Monday, 19 November 2012

Into the kingdom of the ice bear


It’s twenty below in wakening Churchill and the light from the low sun has replaced the snow-laden grey sky, adding sparkle to the taiga landscape. The flat white wilderness in the few miles between the airfield and the ice-covered shore of Hudson’s Bay is penetrated by knee-high patches of willow and dotted with ‘flag trees’, stunted conifers with branches that the icy gales only allow to grow towards the south-east except for their bushy undergrowth that is hidden beneath the snow. It’s too dangerous to go far on foot here so our little group is ushered onto a ‘tundra buggy’ with four big tractor wheels, a cabin and an observation deck. We are in the ‘kingdom of the ice bear’ where hungry polar bears have gathered near the shore, waiting for the ice to be thick enough for them to begin their seal hunt in a few days from now. We were almost too late, but a storm surge dumped a lot of water onto the ice a few days ago and the normally unsociable bears returned to their sparring matches in the willows.

I didn’t come up here to see polar bears - this is a bonus – I have been in Winnipeg attending the annual rectors’ meeting of the University of the Arctic, a consortium of nearly 200 universities and colleges operating in the circumpolar region. The UoA has been operating for over a decade now and has coordinated distance learning modules in Circumpolar Studies which are attracting good numbers of students and it has established 25 thematic networks. It is beginning a new planning cycle and this provides a good opportunity to shape its future on the basis of improving experience and knowledge. The University of the Highlands and Islands is the only UK partner and its Principal and Vice Chancellor, James Fraser, has asked me to represent him. Over the past few days, I have had the opportunity to meet up with colleagues from Scandinavia, Canada, the USA, Greenland and Russia and to exchange ideas and learn more about Arctic issues from people who are key to shaping its future social reality. My visit to Churchill has helped to put this in perspective as I will explain later.

There is no doubt that Arctic social-ecological systems are undergoing unprecedented change. Speaker after speaker told of the threats and opportunities posed by rapid climate change, the surge in mining, the development of new shipping routes, fishing grounds and increased tourism.  The circumpolar Arctic region covers somewhere between 15 and 20% of the surface of the earth but has only 4 million inhabitants and this figure would be lower if it wasn’t for some Russian cities. Only 55,000 people live in the whole of Greenland. Furthermore, the more sparsely populated areas have a high proportion of aboriginal people, many of whom are socially disadvantaged from the perspective of our modern globalised society that has imposed its culture without sharing many of its economic opportunities. Modern generations of northerners are beginning to appreciate the rough deal that settlers often gave native peoples through crooked land deals, denial of rights and even forcible removal of their children for ‘re-education’ (the latter resulting in a recent apology from the Canadian premier for example).

Contextual recognition of these social realities is important but our meeting was not intended as a history lesson; there are pressing issues to be dealt with in the short and long term and education is at the heart of the problem … and the solution. Major interest in the region by mining companies is one of them. Mining interest isn’t new of course; remember the gold rush that swept over Alaska and the Yukon, or the mining city of Norilsk in Russia that is the biggest single source of nickel in the world. But recently there has been renewed fervour for mining and transnational companies (including major Chinese interests) are moving in fast. Providing that the scar on the environment can be limited, this could inject some funding into local communities and provide much-needed jobs in places where employment is low and there is a sense of hopelessness in younger people (64% of the population is under 19 in the Canadian north). It could also go very badly.
In some of the mining development areas, there is 60% unemployment but mining companies are bringing in their own workers because of lack of skills in the local population. As one young person explained “one day we were poor and unemployed and suddenly there were 5000 jobs on the horizon”. The same issue was voiced from Greenland with the Government poised to give the go-ahead to a mine that will be staffed by 5000 Chinese workers; a major social force in a national population of 55,000, desperately trying to assert its identity. The MP for Winnipeg South, Rod Bruinooge, who is from a First Nation family himself, described the low achievement that plagues indigenous communities and the difficulty of getting kids beyond primary education. In the vast territory of Nunavut in Canada’s far North and in the North-West Territories, there are genuine attempts to foster self determination.  Further South in Cree territories and the northern Manitoba township of Flin Flon, an innovative mining academy has been established to fast track students with the target of 30 ready for employment by next spring. There is no time for the slow and bureaucratic process of conventional FE college courses and a transformative ‘quadruple helix’ has been established between Government, educators, industry and communities and incorporating modern teaching technology.

Mining wasn’t the only force of change considered. There is excitement about the opportunities that climate change is providing. Listening to some of the presentations, a mental image was emerging of major shipping routes and offshore oil wells distributing prosperity to new northern ports that were also becoming the home to prosperous fishing fleets. But a sharp sense of realism soon took me out of this dangerous dream. There are sovereignty issues, ice will prevent ports from opening all year, insurance companies will be reluctant to insure vessels for the North-West Passage, and as ice increasingly breaks up, the risk of wind-driven ice jams suddenly occurring may go up and not down, at least for a few years. Sooner or later opening up will happen however and investors are already making medium term bets.

But there are ethical issues that are being ignored in the excitement. I asked the question: “In a world heading towards a cliff edge of dangerous climate change but with governments urging us to help develop safer technology to exploit new Arctic oil supplies ; what do we tell our students?” “A very good point,” the speaker responded; “it has been troubling me for some time now.” And as the northern climate warms up, there will be many unpleasant surprises such as trees and even villages sinking into the ground as the permafrost melts (already happening in Alaska and Russia), a northward movement of diseases like the West Nile Virus (already happening in Canada) and unpredicted switches in meteorological conditions (such as those seen in England this summer). As academics, it is up to us to take the longer view and try to become beacons of light to help our fellow humans avoid the headlong rush from one opportunistic mirage to another.
But back to the reason for me being here. The UHI was the first partner of the University of the Arctic from beyond the big eight circumpolar countries. It is true that Scotland has a little slice of the Arctic marine region defined by the EU but thanks to the Gulf Stream we don’t have the same climate as Churchill or even the plus and minus forty five extremes of hot and cold in Winnipeg at a latitude far south of Scotland.  We do have Arctic interests however, particularly in SAMS and the Mountain Studies Centre in Perth and a lot more to offer in areas of health, language and cultural studies. Beyond these specific interests, it is the model of distributed learning centres in a sparsely populated region that is particularly relevant because UHI has been a pioneer and this is recognised by the entire pan-Arctic consortium.  UHI’s digital learning provides particularly valuable lessons. We too are pursuing the quadruple helix and learning, sometimes painfully, as we do. And we need to learn more from others as they learn from us. So on my return from Canada, I will be discussing ways to increase cooperation and get more from our membership of this extraordinary club. This time around, I was particularly pleased to see Tara Morrison, one of UHI’s mature postgrad students, actively involved in the group of students engaged in their own meeting. Hopefully, she’ll write her own blog (hint).

One of the most important ways to maintain identity and culture is by conserving living languages and the narratives and artistic expression that they hold. There is a great diversity of languages in the Arctic, most under pressure or in decline. It isn’t easy to maintain linguistic diversity; there are around seven variants of the Sami language for example, covering about 70,000 people in Norway, Russia, Sweden and Finland. Intervention to help only one variant could speed the decline of the others so the work of the academic carries huge ethical responsibility. UHI has great linguistic expertise through Sabhal Mòr Ostaig its Gaelic college and it was good to hear from Jelena Porsanger, Director  of the Sami University College, that strong cooperation already exists between the two colleges and that SMO and BBC Alba are highly regarded throughout the circumpolar world.

I haven’t said much about scientific research so far. There is a great sense of urgency in the need to study the rapidly changing Arctic system and to bolster this work by training new scientists. Canada is building a state of the art high Arctic research station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, scheduled to open in 2017 and a new icebreaker will be ready at the same time. Denmark will build a station in northern Greenland at 81°36'N 16°40'W, about 574 miles from the geographic North Pole and a major research partnership has been established between Canada, Greenland and Denmark and this will lead to a series of joint expeditions. Russia is also accelerating its own research and encouraging cooperation with the West. UHI, through SAMS, offers the only UK degree in Marine Science with Arctic Studies, thanks to our partnership with UNIS, the Norwegian University Centre in Svalbard. SAMS’ is also a partner in the Kings Bay Marine Station in Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard. Our expertise ininstrumentation and autonomous vehicles is internationally recognised and we have led many of the major UK expeditions to the Arctic on the research vessel James Clarke Ross in recent years. It is clear however that UK Arctic science is seen as a poor cousin to its neighbours and unless there are game changing investments, we will really be missing the boat and the potential to reap the rewards of being in the leadership of a knowledge-based economy.

As our ‘tundra buggy’ lurches slowly towards the coast, I have the opportunity to gather more viewpoints on the realities of the Canadian north. The first cargo ship to dock in Churchill arrived in 1929 and the port is open for a short 4-5 month season every year, handling about half a million tons of grain exports and fertiliser imports. It has grown very little despite being Canada’s main northern port and is in a rather shabby state. The township of Churchill has less than nine hundred inhabitants and the two hour flight to Winnipeg is extremely expensive (C$1,300 return; more than a transatlantic flight) and this makes the place very isolated. During the seven week ‘polar bear season’ there is an increasing traffic of specialist tourists, so much so that the Government has had to introduce a strict code of practice and limit the ‘tundra buggy’ fleet to 18. I couldn’t help feeling that these large vehicles must have some implications for behaviour of the bears but this is gut feeling without any basis of evidence.  Some bears get overly accustomed to human settlements and are found wandering through Churchill where they are ‘jailed’ and returned to more remote places!

Our buggy comes to a halt near the shore and we step outside into the cold air on its platform to look for bears. It is exciting to spot the first ones sparring in a distant patch of willows and I begin to regret not having one of the big telephoto lens cameras that are appearing around me. The Hudson’s Bay population, one of 19 around the Arctic, numbers around 900 and are thought to have declined by about 20% in the past decade, probably due to poor ice conditions. It is rare to see more than a half dozen in a single day.  From time to time, our guide moves the buggy to new sites and we are lucky to see a total of eight bears. Most of them appear to ignore us as they pad around at a distance or rest in the snow. Finally though, we are approached by a large curious male, scarred from a fight over a female and with blood dripping from its muzzle and claws after a recent kill, maybe a muskrat snack, and perhaps seeing us as potential tinned food. So here is a chance encounter, up front and personal, very close and just above the range of claws and teeth; I didn’t use a zoom for the photo posted at the top...

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