"What the hell are they doing?": How Canada's anti-science leaders are wrecking the Arctic

The Arctic's changing faster than we think, says author Ed Struzik, and our neighbor to the north isn't helping

Published February 1, 2015 11:58AM (EST)

   (Reuters/Todd Korol)
(Reuters/Todd Korol)

If you want to know what climate change looks like, turn your gaze north to the Arctic. There, you can see the sea ice beginning to disappear, storms gaining in intensity and entire villages preparing to pack up and leave as the land crumbles beneath their feet.

Within the next 20 years, the Arctic Ocean will see ice-free summers; within the next 30, we'll have lost two-thirds of the world's polar bears. As Edward Struzik explains in "Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge," an engaging new account of a planet transformed, "the end of the Arctic that has existed for all modern time is upon us today."

No pressure.

Struzik, an author and photographer who has spent three decades writing about the Arctic, takes it as a given that the region is changing. He's more concerned with the bigger question of what we can, and should, do about it. While he's all for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, he points out that it's already too late to do much to limit Arctic warming, at least in the short term. Nonetheless, he writes, those vast changes are, to an extent, manageable -- even exploitable -- if we can make the most of scientific knowledge to prepare for the surprises that are certain to come.

Easier said than done, of course. As a Canadian citizen who's seen the impact of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's pro-development, scientist-muzzling government in action, Struzik will be the first to tell you that the quasi-optimistic future he thinks is possible isn't necessarily the one we're headed toward. But the work to be done in the Arctic, he argues, is a global project. Just remember -- what's happening there now is a forerunner of what the rest of the world will be experiencing in due time.

Salon spoke with Struzik about the bad news from Canada, the recent good news from the U.S. and the many things we should be getting started on if we want to do the Arctic right. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the good news. You argue in your book that the Arctic as we know it is coming to an end, or maybe has already ended -- but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in every case.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The history of the Arctic tells us that it’s always been changing. It’s just changing a lot faster now because the climate is warming there twice as fast as any place on Earth. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but it is opening the Arctic to resource development, within reason. It’s opening up opportunities for shipping where there are shortcuts to different destinations. It’s also opening up opportunities for the indigenous people who live there, who have not done well economically in the last 50 years or so. They need something to move forward, and I think it’s not the end of the world -- that if we manage the future Arctic properly, we can derive some pretty good things from it.

That brings us to the bad news, because the way that we’re managing it now doesn’t seem to be putting us on that path, right?

If we continue with the status quo, managing it like it’s the old Arctic, then yes, we are going to see polar bears disappear, caribou disappear. We’re going to see opportunities wasted. The central Arctic Ocean is now ice-free, which could mean that there could be illegal fishing in the central Arctic Ocean, if there are fish there. We just don’t know an awful lot of things about what’s unfolding. The last 10 years have been full of surprises that we just not have been prepared for and I think that we’ve got to learn those lessons.

You write in the book that some scientists working in the Arctic are more worried about its prospects than they let on, or that the science has fully caught up with. Is there something that concerns you the most?

I think the thing that concerns me the most is that when I talk to scientists, privately they tell me that the changes that are coming are going to be lot more drastic than what we see in the scientific literature, because science has to pretty much be 95 percent sure before it gets into a scientific journal. But if you ask most scientists about sea ice retreat, glacier melt, permafrost thawing and what’s going to happen to polar bears and other critters up there, they’ll tell you privately that their educated hunch is that things are going to be changing a lot more quickly and a lot more drastically than we thought.

And I think the last 10 years has kind of proven that. We’ve seen dramatic increases in forest fires and tundra fires in the Arctic. Beluga whales are getting smaller, polar bears are getting thinner. We kind of knew that that was happening, but we don’t learn about it until after the fact, and I think that’s the most worrisome. There are going to be a lot of surprises to come that we’re just not prepared for.

I’m interested in your perspective on this as a Canadian citizen. The Harper administration's treatment of the Arctic has been highly criticized -- and I personally have never been able to speak with a Canadian government scientist.

It’s almost surreal what’s happened since the Harper government has come into power. Like you said, it’s extremely difficult to get a government Canadian scientist to talk to you. I live in Edmonton, Canada where two of the government’s polar bear scientists live, and I know them. But they cannot talk to me on the record about anything about polar bears. I’ve been in the field with them in the past and participated in the capture of polar bears, and yet in the last six or seven years, I have not been able to get an interview with any of them.

And I think this reflects the attitude of this government. With the decision by President Obama this week to expand the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and to put vast areas of the Arctic Ocean off limits to oil and gas development -- in Canada, what we’re seeing is an attempt to accelerate oil and gas development, to do nothing about polar bears or beluga whales, to essentially ignore all that we’ve learned in the past 10 and 20 years in the Arctic. It’s bizarre. Twelve years ago, the Canadian government literally bribed a foreign company to ship coal through the Northwest passage to prove that this is a viable shortcut. As our environment commissioner has pointed out, the Northwest passage hasn’t even been charted properly. The navigational aids there are antiquated and we don’t have the ice-breaking capabilities to really prove that ships can go through there safely, so what the hell are they doing? I mean, it’s crazy and it’s inexplicable. The only good thing I can say is that President Obama and his administration are pointing the way to the future.

That was good news to hear from the Obama administration, but it was also upsetting that he did propose to open some drilling leases in the Arctic -- it's never all good news.

But at least I think you can say that there’s a vision emerging in the United States. I was just in China, where David Balton, your ambassador for ocean management, was trying to engage the Chinese into discussing an international agreement not to fish in the Central Arctic ocean. It seems kind of strange that we would try and engage the Chinese and other non-Arctic countries not to fish in a part of the world where we don’t know if there are fish there, but it’s a precautionary approach, which I think is extremely prudent. Because if we learn the lessons of the past and you look at the Bering Sea, where people at one time didn’t believe that there were fish in that donut-hole in between Russia and Alaska in the 1980s and Alaska fishermen were absolutely certain there were, the government ignored their concern. It wasn’t until the Alaska fishermen chartered an airplane, flew over it in the wintertime and got video of foreign ships fishing for pollock in that area that anyone was convinced that in fact there were fish -- and illegal fishing -- there. What followed immediately was an agreement with Russia to try and put a stop to this, but by the time they got the agreement in place, the pollock fishery collapsed, and it has never recovered.

That fast, huh?

That fast, and it doesn't take a lot when you see the technology that the Chinese, Japanese, Icelandic, Polish, Portuguese have -- they can sweep out a lot of fish in a very short period of time.

You see the need for a lot of international cooperation on all of these issues affecting the Arctic. Can you talk a little bit about how you imagine that working?

It can happen in many ways. For example, it can happen in the way David Bolton is thinking, which is that you have these agreements with various countries in advance of something happening. We also have the Arctic Council in place, which can take a lot of initiative on a lot of different issues, although they’ve been reluctant to do so so far. For example, they don’t want to have anything to do with our Arctic fisheries. There can be any number of agreements in place, and there’s a lot of them we’ve had in the past, like the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, which is about 40 years old right now. We can have an agreement between Canada and the United States on managing the porcupine and caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in neighboring Ivvavik National Park.

We’ve had a lot of examples that have worked in the past, and what we need is a lot more of them to manage future surprises that are unfolding in the Arctic. And I think that this requires not just Arctic nations to cooperate, but non-Arctic nations as well. Because, like it or not, China is buying up a lot of energy companies around the world, and those energy companies are going to go to the Arctic. They fish like the Japanese fish, the Portuguese fish, and they will have fleets going into areas where we can’t control them because there are vast areas of the ocean that are not owned by anybody at this stage. So I think that it’s got to be engaging the world in managing this part of the world like we engaged the rest of the world in managing Antarctica over 50 years ago. I mean, the Antarctic Treaty is just such a wonderful example of how you can get the world on the same page in managing the issues. Not perfect, but we still don’t have industrial development in Antarctica. We’ve got fishing, which I think needs to be controlled, but they’ve done a pretty good job.

You write about how the Arctic is remote, it’s unpopulated, and despite all of that, what happens there matters to everyone else. I’m wondering if you have ideas about how to connect people living in lower latitudes to these issues.

One way is to just look at the extreme weather we have here in the south. In the past, El Niño and La Niña were two of the catchwords to describe why we were having droughts, why we were having wet weather in the continental United States and other mid-latitudes. Now part of the new equation is the Arctic Ocean. It was pretty benign in the past because it was covered in ice most of the year, so you didn’t have that moisture coming from it and creating the cyclonic activity that you see in the Pacific or other parts of the world. We’re seeing that now. There are links being made between the opening up of the Arctic Ocean to the jet stream, which influences an awful lot of our weather here, and I think that while it's not proven, the evidence is pretty compelling that this freaky weather that we do get, both cold and hot, is generated by those changes. When you get warm, open water, you get storms. Everybody who lives on the North Pacific knows that it’s just a very stormy place. And I think the Arctic is going to become stormier, and that storminess is going to influence the weather we have down here.

You brought up this really interesting idea that because it's experiencing changes more rapidly than the rest of the world, we can use the Arctic as practice for adaptation, as a staging ground of sorts.

I think that’s absolutely right. Because there are so few people, because we know the changes that are occurring are a lot more subtle down here than they are up there, we can invest fairly small amounts of money into experiments and studies to try to understand what it is we can do and what it is we can’t do. We’re not going to save all these Arctic animals in the future because some of them aren’t going to be able to adapt, but we may be able to understand which ones will have a pretty good chance of surviving and we could possibly do things to help them get over the hump.

We could also, for example, help communities exploit new opportunities and protect themselves from changes that are coming, such as these incredible storm surges that are now hitting the coast at the lowlands of the Western Arctic; because sea levels are rising, storms are picking up steam and you no longer have the ice to buffer those shorelines. For example, off the coast of Alaska there were three storm surges between 2005 and 2011 that went 20 miles inland. Imagine what that’s like. You saw what happened in 2012 in New Jersey and New York. Think about 20 miles inland. It’s not going to happen anytime soon in those parts of the world, but there are places like Miami, Louisiana, that are very vulnerable, that could learn some lessons by watching what’s happening in the Arctic regions.

I guess the question now is whether the world will be able to take advantage of that.

As depressing as sometimes the situations are, humankind really has solved some major problems in the past. We’re patching up the ozone layer by stopping freons and other chemicals from going into the environment. The acid rain problem that we had in the 1980s has not been completely solved, but it’s not nearly as bad as it was. Throughout the United States a number of states are making remarkable progress in storing salmon in fish spawning areas; I think this is all good news. I think we should learn from those lessons that we can manage change and we can make things better. It takes an investment; it’s not going to happen overnight. But we have this ability.

The problem is that most governments now are focused entirely on driving the economy in whatever way possible without really understanding what the consequences are going to be. And I think that’s dangerous. Having traveled through China last week and seen what’s happened there with an economy that has moved forward with very few controls, you just see that people are wearing gas masks all over the place, factories spewing emissions almost at the height of the top level of each apartment. The place is running out of water, the air is polluted. That kind of runaway economic development has really, really hurt the fortunes of that county. I think the Chinese government understands right now that this can’t continue on.

It’s a lot more simple for us in the Arctic because it’s relatively pristine, relatively unpopulated, and I think it’s much more easily managed. But we’ve got to invest in the science, we’ve got to engage the indigenous people who live there and we've got to get governments to really focus on a plan. And it was just exciting to hear Obama do what he did in the last couple of days. Sure, Congress is probably not going to pass it, but the conversation’s out there. And getting people to think about it -- that’s definitely a good start.

By Lindsay Abrams

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