While international debate continues on how to limit the release ofgreenhouse gases, global warming is becoming a reality in the HighArctic. A new report by the International Institute for SustainableDevelopment is perhaps the first to document the observations of nativepeoples living in the region. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentatorSuzanne Elston says that the evidence is a frightening taste of thingsto come:
While international debate continues on how to limit the release of
greenhouse gases, global warming is becoming a reality in the High
Arctic. A new report by the International Institute for Sustainable
Development is perhaps the first to document the observations of
native peoples living in the region. Great Lakes Radio Consortium
commentator Suzanne Elston says that the evidence is a frightening
taste of things to come.
I was sorting out some family papers not too long ago when I came
across a very old magazine. It was a 1959 edition of the Illustrated
London News and in it was an advertisement for Shell Oil. The ad
pictured an Inuit woman, with a small child snuggled behind her in
the hood of her traditional native parka. They both appeared to be
warming their hands on something. The ad was to promote the many uses
of kerosene and the caption read, “The North Pole is getting warmer.”
I don’t think anyone could have imagined just how prophetic that
advertisement would turn out to be. The widespread use of fossil
fuels has brought warmth to the north – but in ways that no one could
And now this new study paints a disturbing picture of how seriously
climate change is affecting the Arctic. This study documents native
knowledge about changes to the northern environment. And after
spending a year with the Inuit people of Sachs Harbour, in Canada’s
Northwest Territories, scientists report dramatic changes.
For the first time in their oral history, the Inuit people are seeing
thunder and lightning. Species of birds like robins and barn swallows
have been observed and strange new insects are becoming part of the
But these observations are just warning signs of more severe changes.
Changes that are threatening the very existence of a culture that has
spanned thousands of years. Thinner ice has made it dangerous for
native hunters to pursue polar bears and seals. Warmer temperatures
are making it difficult for polar bears to hunt as well. Seals used
to bask on ice floes in the harbour, but in recent years those floes
no longer appear. In one case, an entire lake disappeared when its
frozen shores gave way. As a result, all of the fish that lived in
the lake were killed when it drained into the ocean.
Even the permafrost is starting to melt. As the land thaws and
shifts, roads are being destroyed and buildings are tilting off their
foundations. What’s frightening is that these changes are just the
beginning. If the polar ice caps melt – as some scientists are
predicting – then the entire Inuit way of life will be wiped out.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the south, our governments still
aren’t able to confront the issue of climate change. The plight of
the Inuit is so distant that it’s hard for any of us to imagine these
kinds of dramatic changes here in the Great Lakes Basin. But change
is definitely happening. Given the failure of our leaders to move on
this critical issue, it would be better if we found ourselves in a
similar plight to the Inuit. Maybe then our leaders would find the
will to act.