THE BLOG

A Tale of Three Arctics

Down the Greenland Coast

Ice Fjord, Greenland, September 8 -- The silent prayer group that assembled on deck today may have been the most diverse gathering ever seen in Greenland. Led by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Istanbul, the group includes a Sunni Muslim imam from Nottingham, Jim Ball, Executive Director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Lutheran Bishop Sophie Petersen of Greenland, who could at one point be seen handing a young African girl to a Shia cleric from Iran. Additionally, there are Hindus, Buddhists, a rabbi from Paris and another from Israel, and Archbishop Emeritus McCarrick of Washington, DC.

The cemetery at Illulissat seems surprisingly large for a town of its size - the cold Arctic air preserves the wooden crosses, and the flowers are, unsurprisingly, plastic, so they too last and magnify the visual marker of the graveyard. But this March the cemetery grew in a tragic, stunning sign of how global warming and globalization are combining to take human lives. In a village which 20 years ago supported itself hunting marine mammals on the sea ice, fathers taught their sons the skills of the hunt. The sea ice has now vanished and the hunt along with it, so fathers no longer teach their sons. There is new employment in Illulissat - tourism, oil exploration, commercial fishing - but the collapse of the traditional subsistence culture has left despair and hopelessness among the young. This March, in a town of only 5,000 people, 14 teenage boys took their lives.

At the symposium on how global warming impacts Greenland, one speaker -- the Greenlandic poet Aqqaluk Lynge, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council -- challenged those who argued that a warmer climate means longer growing seasons, more mineral exploration opportunities, and greater shipping revenues for Greenland, and that Greenlanders should simply adjust to the new reality. Lynge's lines, it seems to me, can serve as a clarion call for all of us who wrestle with how to balance efforts to adapt with preventative action aimed at limiting global warming as much as we can:

Adaptation will rise to the surface as we continue to battle climate change. It is through the battle that adaptation will play itself out best. As it did in our struggles with our colonizer, with the commercial whalers, and with the oil companies.

MS Fram Sailing South

September 9 -- It has been a long day of religious and scientific discussion on board, framed by the concept of the Arctic as a Mirror of Life. We are reminded that the mirrors of the ancient world were much less faithful than today's, and that the biblical metaphor that we see the world as "through a glass, darkly" reflected that reality. Because the Arctic is often the place where the impacts of industrial activity in the lower latitudes are most strongly felt, it can serve as that kind of mirror now, giving us a view of what is happening globally.

One shocking example: In the spring, when the hole in the ozone layer opens over the Arctic, the ultraviolet light that streams through interacts with atmospheric mercury pollution in the gaseous phase, and catalyzes it into the metallic phase. The mercury then falls to the earth's surface. This process -- a relatively recent discovery -- is so powerful that ten percent of all mercury emissions from the entire globe each year fall to earth in the Arctic in this brief six week period.

MS Fram Approaching Nuuk

September 10 -- Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat leader from Nome, Alaska, is sharing her Arctic experiences with our colloquium. She shows the slides many of us have already seen--of villages and streets in Alaska collapsing as the permafrost melts and the Arctic Ocean's turbulence increases as sea ice retreats. She also makes it clear that in Alaska, as in Illulissat, global warming is already taking a toll in human lives. "The look and feel of the ice is different. Even experienced hunters no longer know how to read the weather and the ice. My friend Mary had hunted and fished safely for years. She knew her land very, very well, and was an exceptionally good hunter. One day she didn't return. We found a snowmobile but not Mary. We know what happened: she fell through the ice on the river, as so many others have.

"Hundred year storms now happen in Nome almost every year. Global warming is destroying the climate system on which the Arctic peoples depend and which supports their lives." Mary, like the other Inuit here, is clear about one thing. "We will not be victims. We were here before all these other peoples, and we will be here when they are gone. I know I can survive in any environment, because I listen to the land."

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