Baffin Island’s sea ice fractures in a razor sharp straight line, as if carved by the hand of humanity. Beneath the meter thick frozen plateau resides the figurative wheat fields of the Arctic. Algae carpet the underside of the ice as they reach fingers upward for nourishment from the muted sun that permeates the pack. The glowing orange algae are the fire in the food chain. Organisms that live in this interface between water and ice get over 90% or their carbon from ice algae. When the ice melts, it releases its abundance to animals that live on the edge of floe, but if it is gone forever, then the web of life will be interrupted. Summer sea ice in the Arctic is an endangered species. Its rapid decline makes the future of the Arctic ecosystem difficult to predict. The heaving cleft in the ice over my head has not been incised my man, but the rapidly warming world we live in has been carved out by our activities. Will we slow the melt?
I’m not a scientist. The funny thing is that sometimes I play someone that sounds like a scientist on TV. My professional training is as an artist. My written articles will never be published in a scientific journal, but I hope my photography, films and art will connect people with the world they might not get to see on their own.
Air, ice, water and land blend to create a unified ecosystem in the Arctic. There is a constantly shifting balance between the elements that fight for dominance throughout the year. As the ice cracks and exposes leads each spring, the mammals begin to gather at the floe edge. When the ice breaks up, an abundance of nutrients is released to fuel an ocean of life.
A lion’s mane jellyfish beneath the ice
Dive operations beside a massive iceberg stuck in sea ice
A very tiny diver, Nathalie Lasselin descends towards me sitting 90 feet beneath the ice cover.
Inuit guide Sheatie Tagak and other local guides share with me that their hunting range is shrinking. The sea ice forms up later each year and does not extend as far. They have no question that the Arctic is melting and despite the enormous change that will mean for their ecosystem, they are determined to adapt and retain the most important aspects of their traditional existence. According to Tagak and Bill Merkosak, hunting together binds a family union.
In 1931, famed Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris painted a series of canvases of Arctic landscapes that captivated the attention of Canadians. Landscape Photography of the time was either monochromatic or hand-painted in a pastel wash of color. It was Harris who brought the North to life in vibrant graphic brush strokes. His paintings of Bylot and Baffin Islands were some of the earliest representations that helped people build a visual impression of the mysterious wilderness of the Arctic. While studying his work in art school, my mind often wandered. Would I ever have the chance to experience the purity of such an incredible place?
Now standing at the very location that captivated Harris’ imagination, I am awed by the majesty of the snow-covered peaks, whose glaciers connect with the sea ice in Eclipse Sound. Misty clouds pour down the valleys in swirling masses of white that blend into the tableau before me. I can see that the connection of people, snow, mountains… the environment of the Arctic is one harmonious organism. The Inuit call the sea ice “ The Land,” and when they are out on the land, you can sense a palpable joy that animates their day.
I have been drawn to this place to share a story of ice. Elder Sheatie Tagak tells me that the time they have on the land is limited these days. He recalls that the sea ice used to set earlier, spread farther, and last longer. Now he waits until February for the ice to harden enough for his Skidoo and notes that the turning point, when the sea begins to melt, now comes in March. He also sees running water all year long. It is bleeding into town from beneath the glaciers and snow cover. The fresh water vaporizes from streaming rivulets that furrow the muddy road and pour down into the sea. Things are changing, and he and his people are trying to adapt.
Nobody can predict with certainty when the Arctic sea ice will be gone, but scientists agree that we are on a precarious downward slope. Professor Jason Box, a glaciologist with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland declares that “the loss of nearly all Arctic sea ice in late summer is inevitable.”
I feel compelled to document this rapidly changing landscape both above, below and within the ice. During my “Arctic on the Edge” project, I will be following the journey of ice from glacier calving grounds in Greenland, across Baffin Bay and down the coasts of Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland, where large bergs finally melt into the ocean. I’ll be sharing stories of shifting baselines, transforming geography and societal impacts of our warming world.
Camping on the sea ice at a place the Inuit call Kuururjuat, I recognize I may be one of the last people to have this opportunity. In just a few days, the ice is breaking up into increasingly large leads. The hard surface transforms into melting pools of turquoise blue, and the floe edge creeps ever closer. What will happen to the traditional hunt that unites families in their most treasured time together? What will happen to the polar bear, ring seals, narwhals and eider ducks? When I ask Sheatie Tagak about the melting ice, he laments, “it is happening, and we can’t stop it.”
Top: Inuit guide Kevin Enook pulls the kamootik over Eclipse Sound. Lower: Lawren Harris painting of the same region of Eclipse Sound and Bylot Island.
My flight from Ottawa included stops in Iqaluit, Hall Beach, Igloolik and finally Pond Inlet. Each small community stop provides an opportunity for families and friends to reconnect. Despite the great distances and difficult terrain, everyone in the Arctic is connected with each other and with the landscape. Our plane drops into Hall Beach and applause and cheering erupts in the small cabin. One woman yells, “there is my house! There is my house! Can you see my house?” She is truly excited when two quads roll in to the airport piled high with aunties, young men, and women wearing amautis. Tiny eyes poke out form the dark corners of a hood and soon a small baby crawls around the young woman’s neck emerging onto her shoulder and reaching towards the passenger from the plane. They nuzzle a familial greeting filled with with joy then hug and giggle with gratitude for a brief reconnection. Thirty minutes later we are called back to the plane after cargo has been swapped and fuel has been loaded. Some people would call these stops an inconvenience, but I can think of nothing better than being a part of these brief reunions.
Many thanks to Canadian North Airlines for their assistance and transportation support. I’ll never forget the warm cookies and great flight services!
South Shore Bylot Island
In 1931, Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris painted a series of canvases of an Arctic landscape that captivated my imagination since my childhood. I will now have the privilege of visiting the very spot on the South shore of Bylot Island where he coaxed his oils into masterpieces that have netted as much as $2.43 million dollars. The Group of Seven is undoubtedly one of the most influential art movements in Canadian history. They captured the Canadian landscape in a way that nobody had done before. Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945), Lawren Harris (1885–1970), A. Y. Jackson (1882–1974), Frank Johnston (1888–1949), Arthur Lismer (1885–1969), J. E. H. MacDonald (1873–1932), and Frederick Varley (1881–1969) showed us the country’s landscape in a raw and colorful beauty that defined our perceptions of the wilderness. I have longed to visit the places where Harris brought the Arctic landscape alive with color. Now I have my opportunity.
Have you ever wondered what our world would look like without ice?
The video assembled by Business Insider is based on the 2013 National Geographic story, “What the World Would Look Like if All the Ice Melted.” It shows a model that represents a sea level rise of 216 feet.
It is a journey just to begin an expedition and it requires the help of a lot of people. Staging equipment can be monumental in and of itself. In order to conduct diving activities in Southeast Bylot Island, Nunavut, a lot of logistics came together. Arctic Kingdom has already staged a camp on the edge of the ice floe. They have also shipped a compressor and tanks to the camp and all the equipment we will need for support from food to shelter. Canadian North and Nunavut Tourism have sponsored an airline ticket to reach Pond Inlet. I am extremely grateful for their generous assistance. Here is what the journey looks like so far:
2451 km – High Springs, Florida to Fergus, Ontario – Driving camera and scuba equipment
541 km – Fergus to Ottawa, Ontario – Driving to meet first flight
2100 km – Ottawa, Ontario to Iqaluit, Nunavut – Flight leg one
796 km – Iqaluit to Hall Beach, Nunavut – Flight leg two
71 km – Hall Beach to Igloolik, Nunavut – Flight leg three
395 km – Igloolik to Pond Inlet – Flight leg four
70 km – Pond Inlet to Southeast Bylot Island – Qamutik traditional sled to ice edge
Total distance traveled: 6424 km
For someone who usually travels underground, that is almost exactly the distance to the center of the earth!
The extent of the cover of sea ice at both poles keeps reaching new records. According to NASA, the Arctic sea ice reached a record low wintertime extent on March 7, 2017. It was the same situation on the other side of the world when Antarctic sea ice levels were documented to reach its lowest extent recorded since satellites began to measure these parameters in 1979. What is even more troubling is that what remains is even thinner than before. Sea ice plays many roles in the health of our planet. When sea ice melts, nutrients are released into the water stimulating the growth of phytoplankton in the summer. These microorganisms play a role as the base of the food web upon which everything else must feed. When too much sea ice melts and disappears, we lose a large white reflective base that would usually send light back into space. With larger expanses of dark open water, more heat is absorbed and the overall temperature of the planet increases.
A Place of Great Change
The Arctic is transforming more rapidly than anywhere else on our planet. Temperatures there are rising at twice the rate seen elsewhere. Many scientists agree that the Arctic could soon be ice-free. Extreme changes are in motion for the people of the North. Permafrost melting, sea level rise, erosion and an increase in stormy weather pose risks for a society that has lived in balance with nature. With the Arctic food web shifting from loss of sea ice, traditional hunts are disrupted, and the tenuous balance of food security is lost.
With the Arctic becoming more navigable and accessible, resource speculation is on the rise. Oil and gas and shipping industries are jockeying into position to snag new routes and drilling rights in the open water. These activities will indelibly change the complexion of the Arctic and bring new risks to an otherwise pristine sanctuary.