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.
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.
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.
This article in the Daily Beast confirms a simple truth. As we lose large areas of ice cover, the earth changes in dramatic ways. When I wrote the movie Ice Island in 2000, I learned that the ice was so thick over Antarctic that is squeezed the earth into a slight pear shape. The large mass also affects gravity and as we shift mass around the planet by melting ice, there are documentable changes that are happening very quickly. The Daily Beast sums it up well.
Sea ice is declining in the Arctic, but that loss is not directly responsible for rising sea level. Think about a cold drink filled with ice cubes. When the cubes melt, the glass will not overflow. When a glacier or ice sheet on land melts, it directly contributes to more water in the ocean and rising sea level. These photos depict part of the Greenland Ice Sheet where it meets the sea and calves into the ocean. As solid as it looks, it is moving like a river and breaking off into the sea creating icebergs we have seen on our entire journey. I sat on a hilltop in Ilulissat listening to the sound of global climate change… distant cracks and thunderous roars of ice breaking into the sea. It was midnight under a glorious canopy of orange clouds. No photos will ever totally capture this place.
Some people wonder why it matters when the climate changes and sea ice melts. Travel with this family of polar bears as they search for sea ice that is central to their efforts to find food.
This beautiful short from Arctic Bear Productions on the GoPro YouTube channel depicts a family of polar bears on their quest to find a place to rest: sea ice.
While this footage is stunning, its message is quite somber. Eventually, the bears reach land, but do not find ice. There’s a reason for this. Polar bears need sea ice to hunt seals — but, because of climate change, this ice is melting.
This may have drastic consequences for the future of the species, who are currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
“Due to their long generation time and the current greater speed of global warming, it seems unlikely that polar bear will be able to adapt to the current warming trend in the Arctic,” the IUCN explains.
If climatic trends continue, polar bears face a significant population decline this century.