Hot Pang of Alarm

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Pangnirtung: ever heard of it? The Wikipedia article claims it is known as the “Switzerland of the Arctic”; its mayor goes by the marvelous name of “Mosesee Qappik.” For our purposes here, though, all we need to know – besides the comforting fact that it’s OK just to call it “Pang” – is that it’s an Inuit town located on the Arctic Circle, on Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut – and one that finds itself on the front line of world climate change. Le Monde correspondent Martine Jacot recently paid a visit to Pang to write about what is going on there (In the Arctic, the Inuits dread the network-effects of climate change); as world leaders haggle at the G8 in Italy over ceilings for temperature-rises and quotas for greenhouse gas emissions, it might be handy to consider for a bit what these people are going through already.

“Here as elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic,” states Ron Mongeau, a local government administrator, “climatic warming is not an illusion or a threat. Every day, it affects those who live there, who are dependent on hunting and fishing.” The average temperature there has indeed gone up by 1.4 degrees (that must be ºC) since the nineties, and the summer temperature has exceeded what used to be the hottest measurement on record (22ºC) five years in a row now.

OK OK, but what does that really mean on the ground – where the caribou’s hoof hits the road, so to speak? Well, speaking of, the caribou are all messed up about what is happening: during their autumn migrations they now find too many rivers not yet frozen-over, as they expect them to be from the past, and so have had to take wide detours. As for the humans living in the area (keep in mind, though, that they’re certainly outnumbered by the caribou), it seems everything they thought they knew about how their weather was supposed to be, year-round, has gone out the window. This past winter was somehow the coldest that anyone could remember; spring of 2008, however, was much warmer than usual, something that resulted in a “wall of water” flood hitting the town in June, after which the inhabitants had to live for months with potable water only available from trucks. Instances have now multiplied of snowmobiles traversing areas of snow and ice that turn out to be much softer than expected, so that both machine and rider get entrapped and have to be rescued, and everyone is afraid that the warmed-up soil will weaken the foundations of their buildings.

On the bright side, at least the Pangnirtung Fjord upon which the town is situated is now always ice-free in the summer, so that cruise ships have now made the place a regular stop on their itinerary. Many of those rich tourists like to visit in the first place to fish for the Arctic char (related to the salmon, and whose red/pink flesh is a rare delicacy), but the char population has noticeably thinned out lately because the warmer waters are no longer so suitable for the Arctic shrimp upon which they feed.

UPDATE: Here’s a related piece in English, about how they’re already having to cope with global warming in Greenland, from Yahoo! News (h/t to Some Assembly Required).

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