Losing the Cool

For the people of the Arctic, climate change is more than a scientific finding — it’s a new, and unwelcome, way of life.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

As a snow squall blows in from greenland, a crowd huddles inside the Iqaluit Municipal Arena while the skaters wait for the puck to drop. It’s the start of the annual Baffin Island hockey tournament and Iqaluit, the capital of Canada’s self-governed Inuit province, Nunavut, faces off against Pond Inlet, a remote settlement 800 miles to the north. Skates flashing, teenage boys scramble up and down the ice, hoping to prove themselves in front of the capital city fans.

Hockey is the premier team sport in Nunavut, a place where both dogsleds and desktop computers are common household items. Communities that once met on the pack ice during hunting forays now await the passing of the Zamboni together, bundled up in fur-fringed parkas and kamiks. Iqaluit boasts one of the province’s two artificial ice surfaces; everyone else plays the old-fashioned way, on outdoor rinks that usually freeze solid by the time the season begins in November.

But the last several winters have brought a crisis for Nunavut hockey. Temperatures across the territory have hovered near or above freezing long into the Arctic winter, keeping many teams benched until Christmas. Two years ago, the provincial hockey association called for help from Canada’s hockey authorities because 50 percent of its members had yet to start playing and paying their dues. Even villages well north of the Arctic Circle couldn’t cobble together enough ice time to field a team. And with temperatures once again reaching record highs across the continent’s northern regions, this winter has proved to be another troublesome season.

The slushy ice and erratic weather that have been frustrating Nunavut’s hockey players are part of a larger set of climatic trends that are playing out throughout the Arctic. Sea ice — the frozen ocean surface that human and animal hunters traverse in search of their prey — is more mobile and fragile than it was a decade ago. Disoriented polar bears wander inland at times when they would normally be prowling the floes for seal. Skies are cloudier, rain falls more often, and locals report the arrival of species never seen before, such as robins.

Only a few weeks before my visit to Nunavut early last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change unveiled its latest evaluation of climate science around the world. The panel’s report echoed and amplified the commission’s previous warnings: The global warming trend measured throughout the 1990s had accelerated far past earlier estimates. On average, the scientists predicted, the planet could see a rise in average temperatures of 11 degrees by 2100, an increase “without precedent during the last 10,000 years.” An even more dramatic warm-up, two to three times as fast, was forecast for Greenland, Alaska, and Arctic Canada.

The warming has already begun. Over the past 30 years, winter temperatures in parts of the north have risen more than 10 degrees, compared to a worldwide increase of just 1 degree. The volume of ice in the polar cap has decreased 40 percent since American submarines first took measurements in 1958. Some researchers predict that if greenhouse-gas emissions continue unabated, summer ice over the North Pole could disappear by 2050 — a catastrophic melt that, under one long-term scenario, could raise oceans by up to 21 feet worldwide.

The U.N. panel’s findings barely made the news in the United States, where the Bush administration was preparing to withdraw from worldwide climate-change negotiations. But in Nunavut, the report confirmed what hunters, hockey players, and traditional elders already knew all too well. For the people of the Arctic have been the first among us to learn what it means to live in a greenhouse world.

As pond inlet sets up to play Cape Dorset, I wander out into Iqaluit’s late-winter twilight. It’s minus 35, and global warming feels like a distant rumor. Caribou-skin-clad hunters roar down the streets on snowmobiles while taxis and pickup trucks line up at the town’s main intersection. Polar-bear hides are stretched outside near a Pizza Hut outlet.

Around the corner from the hockey arena is the one-room hut of Iqaluit’s Hunters and Trappers Association. In a space crowded with caribou tags, a Coleman stove, and a computer, association manager David Audlakiak is busy tracking this season’s polar-bear kills. Only nine kills have been logged since the season opened. It’s been a slow start, mostly because nearby Frobisher Bay froze six weeks late this fall.

“Weather for hunters has a lot to do with how much they can harvest,” explains Audlakiak. “For my family, it takes longer to get fresh seal in the bay. We cannot have seal unless the ice can support our weight.” In the past, hunters could trust the ice by late October, but this season they did not go out until December — a delay that cost many families a key part of their winter income.

The changes come at a bad time for communities where hunting is a matter of survival. Only 40 years ago, many Arctic towns relied on seal and other animals for most of their basic needs. But a housing crunch, rising food and gas prices, and a slumping fur market have forced a growing number of hunters to turn to Canada’s form of welfare. Problems familiar to other native communities, like alcoholism and diabetes, are all on the rise in Nunavut. “The hunter just here was homeless,” Audlakiak confides during a lull in the stream of visitors to his office. “Our families have limited supplies to share, only hot coffee and bannock sometimes. We feel like we are unwanted children.”

Now, elders warn, climate change and other environmental problems pose the most serious threat yet to Inuit tradition. “This is a matter of health and cultural heritage,” says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of Canada’s Inuit Circumpolar Conference. “It’s not just about store-bought food. It’s about losing the hunting and the connection to the land — and the incredible learning and teaching that the land offers.”

When we spoke last spring, Watt-Cloutier had just returned from South Africa, where she had helped engineer the Stockholm Convention — an international agreement to eliminate emissions of dioxins, pcbs, and 10 other toxic compounds that have been drifting to the Arctic from the industrial regions of Europe and North America. “The climate-change issue will be a lot more challenging for us,” Watt-Cloutier admitted, “because it’s big-time industry. How much will they be willing to give up in terms of money and control?”

the high arctic settlement of Resolute Bay speeds past as Hans Aronsen sleds me out onto the ice of the Northwest Passage. It’s minus 45, with a wind chill of minus 91, and Aronsen, a local polar-bear guide, guns the snowmobile into the gale. At 2 p.m. the sun has already disappeared, leaving a glorious trail of pink, orange, and red.

I’ve flown 1,000 miles north from Iqaluit to this town on Cornwallis Island, where 180 people support themselves by hunting and catering to adventure travelers. This is the gateway to Canada’s high Arctic islands, a largely uninhabited land of glaciers and mountains, musk oxen and polar bears.

Out on the ice, Aronsen surveys the scene. The sheltered bay is a smooth, snow-covered plain; beyond it lies a jumbled maze of rough first-year ice. In the past, large parts of the passage never thawed, and the multi-year ice provided a surface free of shelves, fissures, and pileups. Now, it is an obstacle course that only polar bears seem to appreciate. “Bears use the bad ice to hunt, but we get caught up in it,” Aronsen explains. What’s more, spring thaws have come early in recent years, leaving hunters too little time to work the wildlife-rich floes. “For the last three seasons when the ice breaks, it disappears and stays gone,” he says.

According to Canada’s environmental agency, Resolute Bay has seen a series of mini-heat waves in the last several years, with temperatures as much as 32 degrees above normal. In 1998, the warmest year on record worldwide, stretches of pack ice 10 feet thick disappeared in a single season. “Ice that has remained in place for the last 20 years melted and was flushed out,” reports Thomas Agnew, a climatologist at the agency. “This was some of the oldest in the Arctic basin.”

A few days before my trek with Aronsen, Wayne Davidson, the government weather officer for Resolute Bay, showed me satellite pictures documenting a series of “rolling fis-sures,” large waves of fractured ice, breaking along the Arctic Ocean. The phenomenon, known to the Inuit as pitunirk, has been around for eons, but the frozen waves are getting more frequent. “The warmer it is, the crazier the ice goes,” Davidson says. “A few explorers got caught in this in 1999. They said it was like a continual explosion — huge, booming waves of energy. The whole thing is moving.”

Aronsen stops the sled next to a circle of stakes and leather harnesses scattered about the ice. Piles of fur are curled up beneath the snow; as we approach, the dogs awaken and begin to howl. It’s not just to impress American big-game hunters that Aronsen has recently returned to using an old-fashioned dogsled. “A komatik is safer on thinning ice,” he says.

Back in town his wife, Zipporah Kalluk Aronsen, explains that the shifting weather has scrambled traditional navigation and weather-forecasting systems. Like most Inuit, her family paid close attention to ice, clouds, and temperature. Every hunter was a meteorologist. “Today many can’t understand what’s happening,” she says. “They could once tell the weather, but not anymore.”

The uncertainty has elders concerned. “I feel that the earth has shifted,” says Kalluk Aronsen’s brother, David Ooingoot Kalluk, who has hunted the Northwest Passage for more than 40 years. As Ooingoot Kalluk recounts the changes of the past decade, his Inuktitut translated by his daughter Tracy, it becomes clear that his native landscape isn’t just getting warmer — it’s becoming strange, unfamiliar territory. “It’s brighter now than it was before,” he says. “And during the summer for the past six years, there are no low or high tides for three days. The water wasn’t doing anything. Currents are frozen.”

At the weather station, Davidson says meteorologists can confirm, but not explain, the reports of experienced hunters like Ooingoot Kalluk. By his own observation, winter days are lasting about 45 minutes longer than computer projections indicate they should; recent increases in temperature, he speculates, may cause changes in light refraction in the atmosphere. Other phenomena such as stronger pitunirk and shifting currents might be caused by the massive amounts of broken ice that have been flushing south each summer, piling up hundreds of feet thick and wreaking havoc with tides. Each year since 1998, the Canadian Ice Service has watched the breakup creep further north; by 2001 the melting reached all the way to Nansen Sound, Canada’s most northerly ocean passage.

Several days later, I travel another 400 miles north into the 24-hour darkness of Ellesmere Island, where a posse of scientists sits atop a mountain and studies the stratosphere for clues to ozone depletion and climate change. Here at Environment Canada’s Eureka weather station, instruments have recorded many of the climate-change symptoms listed in the U.N. reports — rising temperatures, stronger winds, more moisture in the air.

For the researchers who make their home on this patch of ice and rock, those data are more than markings on a chart. Their high-tech Astrolab was built to take advantage of reliably clear skies in a “polar desert” that receives less precipitation than parts of the Sahara. But in recent years, cloud cover and snowstorms have increasingly interfered with observation. And in the summer, staffers are warned about mud slides: Unprecedented permafrost melts have caused 30-foot blocks of frozen earth to liquefy over the course of a few seasons.

A growing number of scientists see the Arctic as a kind of global thermostat, the source of much of the Northern Hemisphere’s weather — and many worry that the region’s rapid warming could flip a climatic switch, to disastrous effect. “The consequences of such a change defy prediction,” Columbia University climate scientist Wallace Broecker has noted. “By adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, we are poking an angry beast.”

Already, the Astrolab’s instruments have detected some signs of a meteorological chain reaction. One of the lab’s principal objects of study is the polar vortex, a permanent cyclone approximately the size of Africa that hovers 20 to 30 miles above the polar cap. The vortex has grown stronger in recent years, and so have the polar winds it spins off; those winds, in turn, pick up moisture from the thawing Arctic Ocean and transport it southward. This is how many Europeans and North Americans experience “global warming.”

Complicated weather systems like the polar vortex make it hard to say how climate change will continue to play out, in the Arctic or elsewhere — a conundrum that frustrates researchers like Astrolab manager Vivek Voora. “So climate change isn’t 100 percent certain,” he says. “Why isn’t 90 or 95 percent good enough? It’s like the tobacco issue: We’ve debated it for ages. We just need to do something about it.”

For some of the Arctic’s longtime inhabitants, it may already be too late. Back in Resolute Bay, David Ooingoot Kalluk reminisces about a place, about a hundred miles to the east, where he’s been going to hunt walrus. He has known about the spot as long as he can remember; his parents told him about it when he was growing up in distant Pond Inlet. But walrus require stable pack ice to reproduce, and they are growing scarce throughout the region. “There used to be hundreds before — we only catch 10 or less now,” he says quietly. “Somehow they have disappeared.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.