Why ArcticEarth?

In 2016, I had the opportunity to film with some friends in the northern part of the oceanic region where I live -the northwest Atlantic. We visited Sermeq Kujalleq (“southern glacier,” in Greenlandic). Throughout the 2000’s, this was one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, a giant moving belt that dumped massive chunks of ice into the sea at a consistent rate of 66-85 feet of glacier per day, sometimes in the form of icebergs that could be a kilometer high! This one glacier drains about 6.5% of the Greenland Ice Sheet. I will always remember the feeling of this flowing and crashing torrent of blocks and chunks, the sucking drain from the great white plain stretching out in front of me and the scientific field station where I stood. Is it possible that global humanity is causing enough warming to thaw and break up this distant icy land? Onsite, within this enormity, the possibility is very difficult to believe. This whiteness was bigger than my eyes alone could see. I felt like my shoulders, arms, torso and legs could also feel its presence. A full body experience, maybe many many bodies. But the answer is an unequivocal and measurable “yes, we have.” The Arctic is warming 3 to 4 times faster than the rest of Earth. Over 8 degrees Fahrenheit between 2007 and 2012. That’s as big and as rapid as the Abrupt Change that happened 11,600 years ago, at the onset of our modern climate. This new reality is alarming and destabilizing for those who live in that neighborhood (more on that below from Natuk Olsen), and also for those within the regional neighborhood, a little further away. “This ice in some form is headed downstream towards Maine,” I remember thinking. Scientists suspect that the fresh meltwater from summer sea ice, and from glaciers like Sermeq Kujalleq, are the reasons that the Gulf of Maine -a gateway to the Arctic- is warming faster than 99% of the global ocean. The sensation and reach of that moment in that place was powerful. Planetary change is manifesting in the Arctic, a New Arctic. “Earth’s first responder,” says climatologist and fellow Mainer Paul Mayewski, “in a warming world.” And that change is coming to a neighborhood near you.

Arctic and Earth are very close indeed.

Among other influences, this moment set me on a track that has led to my team’s filmmaking and conservation focus for the next six years, the expeditionary initiative we are calling ArcticEarth. We launch this spring of 2021. This piece of writing is the first in a series that will feature observations and reports about the changes wrought by climate in this region of the northwest Atlantic, the region that includes my home and stretches north to the Arctic Ocean. The series will also include expedition preparations and updates, plus news from the communities we visit. 

Many talented people and far-sighted organizations are working here, across disciplines. And many are finding ways to address the life-crushing consequences of undesirable change. My team’s filmmaking and the writing in this journal will explore and feature those people and their urgent work, folks like Marty Odlin of Running Tide. His team is working to capture and bury carbon by farming kelp and shellfish protein in the open ocean. Or Andy Pershing and Don Perkins at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, who are tracking heat waves moving through the ocean in the same way that weathermen track them through the atmosphere. Bob Steneck (UMaine) and Doug Rasher (Bigelow) are monitoring invasive species and abrupt habitat shifts. Bo Hoppin, Jenn Page, and Phoebe Jekielek are integrating science and education at the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership, in collaboration with the Attagoyuk Ilisavik School in Nunavut, among many others. In Newfoundland/ Labrador, Max Leboiron is running an anti-colonial science lab, where they have established the field of Discard Studies and are unabashedly advocating for changes in community plastic fishing gear. Greenlander Sara Olsvig is working on the challenges of developing self-governance, in a country with increasing amounts of farmland -and no private property rights! In short, the whole region is full of dynamic and challenging people, with a slew of perspectives. 

My worldview includes the possibility of one planet, thriving. This future can happen. I know because I see manifestations arriving every day. Renewable energy is one, on a roll right now. Within the next ten years, it will likely be providing the largest share of U.S. electricity. Youthful vision is another arrival from the future, building worldwide climate movements holding political and financial leaders accountable. Evidence of possibility is mounting. To make more space for more arrivals, however, we must continue to tend to ourselves in the places we know and care about, seeking those elusively more-perfect-unions, on all scales at once. We must listen and value the experience and leadership of people who live in a landscape, particularly those with thousands of years of presence. The living landscapes and seascapes themselves are essential. How do they work? As the late great Barry Lopez wrote, “Landscape is the culture that contains all human cultures.” As we learn how they work, we then ask “what must we do?” For those seafaring folks like me… “how do we tend to the oceans nearby?” Please bring your questions to the boat, or read this monthly online ArcticEarth Journal.

Pass the Mic – Interview with Natuk Olsen

Natuk Olsen was born in Sisimuit, Greenland. Her parents were teachers. When Natuk was small, the mother moved the family to Qaanaag, the northern-most human town on the planet. They lived there for five years. Today, Natuk studies food ethnography, how the place where one is raised determines food preference and significance. I had the chance to meet and talk with her at the University of Greenland in Nuuk, where she did her PhD work. She also showed me around the waterfront and the National Museum, where she was a formerly a curator.

Tell me about your work; at the intersection of food, identity, and a changing climate. I’m looking at how food is part of our identity and how it is actually a way of deeply experiencing a place, -by consuming food. The first time that you experience socialization is through food. And it happens as early as when you are in the womb. Before birth, you can’t speak the language, you’re not socialized, you don’t know what you take in or what you observe. Newborns are known to be having very bad sight as well. Newborns can smell and they can taste. So in that way their first experience of the culture that they’re born into is through the taste and the smell of it. They say that in the fifth month that you’re in the womb you can actually start to taste the food that your mom has been eating. And a tradition that we have had here in Greenland…when I was born, I got a coccyx bone from a whale to taste it. Same for all newborn girls in west Greenland. For boys, it’s an arm bone of a seal. And I don’t know if it has something to do with boys needing to have strong arms and girls needing to be able to deliver children and let the next generation come alive. But it’s the Greenlandic way of welcoming a child.

What are hunters and fishermen observing here? Are you seeing any connections between climate, food, and people’s lives? Actually, among fishermen and hunters, climate change is seen as an opportunity. An opportunity to be able to sustain a family, an opportunity to earn more money because they can go fishing for a longer time. But then it also means that more and more hunters have become fishermen. The real hunter who sustains his life by going hunting and never fishing, that is much less seen today. Weather is something that you talk a lot about here in Greenland because, as you also notice, it was fantastic weather yesterday. Today it’s raining a lot and there’s a storm coming. It changes a lot. The hunters and the fishermen have been telling me that you can’t actually forecast anything anymore. There was one hunter from Qaanaaq who said that he has nothing to teach his son because he can’t predict anything anymore. It used to be that you could look up to the sky and see signs that forecast the weather for the next few hours or the next day. Now they can’t read it.

A couple weeks ago in Nuuk is it true that it was a very very warm day? Yeah, it was really, really warm. I was walking and I only had a t­-shirt on but I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It was a bit like going to Europe. And for me, personally, it’s a shame. Because one of the things I like, being in Greenland, is that you have this fresh air. It’s a bit cold and you can feel that you can really fill up your lungs and get that cool air. But as it gets warmer, you can’t get that full feeling of your lungs getting really fresh air.

And have there been a lot of days like that? Was that a record day? It was a record day.  It has become this way where it’s very warm or very cold or very stormy…there’s nothing in between anymore. And it’s unstable.

You were talking about the fisherman and hunters who have a preference for it getting warmer…. Some fisherman said the halibut are getting a lot smaller… are they at that point where they realize too much fishing is not a good thing? I think they know they’ve been fishing too much. Since the fishes are getting too small ­­ getting smaller and smaller. But then you see halibuts, they start to get further and further up north. And for example where I grew up, when I was a kid, it was primarily hunters living there. You didn’t see any fisherman. But today, 20 years after, all the hunters have become fisherman. And they go fishing for halibut now.

And why don’t they prefer to eat it? Because it was never in the sea before. But now with the changing climate, the halibut are moving further up north.

More from this conversation with Natuk in a future month!

Discoveries of the Month