Icebergs, Polar Bears, and a Changing Arctic
This is the third year in a row that Pew, in collaboration with Ducks Unlimited, has sponsored students from Arctic communities to participate in Students on Ice trips. Since the organization began in 2000, more than 2,000 students from at least 50 countries have taken part in the educational expeditions designed to give teenagers a better understanding and respect for the Arctic and to inspire them to protect it.
By David Henry
The iceberg towered on the horizon like a mountain. Four high school students from Canada, the United States, and Norway stood next to me, staring. They could not believe that such a massive piece of ice could break off the Greenland ice sheet. Even after I told them that the Titanic had likely struck an iceberg from this same fjord before sinking in 1912, they had trouble grasping that any chunk of ice could be this big.
It was a teachable moment for the 85 students on the two-week Students on Ice 2013 expedition, an opportunity to be immersed in the Arctic cultures of Canada and Greenland. Trevor Taylor, of Pew's Oceans North Canada, and I were invited to be part of an expedition staff that included scientists and other Arctic experts. Our trip gave us all a firsthand look at the rapid shifts that climate change has introduced as melting ice affects polar bears, walrus, whales, and—most importantly—Inuit culture.
On the day we saw the giant iceberg, the challenge for Trevor and me was to safely navigate our Zodiac boats loaded with students through a field of newly formed icebergs 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The Ilulissat Icefjord is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Created by the fastest-moving glacier on the planet, this fjord is one of the few ocean outlets for the Greenland ice sheet—and a place where climate change can be observed in real time.
With the Arctic warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, this massive glacier is receding rapidly and soon may no longer reach the sea. A few days after our visit, a meteorological station on Greenland's southwestern coast reported a temperature of 78.6 Fahrenheit, the hottest day ever measured in Greenland.
In the Arctic sun, the icebergs glowed with a blue light. Trevor and I resisted the pull of their beauty, which lures one closer, as we wove our boats outside the fjord. These massive chunks of ice appear stable, but 90 percent of an iceberg is underwater. They can suddenly tip or roll. Perhaps, like climate change itself, the concept of an iceberg is too immense to be fully grasped.
Just north of Ilulissat, the weather was unusually calm and sunny when we pulled into Uummannaq, a town of 1,300 built along a different fjord. By happy coincidence, we arrived on the 250th anniversary of the community's founding, and most of the residents were out celebrating. Other visitors also appeared: fin whales spouting in the fjord. Up to 75 feet long and weighing up to 80 tons, this whale is the second-largest animal on the planet.
After four magical days, we left Greenland and started crossing the icy Arctic sea toward Canada. We traveled through Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, waters that would stretch from Maine to Florida if laid on a map of the eastern United States. During the trip, Trevor talked about the region's history, describing the first mysterious ancient Dorset people who used these waters, and how indigenous groups have continued to do so up to today's Inuit cultures.
He talked about the the waves of Viking and European explorers in search of the Northwest Passage, whales, and other riches. Trevor is a former cod fisherman and served as fisheries minister in nearby Newfoundland and Labrador. He was able to bring alive for the students Baffin Bay's 500-year history of exploitation by foreign powers.
Baffin Bay provides an ideal home for populations of bowhead whales, narwhals, fish, seabirds and cold-water coral. Key areas such as Lancaster Sound and the North Water Polynya, an area of open water surrounded by ice, are some of the most biologically productive seas in any polar region. But although Baffin Bay appears uniformly blue on most Arctic maps, bathymetry and currents tell a different story.
The Greenland side features a broad, relatively shallow continental shelf warmed by the Gulf Stream. These currents create upwelling of nutrient-rich waters from the deep water along the shelf break. In contrast, the Canadian side of Baffin Bay is less productive because a colder current from the north flows over its narrower continental shelf. The difference was evident as we cruised into Pangnirtung, an Inuit village on Canada's Baffin Island: The air was colder, fewer fishing boats were anchored, and we spotted our first polar bears and walrus, species that prefer sea ice.
Our journey ended in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut on the southern tip of Baffin Island, where we shared tear-filled goodbyes. As the students and staff flew to homes around the world, I thought about the challenges ahead. The Arctic is warming, and as much as it matters to the polar bears and whales, it matters even more for the people. We saw the stunningly beautiful waters and ice changing before our eyes. But for the Arctic communities we visited, whose culture and food security are based on traditional hunting and fishing, there is more at risk than scenery.