Doreen Cunningham is an Irish-British writer born in Wales. After studying Engineering Doreen worked briefly in climate related research with the Natural Environment Research Council and in storm modelling at Newcastle University, before turning to journalism. She worked for the BBC World Service variously as an international news presenter, editor, producer and reporter, for twenty years. She won the RSL Giles St Aubyn Award 2020 and was shortlisted for the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writers Award 2021 and longlisted for the Wainwright prize for Soundings, her first book.
Latitude: 71° 17′ 26″ N
Longitude: 156° 47′ 19″ W
Big fat flakes of snow drifted past the kitchen window. I watched them fall, while stirring honey into my oatmeal.
‘Whale snow.’ Julia sighed. ‘That’s the kind of snow you get when whales are around. They’re out there. Just we can’t get to them.’
Van came in, gave me a terse nod.
‘Is an east wind coming?’ I asked him. ‘Is the ice opening up?’
‘Just wait.’ Van was holding in his own frustration at the weather. Giant blocks of ice that had broken off the northern pack during the previous summer melt had made their way to Utqiaġvik and were now grounded off the coast. Thick ice meant a safe platform to travel on but it would need a strong and steady east wind to push the pack offshore, to form the lead, and a current that worked with the wind to keep the lead open. The wind blew this way, that way, didn’t settle for long enough. It was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to be able to travel the route I’d planned across northern Alaska and Canada. I’d used up so much time waiting I’d be lucky if I managed just one more stop. My money was disappearing fast on rent and on food from the supermarket, which was expensive because it was flown in.
The hunt I was joining was one of five subsistence hunts recognised by the International Whaling Commission, which met annually and reviewed quotas every five years. To satisfy the criteria, groups needed to prove a nutritional and cultural need for whale meat, and the whale population needed to be sufficiently robust. The Arctic hunts had become a political football in power plays between the US and whaling nations such as Japan. In 2002 Tokyo orchestrated a block of the Iñupiaq quota. Approval needed a three-quarters majority of the forty-eight member countries. Japan’s influence was strengthened by their overseas development aid budget and the vote fell one short. The opposition included the Solomon Islands, land-locked Mongolia and several Caribbean nations.
‘Our coastal whaling bid has been rejected for fifteen years. The United States ought to feel the same pain,’ said Masayuki Komatsu from Japan’s Fisheries Agency. The issue precipitated a special meeting of the IWC and Japan eventually backed down. For the Iñupiat, outsiders judging the hunt could create real problems. Van said they’d been criticised for adopting technologies that made the hunt safer and more efficient. The guns and bombs, snowmachines, outboard motors, the front-loader tractors for carrying whales from the beach to a butchering site that had moved inland due to coastal erosion. He had no intention of being defined by outsiders’ stereotypes. As the world changed, so did hunting methods. Van as an Iñupiat claimed the right, like any other human being, to choose whatever blend of tradition and modernity he wanted in his life.
‘Expected we’d all be living in igloos, did you?’ said Van.
He seemed suspicious of me, as well as irritated by my questions. I supposed I had no real business there, as a tanik, a white person, and a woman on top of that, except Julia had said I was coming and no one argued with Julia.
I knew he was uncomfortable with my constant questions but I just couldn’t stop. I was relentlessly curious, openly admiring, lacking in preconceptions and, ultimately, totally helpless. For a family so generous, for whom sharing was such a central part of their culture, I was impossible to turn away, even eventually for Van.
An inflatable globe the size of a beach ball hung from the ceiling of the lab. On yet another day of waiting, I was being given a tour of the city’s climate monitoring site. My guide was Dan Endres, who’d been chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Observatory for the past twenty-two years.
‘It’s interesting, it’s a challenge.’ Dan’s tone suggested tying a shoelace rather than overseeing a gigantic data collection operation in a place where the temperature was above freezing for only two and a half months of each year and winter was twenty-four-hour darkness. ‘Show me where you think the atmosphere ends.’
‘There.’ I held my hand out a few centimetres from the surface of the inflatable globe.
‘No.’ He slapped his hand right onto the ball. Then he exhaled on it. ‘The moisture from my breath is thicker than the atmosphere. The entire ecosphere is thinner than a sheet of paper.’ Everything Dan studied was there, all the gases, the greenhouse effect, climate, was contained there, in that nothing space he was showing me. Dan did analysis for government agencies and universities, shipped samples back and forth. When he talked about his day-to-day tasks I became lost in a cloud of chemicals and processes.
F11, F12, methyl chloroform, sulphur hexafluoride, the strongest greenhouse gas known. When he started, they were measuring 4 somethings of sulphur hexafluoride and now it was up to 5.5 or 6 somethings, in just six to eight years, he said. Sulphur, man-made and from volcanoes. The tundra, was it a CO2 source or a sink?
‘The Arctic’s been called a mirror to the world. People are beginning to realise more and more just how critical it is, what’s coming out of Barrow.’
‘What are you seeing?’
‘A huge increase in CO2.’ The lab was one of five major sites. The others were at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Trinidad Head in California, American Samoa and the South Pole. The lab was several rooms full of instruments humming furiously, vibrating. Pumps brought in air samples from outside. There were two employees. Teresa was the technician but it was her day off. Dan joked they split the workload fifty-fifty, he broke things and Teresa mended them.
The walls were covered in the celebrity graphs of climate change.
‘This is the most famous data ever to come out of the Arctic.’ Dan pointed to the chart of CO2 levels on the wall. The line climbed steadily up the y axis as it travelled from left to right. He rattled off his observations. ‘I’ve seen CO2 levels increase almost one hundred parts per million. Temperature changes, it’s lots milder. Different plants are growing outside. Spring – earlier melt by seven to ten days. Fall – the freeze is a lot later. When I first came up we could be out on the sea ice in mid-October. Now you wouldn’t dare go out until November or December.’ He talked about the thinning of the ice, which wasn’t visible on the satellite images because they only showed the extent of cover. The longer period of sun would affect plankton chemistry, create changes in feeding habits for migratory animals like whales and seals, he said. The whales liked to pass under the ice as a protection but as it receded they’d be further and further out. Any subsistence hunt would have to be further out too. There would be a danger of being trapped by storms.
‘Is there anything else you want the world to hear?’ I asked.
I’d have liked to give him a megaphone that reached everyone on the globe. ‘Like if you were king of the BBC?’
He thought for a while. ‘Whatever happens here will happen to the rest of the world. It’s the early warning bell.’
I remembered how fiercely I had argued in the interview for the bursary. I’d pitched the Arctic as the front line of climate change and the evidence was all so clear, so incontrovertible. When Dan stopped talking, I actually felt scared. I worked for a news organisation that represented truth and accuracy. How were we not telling this story properly? What was going on?
What was going on was that media all over the world had regularly been allowing sceptics to misrepresent science without adequately challenging them, and presenting them as though they carried equal scientific weight to mainstream climate researchers. Sadly, at times, the BBC was no different.
An independent review of BBC science coverage four years after my trip to Utqiaġvik found the corporation was so determined to be impartial that it sometimes put opinion on a par with well-established fact. This ‘insistence on bringing in dissident voices into what are in effect settled debates’ created what the report called ‘false balance’. The review was led by Steve Jones, an emeritus professor at University College London. He compared it to inviting a mathematician and a maverick biologist to debate what two plus two equalled. The mathematician would say four, but with the maverick saying five, the audience would come away believing the answer was somewhere in between. Jones also noted that BBC Science was ‘head and shoulders above other broadcasters’. Clearly the media as a whole, not just the BBC, wasn’t doing a good enough job. Dan could make as many thousands of measurements as he liked, could make this his life’s work, but it was the media that would ultimately determine how many people ended up believing, in climate terms, that two plus two did not equal four.
CALL TO ACTION:
Barrow Volunteer Search & Rescue is an organisation of volunteers who often risk their own lives looking for missing people in extreme Arctic weather conditions on the tundra and sea ice. Donation cheques made payable to Barrow Search & Rescue, Inc., can be sent to: PO Box 565, Barrow, AK 99723-0565.
Iłisaġvik College is Alaska’s first federally recognized tribal college and is unapologetically Iñupiat. The Iñupiaq Studies Department develops and delivers full- and part-time programs aimed at indigenising the curriculum, incorporating the history, values, traditions, and knowledge of the Iñupiat. You can learn more about the work of the college and can also donate on their website: https://www.ilisagvik.edu/we-are-ilisagvik/.
Doreen Cunningham is an Irish-British writer born in Wales. After studying Engineering Doreen worked briefly in climate related research at NERC and in storm modelling at Newcastle University, before turning to journalism. She worked for the BBC World Service variously as an international news presenter, editor, producer and reporter, for twenty years. She won the RSL Giles St Aubyn Award 2020 and was shortlisted for the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writers Award 2021 and longlisted for the Wainwright prize for Soundings, her first book.