from White Earth
by Johannah Bernstein *
Ideally, this article should
have been written in Inuit.
The language of "White Earth" provides countless words
for ice, beautiful words such as hikuliaq, pegalujaq, ivuneq,
akuvijaruak. Western Science on the other hand, has spawned less
colourful terms such as sea ice, pack ice, frazil, shuga, and
pancake ice (my personal favourite).
But none of these terms, however glaciologically useful, convey
the depth of the beauty of what I saw, heard, felt or even tasted
From a first reading of a map of Greenland, one can immediately
understand why the Inuit refer to Greenland as Kalaallit Nunaa,
or "White Earth", translated in English. It is an impressive
visual to be sure. But the map of Greenland only reveals half
Seen from above, little reveals that the Greenland icecap, which
covers 80 percent of the island, and which, in many places is
more than two kilometres thick, is actually melting at a dangerous
pace, after having existed for over 2 to 3 million years in a
relative state of dynamic equilibrium.
One must see and indeed hear first-hand the constant pace of
change that the white landscape is now undergoing as a result
of climate change.
Lessons from Sermeq Kujalleq
The Greenland ice is not
static, it never has been. From our helicopter we witness firsthand
the rapid movement of the Ilulissat Glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq
in Inuit). It is now Greenland's fastest moving glacier as a
result of global warming.
The visuals are absolutely stunning. The 56 kilometre-long Ilulissat
Icefjord is filled with enormous craggy bergs, some towering
over 100 meters high. Occasional pools of emerald-blue water
are a reminder that the floating ice pack abounds with marine
resources that live in a complex but delicate food web.
The landscape has an eerily primordial, almost prehistoric feeling.
I feel like I have landed directly from the moon right down to
the sea-bed floor. It is very daunting, but at the same time,
deeply moving. It might have been the bitter cold, but many of
us are actually moved to tears.
How ironic that we humans are such geologically potent agents
in contrast with the enormity of this vast frozen expanse. Nevertheless,
standing in the heart of this extraordinary polar wilderness,
we are deeply humbled and dwarfed by nature's extraordinary architectural
feats. Seen through a wide-angled lens, the Ilulissat Glacier
seems untouched and indeed untouchable by humans.
But the reality is so paradoxical.
Tragically, Ilullisat and other regions in both the North and
South Poles are now among the most precarious climate hot spots
on the globe, warming at nearly twice the global average rate.
In the Polar Regions, the effects of exponentially rising greenhouse
gas emissions are concentrated in totally outsized proportions.
Just like the 100 metre-high craggy icebergs that are shed by
the Ilulissat Glacier and which crash steadily through the Icefjord,
on their way to Disko Bay each day.
The thunderous noise with which the Ilulissat Glacier calves
bluish ice into the Icefjord is a daily climate change alarm
in the eyes and ears of thousands of climate scientists around
The situation regarding the overall Greenland icecap is of course
just as dire.
The Greenland ice, in all its impenetrable glory has existed
for over two million years, shaping the landscape, culture and
history of this remote island nation. However, daily NASA satellite
monitoring reveals that the icecap is melting and shrinking at
an alarming rate. If as predicted, it does eventually collapse,
global sea levels will rise to heights that will be catastrophic
for the world, swamping every major coastal city around the globe.
This is of course a worst case scenario that is only expected
to unfold over centuries. But when one considers how quickly
humanity has now propelled itself into the IPCC's worst case
scenarios, the Greenland alarm bell should be keeping climate
negotiators up at night.
Unfortunately, the Greenland ice sheet is not on the UNFCCC climate
The new climate reality
We learn that ongoing efforts to examine the ice core from the
Greenland ice cap have provided important new insights into the
past instability and sensitivity of the Greenland ice to temperature
changes. The more we impose human forcings, such as human-induced
global warming on that ecosystem, the more likely we are to generate
However, the distressing reality is that since the signing of
the Kyoto Protocol, CO2 emissions have actually accelerated from
1.3 percent per year in the 1990s, to a staggering 3.3 percent
per year from 2000 to 2006.
This trajectory has propelled humanity right into the IPCC's
worst case scenarios. The prognosis is very grim.
For many key parameters (i.e. global mean surface temperature,
sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics), the climate system
has moved beyond patterns of natural variability. Many of the
world's leading atmospheric scientists now caution that key impacts
of global warming, such as sea level rise and loss of summer
Arctic sea ice are happening much sooner and more severely than
scientists had estimated only a few years ago.
Since we are nowhere near properly positioned to transition to
a global carbon free-energy path, there is a significant risk
that many of these trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing
risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.
Unfortunately, the current climate negotiations are being carried
out on the basis of outdated climate science, rather than on
the latest evidence that indicates potentially disastrous tipping
points in Earth systems.
Modelling the physics and the chemistry of the air in powerful
supercomputers only tells one part of the climate story. In actual
fact, new climate science reveals that the previous IPCC projections
have underestimated the real observed processes (such as the
ice albedo feedback effect) which are now driving ice loss around
the world. If current IPCC climate models had in fact included
ice dynamics in Greenland, the sea level rise estimated during
this century could be twice as high as what the IPCC is currently
The key challenge now is ensure that the ever widening gulf between
science and politics is bridged decisively.
What politics simply does not understand or accept is that weaker
targets for 2020 increase the risk of crossing irreversible tipping
points. This will make the task of meeting 2050 targets not only
impossible, but ultimately a moot exercise in reckless number-crunching.
Lessons from our Journey to Oqaatsut
From our boat trip to the old coastal village Oqaatsut, we experience
a different spatial dimension of the beauty of the ice of Disko
Bay. But once again, we are reminded that this is a new landscape
that nature had never intended for us to see.
For the Inuit, the frozen ice is their lifeblood. Throughout
millennia, they have demonstrated a remarkable ability to live
in harmony with a very hostile physical environment. Adaptation
and masterful innovation have made the ice home for the Inuit.
But the increasing unreliable ice conditions are affecting the
Inuit's capacity to hunt for food and to sustain their traditional
The Inuit have always believed that their cosmos was ruled by
no one. But for the first time in their social history, the Inuit's
cosmos is actually being ruled by someone -- white man, whose
profligate excesses have resulted in dangerous interference with
the global climate system and in turn, with the ecosystem upon
which their livelihood depends.
Their survival struggles are now unquestionable harbingers of
an Earth system that has become far too unstable. Their struggles
and lessons are rapidly becoming our own.
We have much to learn, but so little time.
Lessons from Anirniq: A Return to Soul
During our visit to the ancient settlement of Semermiut, I learn
that the Inuit believe in the presence of spirit and soul --
anirniq, in all sentient and non-sentient beings. It underpins
their solemn moral duty to respect all life forms.
I ponder what the Kyoto Protocol would have looked like -- had
it been drafted by a group of Inuit elders.
Their cosmology, unlike our own, does not include the concept
of dominion over nature. The Inuit believe instead, that the
Earth is alive and that humans are connected with the Earth system
in a harmonious relationship, one that must be continually renewed
For the different Inuit
cultures that have lived in this settlement for millennia, survival
has always depended on tightly knit social structures, with all
family members playing a critical role in a class-less society.
The 4,000 year-old tiny peat hut foundation that we saw in Semermiut
provides us with a vivid metaphor for the importance of unity
and cooperation in a hostile world.
Sadly, Inuit wisdom is simply not part of our "enlightenment"
nor for that matter, our curious way of rationalising science.
Their folklore and mythology reveal a very different relationship
with nature than could ever be fully explained by even the most
sophisticated of IPCC climate models. But what the Inuit do not
have in the form of complex algorithms, they make up for by virtue
of their innate ability to observe and to understand the ground-truth.
Just as we need to elevate the new climate science, so too must
we draw deep from the ancient wisdom of the Inuit. We must to
return to soul in this landscape of ancient and epic proportions.
Lessons from White Earth
So many lessons from White Earth, so little time.
Greenland taught us of the urgent need for a serious balancing
corrective to the short-sightedness of our current response to
climate change. But this requires a radically different form
of political leadership, one that is based on an ability and
willingness to balance competing interests in a way that respects
planetary boundaries, and which bridges new science with ancient
wisdom. The melting Greenland ice sheet will not wait.
The sobering fact is that whilst the Greenland ice sheet has
existed for over two million years, through the unusual combination
of shameful ingenuity and unapologetic ignorance, we have "geo-engineered"
the ice sheet's potential rapid fire collapse to unfold in but
We have so many constraints to overcome if we are to achieve
the massive political, economic, scientific and social transformations
required to meet the climate change challenge.
Forging a new climate deal that is truly grounded in the most
authoritative science and principles of equity will require deeper
modes of cooperation and new forms of innovation and ingenuity.
How ironic that we have come so close to answering the question
of whether we humans are alone in the universe, but are moving
so very far from being able to sustain the conditions necessary
for actually keeping our species alive.
The bottom line is that the international community is only negotiating
that which is politically viable as opposed to what nature requires
and what new science informs.
We need therefore a new collective mindset, a deep and radical
change of soul and heart, and perhaps a new mental map; one that
repositions humanity in a different relationship with the greater
Earth community, and which recognises that in the midst of this
magnificent diversity of life forms, there is common destiny.
This is the profound lesson of Inuit wisdom and of White Earth.
And this is why the 4,000 year old peat hut on Semermiut is the
right place to start after all.
May 27, 2009
is an international environmental lawyer. She advises governments,
international organisations, NGOs and the private sector on a
wide range of global sustainability issues.