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Want the truth about climate change? Ask an Inuit

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CANADIAN High Arctic: I’ve been all over hellwithout a map, but I’m danged if I’ve ever seen so many nutsy characters as those who fly in to our northern settlements. The Arctic has got such a grip on their imagination that it must have cut off the blood supply to their brains. There was this young French fellow who was set on riding his motorbike to the North Pole, his handlebars and frame stuffed with jelly beans as emergency rations. People tried to talk some sense into him but he wouldn’t listen. Well, he set off and two days later he radioed in, ‘Pick me up.’ When they found his broken-down vehicle, polar bears had eaten the saddle and hand grips to get to the jelly beans.

Another time, a bunch of Japanese fetched up with an ice yacht at Resolute Bay, the kick-off point for North Pole expeditions, thinking the sea ice was as flat as a pancake. They had to be shown the 30ft high pressure ridges from a Twin Otter plane before they called it off. ‘Very bad. Very bad,’ their manager told the pilot.

There is a heap of tales like those. The Inuit call them ‘storm stories’ which keep them amused when they’re sitting out bad weather in a tent. Their name for white people, qalunaat, literally means ‘high brows’, but that’s do with the shape of their heads rather than a term of respect. To be honest, Inuit see most southern tourists as difficult and fretful children, helpless from the moment they step out of their hotel in new parkas and fur mukluk boots.

The real desperados are the North Pole sled-haulers who call themselves explorers, although what in tarnation they find to explore in half a million square miles of nothingness beats me. The closest they come to exploration is examining their toes for frostbite every night. And they’re desperate because so much money and prestige is at stake. I know many to be decent and honest, but with a less than 50 per cent chance of success, some give in to cheating. There are a hang of a lot of ways to cheat, but that’s another story.

Here’s the thing. These ‘explorers’ spend a week or two acclimatising before setting off. It’s real strange, but they keep their distance from the local Inuit, who would be happy to pass on survival tips and advice about different ice conditions. My guess is that the ‘explorers’ feel small. They figure no Inuit in their right mind would travel to the North Pole, where game is scarce. But if they did, they would do it in half the time, with half the fuss. What the ‘explorer’ aims to crow about to the world as heroic is just another journey to the local folk. So the Inuit get the cold shoulder.

It’s the same with visiting scientists. Scholarly books use words such as  ‘pre-eminent’ and ‘unparalleled’ to describe Inuit knowledge and skills. But most ‘experts’ from the South don’t give a red cent for the insights and observations of indigenous people. The term they use is ‘anecdotal’, as if they are folk tales. Anything those eggheads can’t measure, examine under a microscope or fit into their theories doesn’t count with them. Want to know how a polar bear makes a weapon to kill a walrus? ‘Not interested.’ Or why some narwhals have strange zig-zag designs carved into their sides? ‘Not interested.’ So whole libraries of unwritten information go unrecorded.

Global warming is something else, you might think. The Arctic is like the canary in the cage, we’re told. If it falls off its perch, then it’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ for everyone. Surely climatologists want to hear what the Inuit have been experiencing from the inside? No, they’re ‘not interested’. Scientists are so busing gussying up predictions to get our feet shivering with fright that no one believes them any more, unless they’re young or easily impressed. And the media have bought into the whole baloney business. So what is the truth?

What the Inuit have noticed is even more controversial than anything the climate goofs have dreamed up. But before we get to that, it’s important to understand a couple of things. First off, the Inuit suffer from a serious disadvantage in the modern world: they’re bad at lying. It’s ‘a cultural thing’, as they say nowadays. Living on the edge, untrue or malicious information can get people killed.

The second point is that many of today’s elder generation were born and brought up on the trail between hunting camps before the 1960s, when the Inuit were still semi-nomadic. First thing in the morning, children were required to go to the door of the tent or snow igluvik and give their parents a weather report. They also had to note the position of the sun. In time, they could work out their position relative to the sun from numerous locations in different seasons. It became instinctive, like checking the time from a clock on the mantelpiece.

Imagine your alarm if one day you noticed that your clock and ornaments had mysteriously moved from their usual places. That is what has happened to the sun, a lot of Inuit believe. In 2001, before the global warming crowd went hysterical, respected elders from 20 communities in Nunavut, the Inuit’s extensive homeland, met for three days to discuss climate change. Climate sceptics might be upset by their reports, since in many ways they bear out what scientists have been saying. But I reckon they would prefer to learn the facts first-hand from people on the ground rather than doom merchants sitting in an office.

Why dig up evidence that’s 20 years old? Today places such as Nunavut are compelled to pile on the agony so they can get badly needed international funds. In 2001 there was less pressure to play the scare-mongers’ game and leaders could call the situation as it really was. Their accounts still hold good.

These were the elders’ broad findings: ‘Winters are getting shorter, summers are getting longer. We are losing the ice in our glaciers and fjords. Permafrost is melting. We see vegetation growing where ice used to be. The sun’s rays are increasing. We now see birds and wildlife that we have never seen here before. Fall ice forms later [than October] and may not be safe to travel on until Christmas. Water levels are getting lower. The floe-edge [the ice shelf at the mouth of fjords] is receding faster.’ They’re also seeing the wrong sort of snow for making igluviks.

The alarming consensus was that the sun is out of kilter by a few degrees, creating intense heat and fast-forwarding the seasons. The explanation, they believed, is that the Earth has tilted on its axis. In the words of Arsene Ivalu, from the village of Igloolik: ‘We have noticed that during the dark season, there is more discernible light on the horizon than before. As well, the position of the sun, when it first re-emerges, is off by a few degrees and has shifted further west. We have also noted that the spring sun is at a higher angle and is way hotter.’

Naturally, the local globe warmers choked on their horse feathers. No, they said, the sun’s apparent waywardness was an optical illusion caused by refraction through the warmer atmosphere. That might hold good for the sun, which rarely climbs much above the distant horizon, but the elders also complained that the moon and stars, directly above them, were also out of whack. This disorder in the heavens was playing havoc with their navigation.

We may never know what is going on. One thing is for sure. If the Inuit are right, the ‘experts’ will be too darn frightened to break ranks and tell us.

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Old Timer
Old Timer is the alter ego of Stuart Wavell, a retired journalist who has travelled extensively in the Canadian Arctic.

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