompt apocalyptic despair, or calculated indifference. Struznik's book is a thoughtful and impassioned argument that we need to respond to a warming world by researching, adapting, and changing what we are able to.

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