Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Weather: Cold? What cold?

(This was my Telegram Community Editorial Board piece published March 2, 2006. That's the end of the houskeeping posting of that material)

In the weeks before I came here to Iqaluit on the southern tip of Baffin Island, “bring a warm coat”, was the constant refrain I heard.

It didn’t matter if that person was up here, or if that person had people up here or if that person had no idea what it was like up here. The consensus was – it’s a cold spot. My daughter started to monitor Iqaluit weather on TV and saw numbers she’s never associated with home. Honestly; when was the last time we had –47c wind chill in St. John’s?

I retrieved my parka from storage and bought leather/thinsulate gloves and high-performance/high-tech long underwear just in case.

Meanwhile I heard on the news that the polar icecaps were melting at rates faster than initially thought. What a break, I thought lightly, if that happened before I got here. You never know; it could happen. But rather than being gone by the time I arrived, it seemed like I got here just in time to see them go.

A few days ago the thermometer hit +6c. Since then it’s hovered mostly around daytime highs of +2 or so. This is a major local event in a month considered to be the coldest of the year so naturally this has been the cause of much discussion.

I’ve learned that this is causing problems across Nunavut for a variety of reasons.

First, it’s causing social confusion and disorientation, particularly amongst the older folks. Life here is traditionally based on the timeless rhythms of weather and seasons, which have told the Inuit when to hunt and when to move from one place to another. In a society based upon oral tradition and the received wisdom from the Elders, when the Elders are confused, that makes waves throughout the community. An unprecedented temperature spike shift upwards of 25 degrees Celsius or more is bound to do that.

Second, it causes storms and other unpredictable and unfamiliar weather. The other night we had thunder and lightning while the temperature was around 0c. That’s considered very strange around here. Also high winds are hitting many of the isolated communities. It cuts off their power with no way of getting linesmen in there for repairs for several days. Never mind the general wind damage to buildings etc.

Third, on a practical level, it’s affecting the food larders. Food shipped in from the south and bought in stores is enormously expensive so many rely on “country food”. The arctic equivalent of “bush meat”, country food is game – caribou, arctic char and whatever else can be fished, trapped or shot and then cleaned for human consumption. To store, simply toss into the backyard shed out of reach of dogs and it will keep for months because of the very cold conditions. Unless the temperature climbs above freezing, of course. Now people are approaching the territorial government for compensation.

Finally, it changes the natural rhythms for hunting, fishing and trapping. The reduction in offshore pack ice makes it difficult for seals to breed and for polar bears to hunt. Normally, in Iqaluit, all you have to do is go three miles out of town and you can find caribou for the taking. Local hunters tell me that they don’t see them out there now. The herds seem to have moved on for a while.

Clearly global warming is making its presence felt up here. There’s no doubt that it’s coming soon to a place near you too.

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