Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point edited by Subhankar Bannerjee gives voice to the people whose lives are being changed as the climate of the Arctic grows warmer. From Siberia to Iceland, Canada to Alaska, stories are told, facts are provided, and a vivid picture of an imperiled country takes shape.
In the northern country that lies below the Arctic Circle, winter’s arrival and departure is heralded each year by the raucous, triumphant cry of sandhill cranes. In the spring, they come in large flocks from the southern United States to nest in the wetlands of the Arctic; in autumn they fly south with their young. They are among the many species of birds that have chosen the Arctic as their breeding grounds, along with eagles from northern Mexico, sandpipers from Argentina, and Arctic tern from Antarctica. Birds come from India, Japan, and China. Their nests are so plentiful in the Arctic wetlands that naturalist George Archibald, in an essay from Arctic Voices, says he was “afraid to walk anywhere for fear of stepping on nests or chicks” when he visited the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Arctic is the breeding ground for caribou, with an annual migration of up to 200,000 coming to give birth to their young. It is the site of the oldest continuously inhabited village in North America, Alaska’s Point Hope, poised on the coast of the Chukchi Sea. It is, the Gwich’in Athabaskan people say, the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” It’s also a place that contains fossil fuel: billions of barrels of oil and an estimated 4 trillion tons of bituminous coal, a wealth of resources that the world is hungry for.
That same hunger for fossil fuel is drastically changing the Arctic through the warming effects of climate change. Both the oil and the shipping industries are “anticipating the thaw” of the Arctic seas as more ice disappears each summer. As the Arctic ice sheets thaw, permafrost in the Arctic soil melts and releases methane gas into the atmosphere.
“The fact is the ice is melting,” says Koji Sekimizu, Secretary General of the United Nations International Maritime Organization.
Fraser Edison, Canadian CEO of a radar technology company, announced jubilantly: “This is a New Frontier for us,” as he anticipates a lucrative business in mopping up Arctic oil spills in what Alaska Senator Ted Stevens dismissed as “a frozen wasteland.”
“We are winter people,” says novelist Seth Kantner, who grew up in a “sod igloo” in Alaska’s Brooks Range.
“We are the caribou people,” says Gwich’in Elder Sarah James.
“Reindeer people,” anthropologist Piers Vitebsky says of the Eveny people in Siberia.
The link between people, animals, and the Arctic environment is an intimate one with ancient roots; Arctic Voices describes this in detail and as the story unfolds, the Arctic relationship with the world at large becomes clear.
“We need the Arctic to be cold,” says James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “Otherwise we will end up with a different planet.”
The people of Kivalina already know this. Their coastal village is disappearing from the erosion of soil which is losing its permafrost and from violent storms that bring pummeling waves. So do the people of Nuiqsut, a village near the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay. They have seen a 600 percent increase in respiratory patients in recent years, believed to be caused by particulates from natural gas flares that burn in the oilfields, says physician assistant Rosemary Ahtuangaruak. And the Gwich’in people have always known it. Their Elders told of a coming time when the world will grow warm and different animals will come to the Arctic.
“They were also aware of the ozone layer,” says Matthew Gilbert, a Gwich’in writer from Arctic Village who has transcribed ancient knowledge handed down from his grandfather. “They knew something was happening to it.”
Bannerjee, a physicist from Kolkata who has become a photographer, writer, and environmental activist, first became aware that the Arctic was going awry when he visited the famous Churchill polar bears and watched one bear devour another.
“Not normal,” he was told. In the thirteen years that followed, he immersed himself in the land above the Arctic Circle, camping out in temperatures that the wind chill brought down to -100 degrees Fahrenheit, talking to the Inupiat and Gwich’in people who make that part of Alaska their home, learning to love it as they do.
“I realized if I were to have a voice in conservation in the US, I must become a US citizen,” Bannerjee writes. “So I did.”
“Only outsiders ever asked ‘What do you do for a living?’ What a strange thing to ask, Didn’t everybody hunt, fish, gather wood?” Seth Kantner says of his Arctic childhood. He and his family faced winter dressed in outerwear made of caribou skins, mirroring the Eveny people who, Piers Vitebsky has said, wore garments that made them look and smell like reindeer—and kept them warm at temperatures that plunged deeper than -50 degrees F.
For indigenous people in the Arctic, their lives depend upon the bounty of the land and the sea.
“Without caribou, we wouldn’t exist,” Sarah James says, and she’s not speaking metaphorically. Caribou meat provides 80 percent of the Gwich’in diet, in a part of Alaska where 25 percent of the population lives in what the United States deems poverty level.
As wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer says of the future of the Arctic, “Time will tell, I suppose, but unfortunately, time is running out,” adding, “Some things just need to be left alone.”