• Residents of Grise Fiord (from left), Kevin Kiguktak, Gerry Pijamini, Ooleesee Akeeagok, Daniel Flaherty and Peter Flaherty, cavort on the frozen shores of Jones Sound. (Photo: Patrice Halley)

“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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Viewed from a Twin Otter about 2,000 metres above-ground, the Arctic’s puzzle-piece geography becomes real and identifiable: the retreating shores of Cornwallis Island, Wellington Channel — windswept and textured like fur — bumpy Devon Island. Canada’s third largest island, Ellesmere is the most northern of the Arctic Archipelago and its most mountainous, though 40 percent of it is pinned under shrinking cloaks of ice, some of them 900-metre-thick remnants of the last ice age.

Clouds obscure the aerial view. We hunch against the aircraft’s chilled interior until a wall of rock suddenly, and alarmingly, materializes out of the mist. The plane banks 90 degrees west, drops onto the runway and halts on half a kilometre of gravel. With eight passengers and luggage on board, there was scant room for food and supplies for the community’s only store, a common misfortune with just two scheduled flights weekly. The town went smoke-free for a couple of days this summer when the store ran out of $20 packs of cigarettes. “Do you know what we got today?” asks the exasperated store manager, Doug Field. “Coffee whitener. Two boxes of coffee whitener.”

Unlike Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, with its cappuccino and racquetball, Grise Fiord, the territory’s second smallest community, is traditional and family-oriented. There are about 40 dwellings and another 20 public and commercial buildings. No housing shortage here; no food bank. Women make parkas for their bachelor brothers, and everyone hunts or knows someone who does. Many rely on seal, beluga, narwhal, muskox, ptarmigan, Arctic char, hare, caribou and polar bear for food and skins. But subsistence hunting, even here in the High Arctic, could eventually be threatened as animals react to a fluctuating ecosystem. Thanks to our addiction to fossil fuels, even southern Ellesmere has an earlier spring, a warmer summer, a later freeze-up and less sea ice for travelling and hunting.

Less ice eventually means more international shipping through the Arctic as well, more resource exploration, a greater risk of environmental contamination — and reduced habitat for the polar bears and seals that eat, mate and reproduce on the ice. But while bureaucrats wring their hands and multinational mining magnates calculate potential profits, while scientists scramble to fill gaps in research that was too expensive to conduct and wasn’t a priority until yesterday and while earnest urbanites ponder what it’s really like in the Arctic, Grise Fiord residents keep fishing and hunting while they can, because that’s what they’ve always done.

Some Grise Fiord hunters, especially in a crowd, shrug and tell you they don’t want your pity. They’ll adapt. Others say differently in private. “Everybody wants to be warm, but the Arctic and Inuit need a cold climate,” says Jeffrey Qaunaq, 30, a father of three and a conservation officer with Nunavut’s Department of Environment. “I don’t try to think about it, but I still worry.” Grise Fiord mayor and schoolteacher Meeka Kiguktak worries too. “If we cannot go out hunting, what are we going to do?” she asks. “What will we eat? It’s hard to empower a community when you are dependent.”

“We were looking for seal holes. My dad was waiting near one. We’d been out for hours. I was driving around, and we were just about to head home but my dad saw something far away. It was a polar bear.” Daniel Flaherty is recounting how, on his fifteenth birthday two days ago, he aimed his father’s rifle and shot a bear. Flaherty’s father, Raymond Mercredi — a Saskatchewan Cree-Chipewyan who’s been here for 30 years — spent hours today marinating wild meat and simmering it in a rich gravy. He has invited half the town to his spacious home to enjoy a feast of polar bear and muskox, spaghetti and hot dogs. Stickyfaced toddlers waddle about, teenage girls muster on the couch in T-shirts and jeans, boys play hand-held video games, and the front door constantly swings open for new arrivals. Flaherty, a grade nine student, looks more rapper than hunter: baggy jeans, hoodie, ball cap, sneakers. Sure he’s proud of con - quer ing the world’s largest land predator, but for dinner, he prefers spaghetti.

There are a little more than a dozen individual polar bear populations in Canada, according to Ian Stirling, one of the world’s leading polar bear researchers. They range from the Beaufort Sea to Davis Strait and from the High Arctic to Hudson Bay. An emeritus scientist with Environment Canada and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, Stirling has studied polar bears, seals and the impacts of climate change for four decades, paying particular attention to the bears’ southern range in western Hudson Bay, where significantly less ice — and therefore less access to seals, their main food source — means bears there are now smaller, less healthy and having fewer cubs.

He started noticing problems in the mid-1990s. “There were some fluctuations within the data,” he says, “but it was a long-term, unidirectional trend, and I began to suspect climate change.” By 1997, the hypothesis became fact. “And all the data we’ve collected in the 10 years since then have been consistent with everything we said back then. Sadly.” The western Hudson Bay population is clearly dwindling. From 1987 to 2004, it has shrunk to 935 from 1,200.

The polar bear is the Arctic’s iconic symbol. Its predicted demise not only put eco-celeb Leonardo DiCaprio’s natty knickers in knot but convinced the U.S. government to label polar bears “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, thereby preventing American sport hunters from dropping $30,000 a shot in northern communities to bring home a hide.

Aside from Stirling’s bears and the Beaufort Sea populations, which are also in decline, it’s unclear how other groups are faring. Research in remote, cold places with sporadic air service is prohibitively expensive. High Arctic hunters report more bears than ever and claim there’s no crisis. Stirling says bears at higher latitudes might be healthier because plenty of sea ice still forms annually, seals can make dens and the bears have a platform from which to hunt. But if you believe the models that project continuous Arctic warming and corresponding sea ice depletion, “then I think things don’t look good,” says Stirling, and that’s troubling for some Inuit with whom he’s worked. “It worries and confuses a lot of them, especially older people. They’re having a hard enough time trying to pass on traditions, and with less opportunity, what are they going to do?”

Canada has lost, on average, three percent of its sea ice every year for the past 30 years — eight percent, if you measure only the summer minimums, according to Christophe Kinnard, a glaciologist with the Geological Survey of Canada. Not long ago, scientists predicted the Arctic Ocean would be ice-free in summer by 2100. Now it could be 2030 or sooner.

Climate change impacts the sea ice in many complex and interconnected ways, and some conditions compound others. Energy trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases affects wind formation and direction, explains Kinnard, and wind impacts ocean currents. More warm water from the Atlantic Ocean is migrating to the Arctic, for example, eroding ice from below, while warmer air thins it from above. Wind and currents crack it and move it around, creating open water, which absorbs more heat from the sun than does ice — accelerating the melt. Sometimes these conditions lead to more abrupt alterations. In 2005, a 66-square-kilometre slab of ice broke off from the Ayles Ice Shelf on the northern coast of Ellesmere, creating a floating ice island slightly larger than Manhattan. And in July, a four-square-kilometre chunk split from the neighbouring Ward Hunt Ice Shelf.

“The loss of sea ice is stunning,” says Kinnard. “When I looked at the maps of the Arctic Ocean from summer 2007, I remember feeling scared. Maybe scared is not the right word. Impressed.” Last year was the northern hemisphere’s warmest year since record-keeping began in 1880. Arctic Ocean ice was 39 percent smaller in 2007 than the previous 20-year average. “You see these data,” he says, “and always, as a scientist, you have to think, is this real? Is it possible that it’s something else?

But when it’s so fast and so big, it looks like a clear sign to me.” There are other signs. In the planet’s geological continuum, we’re in the middle of an interglacial period, and according to the Earth’s orbital and rotational elements, which are cyclical, we should be cooling toward its next ice age in 3,000 to 5,000 years. But it’s getting warmer, instead.

Ricky Keyoota Pijamini, 11, is climbing boulders, guiding me to a mountain called the Greenlander, just west of Grise Fiord. Sunday morning brings more sun, a comfortable -8°C but not a soul to life. Everyone’s in bed. Days blur into nights, when the sun shines all the time. People visit and drink tea past midnight, fix snowmobiles at 3 a.m. or leave for hunting because the ice is colder then, harder and faster. And every 24 hours, the sun draws a huge halo in the sky. The opposite is true here from mid-October to early February, when the sun disappears altogether. Pijamini points to rabbit tracks. “I want to be a hunter, to get money for sport hunting,” he says. He’s been practising: 15 seals and one ptarmigan so far. A narwhal is next, he boasts. Yes, he learns about climate change in school. Is he worried? “No way! It means longer summers and more fishing.”

The mountain seemed closer from town. Halfway there, we rest on a lichen-spotted rock. The snow provides unlimited amusement. Pijamini makes brittle, powdery snowballs with forceful palms and throws them at rocks and at me. After a break and peanut butter sandwiches, we embark. Soon, we are sweaty from exertion. He unzips his parka and lies, face down in the snow. “I want to feel the cold,” he says. “Ahh, that’s better.” About halfway up the slope, our conviction wavers. We look downhill at smooth white chutes between rocks, and within seconds, we’re riding the snow-pant luge to the bottom.

“The ice is so unpredictable now. People are worried about it, but what can we do?” says Pijamini’s grandmother Peepeelee Pijamini, a teacher. “It’s saddening to see the way our hunting and camping are all changing.” She pours tea while her husband, artist Looty Pijamini, works on a $5,000 sculpture of Sedna, mermaid goddess of the sea, being pulled by a beluga whale. “It’s kind of scary to go to Devon Island to go fishing and come back to find large cracks where there are strong currents,” she says. “It’s way different than before.” She has noticed other things too, like more cumulus clouds, the kind Inuit associate with southern parts of the country. Traditional camping trips in June are abbreviated. People return early for fear of being trapped by open water. Seals moult at different times now, she adds, and their skin is thinner.

For years, scientists have come North with cameras, radio collars, ice-core samplers, freeze-dried food. They spend weeks in remote locations and gather valuable data that help them, and us, understand our modulating North. But many Inuit don’t have access to that research. Most of their knowledge of global warming comes from personal observation or mainstream-media reports that can be oversimplified and sometimes inaccurate.

So they turn to what they know. When hunters leave town, they conduct their own informal research, comparing current and past experiences fishing, hunting, camping. Five years ago, in an ongoing commitment to document traditional knowledge, Nunavut’s Department of Sustainable Development released a series of reports called “Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit of Climate Change in Nunavut,” based on existing data and contemporary interviews with elders and hunters. Grise Fiord participants noted many abnormal things, but in some observations, there was a general consensus: shrinking glaciers, warmer temperatures, unpredictable winds, earlier ice breakup, later freeze-up, more rain, less snow and more mosquitoes.

These observations are consistent with what scientists have noticed as well. In May, the federal government published “From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate 2007.” Compiling a decade’s worth of research into one book, with contributions from 18 lead authors and dozens of other sources, it details the most critical climatic issues facing each region in the country.

The first and longest chapter is on the North. Authors highlight four key findings: changes to the cryosphere (snow, ice, permafrost) have important implications for infrastructure maintenance and design; as the climate changes, the shifting range, distribution and accessibility of flora and fauna will impact human populations; increased Arctic navigability will bring economic opportunities but also challenges associated with culture, security and the environment. The fourth finding speaks directly to many Grise Fiord residents: “Young and elderly aboriginal residents, in particular those pursuing aspects of traditional and subsistence-based ways of life in more remote communities, are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in the North. An erosion of their adaptive capacity via the social, cultural, political and economic changes taking place in many communities today will further challenge their abilities to adapt to changing environmental conditions.” Enhanced economic opportunities might mitigate those challenges, it adds, but the net impact is “difficult to predict.”

Combined with Nunavut’s traditional-knowledge study, these two reports sound an unequivocal warning: how we live and do business could destroy a culture. And that, says Watt-Cloutier, makes climate change an issue of human rights: the right to live connected to the land when most of the Earth’s peoples have, at their own peril, forgotten how; and the right to be cold. “Our culture is not trivial. It’s not window dressing. It’s not legends and folklore,” she says. “It’s based on wisdom and sustainability. It’s our life.”

It’s almost midnight. We’re standing on a smooth patch of new sea ice near Coburg Island, a 2½-hour snowmobile ride east of Grise Fiord and a kilometre or so from the open waters of Baffin Bay. The Lady Ann Strait polynya (open water surrounded by sea ice) has almost completely frozen over, trapping several dozen beluga whales. Jeffrey Qaunaq, his wife Susie, their three sons and Susie’s father, Aksajuk Ningiuk, have invited a few visitors to witness this rarely seen phenomenon.

The wind hits my face like a slap. Swaddled in down and fur, we huddle like penguins beside a hole two metres long and about 30 centimetres wide, and wait. A white adult beluga breaches, blows spray from a valve on top of its head and inhales deeply before plunging back into the indigo aperture. Suddenly, the portal is a churning mass of grey and white bodies, pushing, bobbing, gasping, diving. This would be thrilling if the whales weren’t in such obvious distress.

But a trapped animal is a hunter’s good fortune, and Qaunaq and his family prepare to harvest. Jesse, 12, aims the Second World War-era Enfield .303 rifle into the water. His father stands to his right, ready to harpoon the wounded prey before it sinks. The elder, Ningiuk, is on Jesse’s left; he’ll choose an animal, and on his mark, Jesse will shoot. Twenty minutes pass. Steadfast and eventually encased in a thin layer of ice from the whales’ spray, they are statues in a timeless diorama. Finally, the elder yells, the boy fires, and the father plunges the harpoon into the whale’s rear flank.

Ningiuk has seen belugas trapped like this before. But it’s nearly spring, he explains, cracks will soon appear in the ice and the whales should survive. Belugas have copious blubber reserves and the ability to store oxygen in muscles as well as in blood, and can live for months under ice. They bust open air holes with their backs, dive more than 500 metres and feed on cod. Some of these belugas may die. Some may be hunted. But they are patient, tenacious, communal and adaptable, and despite Mother Nature’s trickery, many will live and thrive. They are like the Inuit, who face a similar trickery and the same promising odds.

In one generation, Inuit were swept up by both a social and an economic revolution. In one more, they will undergo an environmental one. “I think Inuit are realizing there’s not a lot they can do to make the changes needed,” says Mary Simon, “and the world community is not addressing these issues.” Nor is Canada.

Watt-Cloutier worries mostly about those responsible for maintaining infrastructure such as community sewage lagoons, water reservoirs, public buildings and mine tailings ponds, all of which could be undermined by melting permafrost. “Our hunters will likely fare better than our institutions,” she says. “They will be challenged, of course. There are more accidents on the ice now, and people are losing their lives and their machines. But they are ingenious, and they are definitely adapting.”

In a time of worrying ambiguity, this, at least, is true. I visit Ningiuk after our trip to the polynya. With the aid of an interpreter, he gives me his observations of the sky, the ice and the wind. Amid his tidy collection of teacups and family photos is a narwhal tusk, a harpoon and a laptop computer. When I ask about the laptop, he smiles proudly. The internet offers quick access to current weather conditions and detailed images of the floe edge and shifting sea ice, he says. Oh, and MSN Messenger is a great way to stay in touch with friends.