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Northwest Passage update: Herschel Island

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Cameron Dueck

When Silent Sound entered the Work Boat Channel of Herschel Island, we were expecting a day or so at anchor at a quiet historical site, perhaps with a hunting party or two in the area. How little did we know. Herschel Island was a booming community of some 25 souls by the time we left two days later, most of them scientists who paced around the island looking very serious in their Gore-Tex clothing with clipboards clenched in their hands. They’re all there because Herschel is an easy place to come and see how climate change is affecting the arctic ecosystem.

Besides the scientists, we met the Mackenzie family, who have been living on the island for generations and now use it as their summer hunting camp.

Herschel Island was a key harbour for whaling ships 100 years ago. It then became an important RCMP outpost before being abandoned, and then becoming a national park. Meeting the Mackenzie family was great luck on our part, as they have generations of oral history on the place.

Marjorie Mackenzie was born in the old family log cabin, where the extended family was now staying with a brood of children. The area around the cabin was busy with wheelbarrow traffic as the kids hauled each other around camp and a jumble of mattresses laid out to air, fishing nets, knives, guns, coffee mugs, toys and scraps of firewood. But in order to get to all that you had to cross a swampy bit where the seawater was creeping up over the land.

“It’s just getting a lot warmer. There’s more water right by the house here, this bit of water right in front used to never be here,” Marjorie said.

Herschel Island is slowly sinking because its permafrost is melting. Chris Burn, of the Department of Geology at Carlton University and one of Canada’s pre-eminent permafrost experts, happened to be visiting the island, as he has done for decades.

“We know there has been a 2C warming of the permafrost in the last century, its harder to know how much of that has occurred in the last 50 years because of the data we have to work with,” he said. “This is happening because of higher air temperatures at the surface.”

At 15m below the surface the permafrost is now –8C, while it slowly gets colder downward from there.

“We know that it is definitely warming to 42m, but surface temperatures suggest that measurable temperature change is penetrating to 80m,” he said.

“Think of the amount of energy needed to input to warm that amount of mass, all that soil, to that extent.”

Burns said the biggest impact of melting permafrost in the Canadian Arctic will be the higher cost of maintaining an building municipal infrastructure for the many small, scattered communities. With taxpayers facing the bill for this, the problem will likely dwarf into a political hot potato before it gets solved.

“Can we reconcile ourselves with the rising cost of northern life, which takes place in a transition area for climate change,” he asked.

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