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?
In 2016, I embarked on the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Expedition of the Year: The Hidden Geography of Newfoundland. This project documented little-known history when the Battle of the Atlantic arrived on North American shores. On two separate raids, U-boats sunk four vessels in Newfoundland waters and destroyed a loading pier for the strategic Bell Island iron ore mine. Recently, I received first-hand confirmation regarding rumors surrounding the involvement of a spy in the sinking of the vessels Saganaga and Lord Strathcona.
Newfoundland resident Lloyd Walker reached out to me to describe an encounter he had as a young boy while playing in the woods at Topsail Beach. While playing with his friends, the group of boys discovered a small clearing in the woods filled with things they could only imagine from comic books. A lean-to and fire pit were constructed in a glade littered with discarded tin cans. Lengthy wires draped from tree to tree and connected to a radio perched on a shelf. As they approached the equipment, a stranger in a dark turtleneck sweater and a dog chased them through the woods. Pursued beyond the woods and into a field, the man threw rocks striking one boy on the ankle. Finally reaching a road, the terrified children were picked up by a car and taken to report their experience to the Canadian Army field station in Topsail Beach. At that moment, nobody knew that the SS Saganaga and Lord Strathcona had just been sunk by torpedos fired from the U-boat 513 captained by Rolf Ruggeberg and that 29 men had lost their lives in the attack. The following day, the boys were interviewed again, and a strange man was picked up on Black Head Road.
Today the wrecks still reveal new clues about the past, but I have much happier memories than Lloyd Walker, who still bristles at the sight of a big black dog. As I perch my camera to take a shot of the location where a torpedo ripped open the hull of the PLM 27, I marvel at the delicate beauty of the sea anemones. A bouquet adorns the scar, beautifying the very spot where the ocean poured into the hull. We cannot forget the sacrifice that so many made during WWII. Soldiers, sailors, rescuers, and families still carry the weight of the fall of 1942, when Bell Island Newfoundland lost its innocence.
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!
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!
With the support of the Weston Foundation, Jill Heinerth visited Bairdmore School in Winnipeg to talk about exploration and science. Jill is on a cross-Canada speaking tour as the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Explorer in Residence. She shares a multimedia presentation about science and new career opportunities and works with small groups of kids on specific skills such as photography, career planning and research opportunities. Jill encourages kids to use discovery learning in their lives and teaches them that failure can have many unforeseen benefits for discovery and learning. She talks about risk assessment, fear, discovery and exploration in the context of geographic education.
The Weston Foundation in cooperation with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society is sending Jill Heinerth to schools across Canada. This week, the RCGS Explorer in Residence visited with kids in Saskatoon at Fairhaven School and Holliston Schools to talk about exploration, geography and future career opportunities. Kids were totally engaged in the presentation and were eager to ask questions about fear, underwater science and challenging gender norms. A small group of kids got a special treat, learning how to operate Jill’s professional cameras and spending the day as photo-journalists.
National Geographic Photo Editor Sadie Quarrier recently recognized 9 remarkable women for their skills as adventure photographers.
For female adventure photographers, it can also be a challenge to break into this male-dominated niche.”