Global Warming Changing Inuit Lands, Lives, Arctic Expedition Shows

Jon Bowermaster
for National Geographic News
May 15, 2007
An arduous expedition to highlight how rising temperatures, melting sea ice, changing wildlife, and other effects of global warming are altering life for the native peoples of the Arctic has finally reached its conclusion.

After 78 days of trekking across sub-Arctic Baffin Island in the Canadian province of Nunavut, veteran polar explorer Will Steger and his team pulled into the town of Iglulik on the afternoon of Friday, May 11 (Nunavut map).

The 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) journey was the first in a series of planned expeditions called Global Warming 101 designed to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change in the polar regions. The expedition was funded in part by National Geographic Society Mission Programs. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

Steger is no stranger to such trips—he traveled unsupported to the North Pole in 1986, across Antarctica in 1989-90, and from Russia to Canada in 1995.

But unlike his previous journeys, this one was less about whiteouts and dogs and more about the remote Inuit population living on the edge of the Arctic. (Related: "Arctic Expedition to Spotlight Warming Impact on Inuit Groups" [February 23, 2007].)

"We really wanted to hear from the people on the front line about how the Arctic is changing," Steger said. "And we did, everywhere we went."

Changing Land

At every stop team members engaged the Inuit in conversation about climate change.

There has been a large increase in animals not previously seen this far north, including robins, finches, and dolphins, the adventurers learned.

And faster-melting ice is causing a decrease in hunting days each year, while igloos, which native hunters prefer to tents when they are on the trail, are much harder to build with less snow and ice.

Three Inuit hunters—Theo Ikummaq, 53, born in an igloo near Iglulik; hunting guide Simon Qamanirq, 53, an internationally known carver; and Lukie Airut, 65 a veteran hunter, dog musher, and Canadian ranger who speaks only Inukitut—also traveled with the team to help point out changes.

Ikummaq, for example, showed how shifting winds were changing the shape of ice formations used as landmarks by generations, making reading the terrain more difficult.

But "we have lived in this region for centuries and we will continue to," he added. "As the climate changes, we will adapt."

The Poles have been two of the regions most affected by climate change. Temperatures there have risen at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and some scientists estimate that large areas of the Arctic will be completely ice-free by the end of the century.

Antarctica and the Arctic are currently the focus on an intense 24-month research program known as International Polar Year. (Related: "Ice Shelf Collapses Reveal New Species, Ecosystem Changes" [February 27, 2007].)

Warm Homecoming

The journey was not an easy one. When the expedition set off during the dark days of late February, wind chills often dropped to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 46 degrees Celsius).

The route led the team across ice caps, frozen rivers, thawing ice, and frigid fjords from Iqualuit to Pangnirtung and Qikirtarjueq (formerly Broughton Island), then along the Clyde River to Iglulik.

U.S. experts John Stetson, Abby Fenton, and Elizabeth Andre helped steer the team. They were joined by mountaineer Ed Viesturs and Sam Branson, the 22-year-old son of British tycoon and adventurer Sir Richard Branson, during the run from Clyde River.

Even the final two weeks, with the weather warming into the teens, proved treacherous.

While sea ice near the edge of land softened, opening up tracts of clear, flat ice for the dogs to sprint over, misadventures included a polar bear strolling into camp and sleds dropping through soft ice into the sea, soaking sleeping bags and parkas.

Still, the open ice allowed the team to quickly cover their last 400 miles (640 kilometers)—including a crossing of the Barnes Ice Cap, a remnant of the Ice Age that is receding like the rest of the ice in the north.

Iglulik turned out all the stops for the returning adventurers. Greeting them upon their arrival at the frozen edge of the ice was the town's entire population of 1,600, along with fire trucks, lights aswirl, and, "kind of jarringly, air raid sirens," Steger said by satellite phone.

The Inuit guides were especially glad to return to their home of Iglulik ("home to the igloo people"), which has been populated for 4,000 years and has long served as the cultural center of Nunavut.

Some familiar faces were present at the homecoming: Richard Branson, who earlier had traveled with the team for a week, and his wife, Joan; Alaska-born singer-songwriter Jewel; former supermodel Cheryl Tiegs; and a feature film crew. (Read an interview with Branson and alpinist Ed Viesturs in National Geographic Adventure magazine.)

(That night Inuit guide Qamanirq almost upstaged Jewel, borrowing the singer's guitar to entertain a community center filled with a hometown crowd.)

So what did the veteran Steger, who has traveled in the high Arctic for 40 years, learn from his Inuit travel partners?

"A lot. About weather and ice and running dogs. And that even as things are changing here, and changing fast, the Inuit are changing too," he said. "Theo, Simon, and Lukie and their experience were quite inspirational to me."

Steger is now headed back home to Minnesota, where for the next six months he'll return to the road to talk about alternative energy, raise awareness of biofuels, and recount his experiences about global warming from the front lines.

"It feels like a really good time to be coming back from the wilderness," Steger said. "There seems to be a lot going on back home on the global warming front, in a good way."

(Jon Bowermaster accompanied the expedition team during part of their journey for an upcoming article to appear in National Geographic Adventure magazine.)

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