Coal

Bleeding resources.

It’s the dirty, dark little secret as to why most people are here. Interest in the Arctic has come and gone in waves over the decades as the price of natural resources rises and falls, and right now there is a major resurgence. Despite the economic downturn of ’08, prices for coal, natural gas, and oil have rebounded to a point that makes it feasible to extract them from the Arctic. As I walk around doing my daily work I can see that this place is bleeding resources: streams expose 20-meter coal beds, high-grade iron ore is pouring out of the hills. There’s an unreal abundance of expensive things that humans like and it’s all just sitting here at the surface. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get to.

Mining and operations in the north face a number of difficulties not found down south like permafrost, extreme seasonality, and a lack of facilities. But the key inhibiting factor for development is isolation, which can be broken down into two parts: distance and sea ice. Distance is something that can’t change – it will still be a damn long way to the mainland no matter what happens. Sea ice is another story. After a global minimum in sea ice extent in 2007, each successive year has resulted in more of the Arctic Ocean remaining ice-free for longer. This means that sea transport (and the Northwest passage) is now becoming very much a reality for industry. The only way to make a profit from coal in the Arctic is as a bulk commodity – massive extraction and a near continuous chain of shipments running from north to south during the ice-free summer months. While coal is much cheaper to mine down south, the Canadian Arctic may have one of the largest coal beds in all of North America. Over my last three seasons here I’ve seen many exploration teams with maps dividing up the islands I feel so affectionately for. They head into the field searching for their rocks and generally come back quite successful. While they’re usually all very nice people, I can’t help but inwardly wish them failure in their search.

Found it.

My distaste for mining in this environment comes from knowing how vulnerable these ecosystems are to the slightest disturbance. No development here would be impact-free and any amount of damage would likely be permanent. When 80-year old trees here are as thick as my thumb or a single tractor trail lasts for over 40 years the idea that this ecosystem could recover from an environmental disaster is laughable. Growth is slow and life here is hard. The ecosystems here don’t possess the same resiliency as those down south, as sluggish rates of growth and the short summer season limit how much recovery can happen in any given year. I even feel bad when I leave deep footprints. Industry proponents and environmentalists bicker back and forth about the scale of environmental damage that is guaranteed to come. While it’s not likely that the two sides will ever agree on environmental principles, perhaps those that want to save the Arctic should try arguing a different point: economics.

Much like how oil extraction in the Canadian Tar Sands is not profitable when market prices are less than $60/barrel, the same economic danger rests on the development of the true north. Booms and busts have happened here in past decades and (most) everyone is aware that things could shut down again at the drop of a hat. Relics of old, half-finished projects litter the tundra – roads that connect nothing, half-constructed buildings, and bridges to nowhere. This is what makes it hard to predict how serious development is up here. Ignoring the ridiculous hot air about Canadian sovereignty crap coming out of Ottawa, the only real interest is economic development. This expansion is a large gamble as everything that happens here will be more reliant on high commodity prices than the rest of the world. And even if the boom of the Arctic finally happens, can we call it a success?

This was a question posed at a panel discussion on resource development at the International Polar Year conference in Montreal this April. There were two industry representatives, two scientists, and an aboriginal community leader (the mayor of Barrow, Alaska). After two hours of veiled words and empty phrases it was time for audience questions. A listener stood up and asked the mayor of Barrow, “Let’s say the oil industry meets all the safety standards, contributes what you’re asking for towards community development and employment, and there’s minimal damage to the environment – is this even a future you want?” The mayor responded, “I’m not sure.”

People live by the motto “not in my backyard”. Even though it may seem empty and desolate, I can guarantee you that the Arctic is still someone’s backyard. I can only hope that the coming economic moves are done with restraint.

“Clean coal” my ass.

Wolves (pt. 2)

A friendly visitor at my office yesterday.

I had intended on writing a post about the muskox that have been roaming around my sites, but after watching a pretty epic hunt go down tonight I decided to do a second post about wolves.

I was sitting in the station identifying some plants I collected today when I heard some very fast footsteps kicking up gravel. I looked out the window to see  an arctic hare sprinting like a bat out of hell as a very large and very hungry wolf ran quickly after it. Normally the wolves around here aren’t very successful at catching hares (whereas the foxes seem to have a bit more talent), so I watched the chase with passing interest. These happen a lot here. What this meant is that I didn’t have the foresight to grab my camera for what turned out to be a bloody victory for the wolf.

What they look like before: cute, fluffy, delicious.

After a few spins around the building the wolf finally landed his hare, grabbing it violently in its jaws, and quickly dismembering it before I had the chance to react. With the chase over the wolf quickly went to skinning its dinner and I saw this as my chance to run out and grab a few shots. Here is the aftermath of the arctic food chain at work.

It’s tough skinning with your teeth. No, I haven’t tried it.

Taking the meal off to… its pups?

The aftermath.

Wolves

I’d never seen a wolf before. Never in the south, and never in the Arctic. I’ve been eagerly hoping to see one ever since I was a small child. So it was with great joy and overly confident enthusiasm that I saw and photographed the wolves of Eureka this week.

This area is famous for having a number of dens nearby but for the last several years I’ve always missed them. A few days ago I was out stacking empty fuel barrels when I saw three white flashes dart across my field of vision. Attracted by the noise, the three wolves and come to inspect the new local noisemaker. They approached cautiously, warily, but once it became apparent that I wasn’t going to eat them they comfortably settled in, sat down, and stared at me.

Wolves can cross between islands by walking along the sea ice.

Other stations in the Arctic sometimes have problems with their wolves. Out there, the local packs have been fed by humans for a number years and have become accustomed to receiving food. So when someone walks outside and they don’t have food, the wolves bite, and the human spends the next several days getting rabies injections in their ass. In Eureka, there’s been little to no feeding of the wolves (at least by official accounts). This means our resident population acts less like spoiled dogs and more like wild animals. The wolves I mean.

Their long white winter coats get a bit haggard in spring.

And the thing is, they look so damn similar to dogs that I tried to treat them the same way. With the three wolves watching me, I tried to see how they’d react to different things I did. Instinctively I whistled out to try and grab their attention. No response. After three more tries the guy I was stacking barrels with decided to educate me. It turns out that the wolves tune out, or at least don’t care, about human sounds. But the moment you create a sound that they know from their natural environment, like dragging a stick across the gravel, their ears prick up and you have their full attention.

In Eureka there have been no historical (or at least modern day) records of people being attacked by wolves. Though I don’t think I’ll feel totally confident if the pack decides to visit me while I’m out working.

Arctic wolves stay in the north throughout the long winter season. Tough puppies.

Eureka

Welcome to Eureka

I’ve arrived at my final destination. After an incredible 18 hours of plane flights, all within Canada, I’ve unloaded and unpacked at the Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. At 80°N, it’s a land of blazing 24-hour sunlight, extreme dryness, and unpredictable weather.

Ellesmere Island is the northernmost island of Canada, and indeed all of North America. It’s quite a large thing and sits comfortably as the 10th largest island in the world. Eureka is a “small” weather station at the central far western edge of the island. It’s bounded to the south by a very cold fjord, and has some dramatic mountain ranges surrounding the horizons. The weather station is civilian run by Environment Canada and employs a staff of 8 people who stay year round to do a variety of duties and needs. There’s a senior officer in charge, a cook, a handy, a heavy equipment operator, a mechanic, and three weather technicians. This small staff keeps the station running throughout the polar winter and is efficient enough to accommodate a bustling summer population of up to 40 visitors. It’s a cozy group.

The station is well equipped to handle any and all events. There’s storeroom after storeroom of backups for backups, spare toilets, 10,000 napkins, 40 cases of laundry detergent, and even a box of vintage German porn on VHS for those lonely winter nights. There’s a mechanic’s workshop with lifters and loaders, sandblasting machines, and 3-foot wrenches. Everything. The guys and gals that run the station can fix anything that can be brought up, like trucks or tractors or sewage systems. The main building of the station consists of a galley, an opulent lounge, a small gym, and private rooms for the station staff. Even the transient visitors have it pretty damn nice in communal rooms. It’s certainly not the harsh situation you might imagine for the High Arctic. But all these facilities don’t come cheap. To stay here is $400/night for a bed, and an additional $160 for food for the day. Luckily I’m on a grant that provides me free accommodation, food, and flights for my time here. Otherwise my 45-day stay would cost around $28,000 for the station residence and a further $10,000 for flights (thank you Environment Canada). It’s mind-blowingly expensive to do anything up here.

Roughing it.

4-Star accommodation.

There’s even a greenhouse.

In addition to the main facilities of Eureka there’s a nearby military station about 1.5km up a dirt road to the airstrip. The airstrip is a grated gravel runway that’s big enough to provide landing space for some large military aircraft. As for the army, these boys are up here for only 6 weeks during the summer in order to assert Canada’s “Northern Sovereignty” (the Arctic is still being colonized, despite what you may think of as set national boundaries. More on this in another post). They’re generally a pretty friendly bunch and a nice change of face for some fresh conversation. I remember the first time I saw the base a few years ago: the boys had taken off one of the outside doors and made a ping pong table out of it while they blasted rock music on the loud speaker. It’s sort of like Stripes meets Animal House.

The international airport.

Hey look, Canada has a military.

Now that I’m here I suppose I should get to work. The one problem is that I’ve shown up two weeks too early. The snow has just melted and the land is 100% mud. The streams have become rivers and overland travel is nearly impossible. The amount of late drainage this year is due to a later-than-usual snowmelt and has caused a few landslides that have washed out the station’s dirt roads. Nothing’s in bloom and I can’t walk anywhere. This is the muddy season.

Yellowknife

I’m just happy the knife’s there.

This relatively large sub-arctic town represents the midway point for my trip north. While it’s actually fairly far up at latitude 62°N , Yellowknife’s (summer) climate is fairly mild when compared to other areas of Canada’s North. It’s governed by a more ‘continental’ type climate as opposed to an ‘oceanic’ type, and so has more extreme winter lows and summer highs. “Oceanic” climates tend to have warmer winters, but colder summers, as the surrounding ocean heavily moderates seasonal air temperature change by acting as a heat sink/source. ‘Continental’ climates are surrounded by large landmasses and don’t have as large a heat sink/source, so this is where winters dip crazy cold, but summers can reach a balmy high. This phenomena caused by large bodies of water actually explains why the Antarctic is so much colder than the Arctic – the Arctic is a frozen ocean surrounded by land, whereas the Antarctic is a frozen continent surrounded by the ocean. So the interior Antarctic gets MUCH colder than the interior Arctic. But either way you slice it it’s miserably cold here in winter. But summers are lovely.

10 hours to Yellowknife, then 8 hours to Eureka. Canada’s a big country.

Which brings me to my wonderfully summery stay in Yellowknife. I was lucky enough to have a one-day layover to wait for my baggage to come up, so I took the opportunity to tour the town and see the sites. And what a town it is. This speck up north is the administrative capital of the Northwest Territories. When I first heard the name Yellowknife and saw it on a map, I imagined igloos, ice, and a desolate little village. It’s anything but. Yellowknife sits comfortably at a population of over 19,000 (and growing) and has high-rises, asphalt roads, and a well-developed downtown. Rush-hour (if you could call it that) even gets so busy that the main drag is littered with traffic lights. The town itself is divided into Oldtown and Downtown. Oldtown is a collection of old buildings and residences, some dating to the original exploration of the north. These are beautifully positioned onto or next to Great Slave Lake – the deepest lake in North America and the ninth largest lake (by volume) in the world. This is where I chose to stay and enjoy the peace and quiet provided by a lakeside B & B.

My dream home.

My dream home.

The Downtown is the exact opposite of Oldtown, it’s bustling, busy, and provides all the trappings that you would expect of any major city. You have your chain grocery stores, your fastfood shops, and plenty of government administrative buildings. Driving nearly all of this success in the north is the insatiable urge that southerners have for diamonds. Yes. The major industry of the Northwest Territories is diamond mining. The minerals are so abundant and plentiful that it puts Canada as the third largest producer of diamonds world-wide. This economic boom has attracted people from all corners of Canada. Indeed, when I asked people in town what the hell would bring them all the way up here, the number one answer was work, and that work is industry. But in order to support all this development, a lot of civilian infrastructure goes in place and those jobs need to be filled, which helps to explain my newly immigrated Chinese taxi driver, the Somali grocer, and the other wonderful diversity this far north.

View of Yellowknife’s high-rises from across the lake.

Arctic hustle and bustle.

Arctic hustle and bustle.

But despite the wonderful attractiveness of this city in summer, and despite the economic boom it’s undergoing, there are huge social problems that exist just beneath its service. When walking through the downtown or the myriad of gorgeous park trails that surround the city, it becomes abundantly clear that Canada’s aboriginal population hasn’t experienced the same good fortune as the rest. There’s a palpable division between the First Nations aboriginal groups and the other, mainly white, Canadians. I had a good conversation with a few locals that helped put these things in context:

I had been walking around an 8km trail next to a nearby lake and had stopped to enjoy the sun. After a short while, a group of First Nations people (they were from different tribes) came up and sat with me. They were the first people to make an effort to talk to me and we got to chatting about Yellowknife. After 40 minutes, I was blown away with the normalcy with which they talked about drug abuse, alcohol abuse, arson, rape, and other things that mainly plagued the city’s aboriginal population. Being in southern Canada you always hear about the high level of social problems up north. But it was utterly depressing to hear people talk about it as normal. The people that stopped to talk to me were wonderful and (content aside) pretty damn hilarious. As they went to leave they told me “you’re not so bad for a white guy,” which leads me to believe that there’s not much positive interaction between the two main groups in the city. I’m not a historian, and not being a Canadian myself, I’m not fully aware of the history or social contexts in which these societal discrepancies exist. But what I do know is that the racial undertones in town were so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Packing

I’m back after last year’s hiatus. I did go into the field, but due to a continually down internet connection and an enthusiasm lower than the mercury level I wasn’t able to properly write about that field season. I went north, explored sites, slightly injured myself, and needed a helicopter rescue. In short, a success.

But this season I’m back in full force. I’m headed north now in charge of my own project, my own field camp, and an almost total degree of autonomy. It’s been a change in scale and responsibility that I had entirely underestimated. Being a lackey on someone else’s project is a lot of work, and at times stressful, but in the end you get to wash your hands of the responsibility of a failed endeavor. Knowing that the success or failure of this particular season is on your shoulders changes the game. So why the change in pressure? This is the first official season of my PhD where I have to implement my thesis design. And that’s the last I’ll mention of that damn thing. Life is bigger than grad school.

So what kind of changes does that mean for this season? This year I’m setting up my own field camp on Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian High Arctic. An assistant and I will be sleeping in tents surrounded by electrified dental floss and a nervously loaded shotgun (for the polar bears, not each other). We’ll be collecting data and hiking around to places that have only been explored by satellite images. It should be fun.

However, my season has started before I’ve even arrived. At the moment I’m on a plane headed to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories where I’ll have a day long layover until I fly further north. But the last month has been an ulcer-inducing, sleepless struggle to get things ready.  For a simple field camp I’ll be taking in 200 pounds of scientific gear, 100 pounds of personal gear, and a further 300 pounds of camp gear. Add to this the stress that it’s not possible to ship directly to Ellesmere and what you have is a nightmare. The cost of shipping to Resolute (the furthest north you can fly/ship commercially) is $15 per kilo or about $7.50 per pound. This accumulates very fast. Mix into this a fistful of regulatory permits, overweight baggage restrictions, limiting funding, and the looming threat that there’s only one flight a month to where I’m going. It’s been a stressful few months preparing and now that I’m on my way to Yellowknife there’s nothing left to do but sit back and hope that all that checked baggage went through. Otherwise, it will be an interesting time in the Arctic.

So it’s with cautious optimism that I approach this field season. I may arrive and find that this season is harsher than previous years, and a prolonged snowstorm would make it impossible to even begin my work. I may get there and find that my baggage didn’t get on that one flight a month. Or I may get there to find that the bears have developed a profound taste for humans. At least I get a layover in Yellowknife first. It’s warm there, right?

The yellow bag fits a human.