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magazine / oct08

October 2008 issue


Cold warriors (Page 1 of 6)
Fifty years ago, Inuit landed on the southern shore of Ellesmere Island and settled Canada’s northernmost community. Now the changing climate is forcing them to adapt once again.
By Lisa Gregoire, photography by Patrice Halley

Grise Fiord: Cold warriors
Map: Ellesmere Island
Sidebar: The bear facts
Slumping, sinkholes ...
Low-carbon diet
Ellesmere Island Ice Shelves
Reviews & resources

“You lean when I lean,” yells Marty Kuluguktuk over the engine’s shrieking. We’re careening sideways on a snowmobile around boulders and frozen tundra, approaching the foot of a glacier just east of Grise Fiord (pop. 141), Canada’s most northern community. Bare-faced in the cutting May wind, Kuluguktuk knows only two positions on the throttle: full and idle.

The vast landscape Inuit navigated for centuries by reading its subtle signs is becoming warmer, softer and unpredictable because of the changing climate.
On a steep embankment, we lean hard to no effect. The uphill ski lifts, and we teeter on the brink of flipping over. I pry numb fingers from the safety bars and clench his waist like someone drowning. Kuluguktuk accelerates to flat terrain. “I don’t want to die today, Marty,” I yell with unconvincing levity.

He shouts back his trademark reply: “Nothing serious.” Halfway up the glacier’s smooth white tongue, he pulls over to a pair of aluminum poles poking out of the ice and cuts the engine. One of the poles is attached to a white metal box and a solar panel — a remote weather monitor. “This is where we measure the glacier,” says Kuluguktuk, Grise Fiord’s assistant senior administrative officer. “Last year, it shrank 1.5 metres.” We continue northward up the slope, pull a U-turn at the top and head south along a rocky ridge dusted with snow. He points to a hill leading to town. “That was all glacier just 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s gone.”

The glacier is Grise Fiord’s main water supply. Fragmentation is accelerating its retreat into the hills, and last summer, the runoff didn’t fill the reservoir. In spring, when the hamlet ran out of water, officials dispatched a front-end loader to chip off chunks of an iceberg just offshore.

Grise Fiord
Grise Fiord, or Ausuittuq as it’s called in the local language, means “the place that never melts.” (Video: Lisa Gregoire)
A tottering scramble over jutting rocks leads to an inuksuk on the edge of a cliff — a sturdy sentry over Jones Sound and distant Devon Island. Mountains separate Ellesmere’s southern fiords like talons. The air is cool and moist, and the evening’s 24-hour sun glows through a gauzy haze. Directly below us is Grise Fiord, a cluster of dots tangled in a spiderweb of snowmobile trails. Like the 25 other Inuit communities in Nunavut — the two-millionsquare- kilometre territory that covers Canada’s eastern Arctic — Grise Fiord is at the epicentre of global climate change. But it’s not just change that has Inuit families reeling, it’s the pace of change, says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize last year for travelling the world, raising concern about the impact of global warming and pollutants on her people, the Inuit.

In the wink of one generation, nomadic children raised with dog teams in the 1950s wound up in sedentary nine-to-five jobs, many disconnected from the land, their elders and their P. Diddy-and-Facebook offspring. The consequences of this wholesale cultural shift are well documented: violent crime and suicide rates are climbing; life expectancy is falling. Surviving on the land taught Inuit patience, persistence, courage — skills that could ground them, and their children, during this modern tumult. But the vast landscape they navigated for centuries by reading its subtle signs is becoming warmer, softer and unpredictable because of the changing climate. “It’s the very thing we’re going to need as we go into the second wave of change,” says Watt-Cloutier, whose book in progress, The Right to Be Cold, frames the climate-change debate around human rights and indigenous self-determination. “It’s ironic, the very thing we’re reaching out to is under threat.”


Grise Fiord figures
Named by Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup, Grise Fiord means "pig fiord," for the piglike sounds made by walrus that once inhabited the fiord.

Population 141 (2006 Census)

Location Southern Ellesmere Island, 1,544 kilometres from the North Pole and 1,160 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle

Sunlight 24-hour daylight from May to August; 24-hour darkness from October to early February

Extreme temperatures Lowest recorded since 1985 is -47°C (January 1990); highest recorded since 1985 is 14.3°C (July 1999)

Average temperatures -31.4°C (January); 3.5°C (July)
When Inuit arrived on the southern shore of Ellesmere Island some 50 years ago, it was colder and farther north than any of them had ever been. They called it Ausuittuq, “the place that never melts.” “Never” proved to be a very short time.

The creation of Grise Fiord and Resolute, on southern Cornwallis Island, established at the same time, was a social experiment perpetrated on a handful of ill-prepared families from northern Quebec and northern Baffin Island in what many believe was an attempt by the federal government to assert its ownership of the Arctic islands within what it considered its northern boundaries. Most of the relocated Inuit had never experienced 24-hour darkness or seen a muskox before. The first few years were extremely difficult. Some families eventually returned home. Others made a life here despite being tethered to the air supply and government assistance common to almost any remote fly-in community. Those who stayed adapted to a new climate and a new environment and it appears they’ll have to do so again.

Meanwhile, their leaders are lobbying governments at home and abroad. Mary Simon, president of Canada’s Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is urging governments to help her people prepare for the future by selecting an Inuit model community to address building and engineering challenges related to slumping permafrost and to experiment with culturally sensitive design and sustainability. Watt- Cloutier, who was instrumental in helping to push through the 2001 Stockholm Convention banning Persistent Organic Pollutants, which were turning up in the flesh of marine mammals that are a critical part of the Inuit diet, is unflinching before world leaders and international forums. She insists that the time to mitigate global warming has nearly expired. “We can’t stop it entirely,” she says, “but we can maybe slow down the process.”


Online exclusive: Canadian Geographic Photo Club
Join us for an interview with photographer Patrice Halley and get a behind-the-scenes look into a photo shoot for Canadian Geographic.
By Michela Rosano


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Comments on this articleLeave a comment

I've been to Grise Fiord just after a Narwhal slaughter. It was an amazing sight to see the butchered whales seasoning in the open air and the tusks being cleaned by the bacteria in the water. It is a beautiful, tranquil place.

Submitted by SEASIDESUE on Monday, February 7, 2011

What happened to the Beluga trapped in the ice was sad. The video made me feel terrible for these whales who are being killed because they can not get away. I know this was some time back but it is still a sad sight. I lived in the north when this was going on.

Submitted by Lori on Monday, October 6, 2008

Having lived in Grise Fiord the portion of the article "Sunlight 24-hour daylight from May to August 24-hour darkness from October to early February" is not correct. The last sun is seen Nov 3rd and then peeks over the horizon on Feb 11th. Between these dates there is about 10 days of twilight before total darkness sets in.

Submitted by George on Sunday, October 5, 2008

Lisa Gregoire has once again provided your readers with experiences of yet another adventure. She puts you right there along with her. Well done as usual.

Submitted by Paula Wallace on Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Stunning, beautiful photographs!

Submitted by Kelly Vandenberg on Tuesday, September 16, 2008

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