3 January 2007: Fairbanks

Seeking the Heart of Arctic Change

Matthew Sturm

The shelter cabin was small but snug.  We arrived at dark and quickly got a fire going in the Yukon stove. By 9 PM, the ice had melted out of our beards and hair, and we had warmed up with a good meal.  It being Glen’s birthday, we decided to relax for the evening. We fired up the computer and put in the DVD “Dr. Strangelove”.  I called my wife on the satellite phone. We were watching the movie when a native family from Ambler arrived on two fast snow machines towing traditional Koyukuk sleds made of spruce with rawhide lashings. They came into the cabin and joined us watching the movie while we made them cocoa. A short time later, they were off into the Arctic night, an aurora blazing over the black spruce trees and frigid snow-covered landscape.

SnowSTAR-2002 traverse from Nome to Barrow



SnowSTAR-2007 is all about change. . .discovering what has changed in the Arctic, what has stayed the same. Here are some thoughts on Arctic Change.

How should we measure change in the Arctic? Is it the reduction in arctic sea ice over the past 50 years, or the increase in the rate of coastal erosion?  Is it the number of kilometers that treeline has moved north, or how many days earlier snow melt now occurs?  Or is change better measured using metrics associated with humans?  For example, it used to take months to get to the Arctic from “civilization”, and once in the Arctic, travel between one location and another took weeks. The method of transport was governed by the timeless cycle of freeze-up and break-up. Now, one can leave New York City in the morning and be out on the sea ice at Barrow that evening. Perhaps change should be measured by magnitude of the alterations that have taken place in the lives of the indigenous people of the Arctic. Less than a hundred years ago virtually all of their food came from the land, their light from seal oil, and their knowledge of life outside the Arctic was very limited. Now they have electric lights in the polar night, while TV, DVDs and the internet bring rap culture and Olympics to them as quickly as these cultural trends arrive in LA or New York City. Or perhaps we should measure change using economic indicators: at one time whale oil and cod were the primary export of the region, while currently black oil, diamonds and ecotourism fuel the arctic economy.

With so many aspects of the Arctic System changing, the real issue is not how to measure change, but how to synthesize multiple measures of change into an integrated assessment that has real meaning and is accessible. It has been our experience that this synthesis has proven most difficult when we have tried to combine measures of the changing arctic climate and ecosystem with measures of change in human systems.  There is a strong tendency to think of the former as “drivers”, and the latter as “responses”, but in fact, human systems respond to many stimuli, and in complex ways. The warming Arctic, with its diminishing sea ice and increasing trees and shrubs, is relatively unimportant when we consider some of the key changes taking place in arctic society. For example, in some communities, alcohol and drug use have had more of an impact than the loss of coastal sea ice for hunting. Similarly, well-paid jobs in construction and the oil industry have allowed arctic residents to purchase faster and more reliable snowmobiles, with a direct impact on how they engage in subsistence hunting.  A good case could made that the march of technology, airplanes, cars, snowmobiles, radios, computers, modern medicine, has changed human life in the arctic more than anything else.

So how should we try to integrate the human and natural aspects of arctic change. It is, of course, essential that changes in the natural system be documented and understood, but when it comes to humans, the perceived change is perhaps more important than the actual change. Events and facts are filtered through human experience and outlook.

For humans, we think the essence of change is bound up in the stories people tell, as well as suggested by stories they have forgotten, or chose not to tell.  If we can place ourselves where we can meet the people of the Arctic, hear their stories, listen to these closely, and compare and combine them with the stories written into the history books, we believe we can come away from such a journey with an inherent sense of what has changed and what has remained timeless. This is a synthesis approach that has a human perspective at its core. It is also a synthesis method that is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the region, but unlike historians (which we are not), we view the history as just the human stories from previous times. The modern and historical stories, when combined, should allow us to assess trajectories of perceived change in the human sphere of the Arctic. We will travel across the North American Arctic listening to the stories of the people who live and work there, sharing with them arctic stories from other places and times, and learning from them how they see and interpret the changing Arctic.




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