What I Learned on a Luxury Cruise Through the Global-Warming Apocalypse

What I Learned on a Luxury Cruise Through the Global-Warming Apocalypse

What I Learned on a Luxury Cruise Through the Global-Warming Apocalypse

To see the Arctic death spiral firsthand, and to see the Arctic before it melted, I took a 17-day “adventure cruise” and learned an inconvenient truth: We can’t make it stop.


At the top of the world, a great wheel is spinning. Circling the Arctic Ocean, a current called the Beaufort Gyre drives pack ice clockwise around the pole. It pulls warm Pacific currents through the Bering Strait north and west above Siberia, pushes into the East Siberian Sea and the Transpolar Drift, then rolls away from Russia and whips south against Greenland and the archipelagic frontier forming the rocky distant rim of the Canadian Shield. As winter descends and the seas freeze, the gyre drives newly formed ice against the landfast floe edging those northmost coasts, thickening the ice in ridges and layers, and bit by bit forces drift ice into the straits that form the Northwest Passage. As winter thaws to summer, the pack ice breaks up into the Chukchi Sea, where warm Pacific waters join the gyre as it turns again in its grinding cycle.

The pack ice that the gyre drives around the top of the world breathes with the seasons, expanding in winter, contracting in summer. Over the past 30 years, though, the total amount has shrunk: Minimum summer sea-ice area has decreased by more than half, as has estimated summer sea-ice thickness. Even more alarming, total summer sea-ice volume is less than a quarter of what it was a generation ago. Think of how an ice cube melts in three dimensions. Scientists at the Polar Science Center and the National Snow and Ice Data Center expect summer sea ice to disappear entirely as early as 2030. Some people are calling this dramatic decline the “Arctic death spiral.” It will mean the end of the Arctic as we know it.

The Beaufort Gyre is just one wheel in a vast convolution of interconnected wheels that make up the global climate system: the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the Gulf Stream, the carbon cycle, and many, many more. As one wheel speeds up, slows down, warms, disappears, it affects all the others, feeding back into the system. The Arctic death spiral will work like that: As white ice melts into dark water, it will diminish the Earth’s ability to reflect light and heat back into space, thus increasing overall warming. Carbon and methane frozen in Arctic permafrost will thaw and flow into the atmosphere, intensifying greenhouse-gas effects and increasing overall warming. Deep-ocean circulation, which depends on differences in temperature and salinity to move water around the world, will slow and shut down, radically changing regional climates, contributing to sea-level rise, and increasing overall warming.

To see the Arctic death spiral firsthand, and to see the Arctic before it melted, I took a 17-day “adventure cruise” with the outdoor expedition company Adventure Canada: “Into the Northwest Passage 2015.”

* * *

“On my first trip, when I was 14, we were cruising in a little fjord just south of Kangerlussuaq. We came right up to the foot of a glacier, and we were Zodiacking there and it was amazing and everything was wonderful. Then I went back to that exact same glacier in 2007, and there was nothing but rocks.”

—Cedar Swan, Adventure Canada CEO

Our journey began in the alpine room of the Sheraton Gateway Hotel Toronto. Enthusiastic Adventure Canada staff in migraine-blue shirts with polar-bear logos went over the basic outlines of our cruise. A total of 191 fellow “adventurers” listened politely, a crowd of mostly white, mostly silver-haired retired couples in various stages of physical decline, with a few singletons and only a smattering of younger blood—I counted a half-dozen under 50, including myself. The plan was to sail north up the west coast of Greenland, go west into Canada through Lancaster Sound, then sail north around Victoria Island and down through the Prince of Wales Strait to Kugluktuk. Along the way, we’d clamber into black-hulled Zodiac boats for a series of landings and excursions. It was hammered home to us that this wasn’t just a cruise but an “expedition,” and that we had to be ready for anything: Our final route would depend on the sea ice.

From Toronto, we flew to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, where we boarded the MS Ocean Endeavour, a 450-foot-long converted ferry built in Poland, ice class 1B, first registered as the Konstantin Simonov in Russia, now owned by the ship-management company FleetPro, based in Switzerland. The weather in Kangerlussuaq was auspicious, warm and clear, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit, where they would remain for the entire cruise. We steamed that night into a refulgent midnight sunset, magenta and coral clouds glowing over the craggy gneiss walls of the fjord, and in the morning woke at Sisimiut, a Greenland fishing town of many small, brightly colored square houses, like Legos scattered in the sun. The ship spent the day taking on supplies while we wandered around town. A shop sold gleaming silver sealskin gloves and wiry balls of musk-ox yarn. Sled dogs yipped and howled from their yards.

The next day we anchored at Ilulissat, 171 miles farther north, another town of bright square houses and home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Ilulissat Icefjord: a 30-mile-long channel choked with massive icebergs calved from one of the world’s most swiftly collapsing glaciers. The Jakobshavn Glacier has been melting back at a consistent rate of more than 100 feet a day, dumping more than 38 billion tons of frozen water into the sea each year. In the days before we arrived, a nearly five-mile-square chunk fell off the face—what some observers think might have been the largest single calving ever observed from this glacier. The iceberg-choked fjord that the glacier emptied into was a breathtaking modernist abstraction in white and blue and silver, 3-D, vivid, luminous, and grave.

Jakobshavn is responsible for about 10 percent of all of the icebergs that Greenland produces: From Ilulissat, they follow the current north along the coast to Kap York, where they turn and wheel back south along Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland, slowly melting their way into the North Atlantic. Leaving Ilulissat, we sailed with them, stopping along the way for picturesque hikes at Karrat Fjord and Kullorsuaq Island. From Kap York we diverged from the current and sailed north out of Baffin Bay, to the most northerly point we would reach, just a smidge beyond 78 degrees. A thin, shining line of pack ice, cutting across the gray water of Smith Sound and cloaked in a low fog, blocked us from going farther. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the only significant sea ice that we would see.

That day, August 26, we Zodiacked in down a long, spectacular fjord to land at Etah, a lush glacial valley rich with tundra, mosses, grass, and wildlife. We saw birds, musk oxen, and Arctic hares, but the most striking sign of life was in the innumerable bones littering the valley floor. A great cairn of them had been heaped up on the beach near a couple of Inuit hunting shacks, testifying to Etah’s plenty: caribou antlers and musk-ox hooves, walrus skulls and seal spines.

A mile or so back from the cairn was the glacier face. Gently sloping to the moraine at its base, the glacier poured a stream of water out into a large pond. Its north edge had melted back in a curious way, creating a passage and, within, a small cave leading back under the ice. Standing inside the glacier, you could watch the vast Greenland ice sheet melting right before your eyes. You could feel it, slick, cold, and wet under your hand. You could hear it drip, drop by drop, into pools among the rocks. Greenland is losing about 300 billion tons of ice every year. Over time, that ice is going to raise sea levels by more than 20 feet. Drip by drip, drop by drop.

* * *

“We were going out into Smith Sound and we’re trying to traverse eastward to get to Etah, and we found ourselves going alongside a tabular berg. We steamed over two hours down one face of this berg, well over 22 nautical miles. One face. This is the first time that we’d encountered something that large. Why is that? Because the ice shelves at the top of Ellesmere Island are breaking apart.”

—Chris Dolder, Adventure Canada assistant expedition leader

Adventure Canada was founded in 1987 by Matthew Swan, a former journalist and avid outdoorsman. A small family company originally booking one or two expeditions a year, it has grown significantly in the past decade, now under the guidance of Swan’s daughter, Cedar, who became the company’s vice president in 2006 and CEO this year. Adventure Canada is an environmentally conscious and family-friendly company with a strong history of supporting cultural, scientific, and environmental programs, including the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the Walrus Foundation, and Students on Ice, which brings students to the Arctic and Antarctica for two-week intensive study programs. Adventure Canada also supports communities in the north in various ways and is beginning a new scientist-in-residence program. When I approached company officials with my pitch, they generously offered a berth aboard the Endeavour, the company’s most expensive cruise (they covered charter-flight costs as well).

Ecotourism, adventure tourism, expedition tourism, call it what you will: Wilderness-oriented group tours remain an ethically dubious proposition. Built on and often glorifying a tradition of brutal, racialized colonial domination, adventure tourism restages the white-supremacist conquest of “nature” and “natives” as a carefully controlled consumer encounter with “pristine wilderness” and “indigenous cultures.” And while it’s nowhere near as violent as the heritage it celebrates, it cannot help but change the places and people it objectifies as “experiences,” in ways both obvious and subtle.

Adventure Canada CEO Swan, along with nearly every staff member I spoke with and several of my fellow passengers, expressed an alert and sometimes pained awareness of the problem—in this case, a history of environmental and cultural exploitation stretching from the fur and whaling days to more recent Canadian efforts to forcibly assimilate Inuit. Lecture programming on the Endeavour focused heavily not only on environmental issues and climate change, but also on Inuit culture and history. Two esteemed Inuit leaders, Bernadette Dean and Tagak Curley, were on the cruise as resource staff, in addition to a biologist, zoologist, botanist, archaeologist, geologist, and historian. Generally speaking, the hope was that the experience would make passengers more conscious of the very history of the despoliation it reprised, and that the positive increase in social awareness thus achieved would outweigh any negative impacts—not the least of which came from burning 10 to 20 tons of fuel each day.

“For us, as a company,” Swan told me, “I feel that there’s value in bringing people to a place that brings them so far out of their regular life that it gives them a little jolt. To say, ‘Hey, it’s not all pavement and Wal-Marts and provincial parks.’ To have that wake-up call to remind us that we’re a very small part of a much larger picture.”

Swan introduced me to her resource staff, with whom I had many long conversations. I talked with biologist James Halfpenny about polar bears and sea ice; I talked with zoologist Ree Brennin Houston about environmental education; and I talked with Tagak Curley, one of the founders of Nunavut, about Inuit perspectives on climate change. Their voices resonated through our journey like a chorus. One of the most interesting people I spoke with was Ian Tamblyn, a sandpaper-voiced folk singer who’d been coming to the Arctic for decades. When I asked him about climate change, his merry eyes grew somber and their charming twinkle dimmed. “I’m not a scientist,” he said. “I’m a musician. But I’ve seen these things. I’ve seen the Northwest Passage change in my lifetime. What it is, if it’s not scientific evidence, is bearing witness. I’ve seen it happen.”

* * *

“Once we lose the multi-year ice, that’s a major tipping point. And I think we’re probably going to see an ice-free North Pole in five, maybe 15 years.” 

—James Halfpenny

“We need to look at what’s coming at us with our eyes open. The Arctic will be ice-free. The Arctic ecosystem will change.” 

—Ree Brennin Houston

“I think about it all the time. To me, it’s the slow disaster. It’s so beautiful… so beautiful. And it’s a disaster. It will eclipse everything.”
—Ian Tamblyn

Grise Fiord, Canada’s northernmost community, is a small village of about 150 people, mostly Inuit, and two Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who rotate through every couple of years. Perched on a desolate, rocky stretch of Ellesmere Island, the village was founded in 1953 through a Canadian government resettlement scheme to assert national sovereignty in the far north. Inuit from Quebec Province were promised land, support, and good hunting, then shipped hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle and more or less abandoned. They were isolated by sea ice, visited by a government ship once a year, and spurned by the local RCMP. Informed on arrival that hunting in the region was severely restricted because of recent wildlife protections, the resettled Inuit struggled for years to survive in near-starvation conditions, coping with neglect, malnutrition, depression, and suicide. In recent decades, after the founding of the Inuit-governed territory of Nunavut, the settlers and their descendents were offered the chance to return to the south. Many took it. The ones who remained proudly call Grise Fiord home.

Our cultural expedition there started with a visit from Grise Fiord’s elders to the Ocean Endeavour. They sat awkwardly onstage in the Nautilus Lounge while Cedar’s 2-year-old daughter danced around them. There were some speeches, then a Q&A. Among the questions about native dress, seal hunts, how much food costs in the north, and the effect of technology on kids today, one passenger asked: “Is the weather changing in Grise Fjord?” This seemed apt: The Inuit name for the town, Aujuittuq, means “Place that never thaws,” but the bay we’d anchored in was mostly clear, save for a few icebergs in the distance and a chunk of ice melting in the shallows.

John Houston, a bushy-browed, bearded filmmaker and culturalist on staff with Adventure Canada who had grown up in the north and lived among Inuit all his life, translated the question into Inuktitut. One of the female elders took the microphone and spoke, then John translated back: “Yes, she’s really seen those changes. One of them is the loss of snow. Another is warmer air. The ice is melting much more quickly. The shorefast ice vanishes in the spring almost overnight. And there are many more changes, many changes. There are a lot of signs of climate change here.”

Then Larry Audlaluk, one of the senior elders, stood up and took the mike from Houston. He spoke in English. “I want to dispel a notion about polar bears,” he said. “I hear a lot about polar bears, a lot about what people down south think about polar bears. I want to tell you that polar bears are very healthy. There are very many polar bears, far too many of them. The ice hasn’t affected our polar bears. The polar bear is just fine.”

I was perplexed: Why was he talking about polar bears in response to a question about climate change? And weren’t polar bears threatened?

In the Canadian Arctic, it turns out, polar bears are political. The fundamental conflict is between international environmental concerns and local economics. On one side, scientists and environmentalists argue that the polar bear is endangered by climate change, specifically by the loss of sea ice. The United States has declared the bear threatened and has lobbied to ban international trade in their pelts. On the other side, Inuit in Canada depend on bears as one of the few sources of cash in what is mainly a subsistence economy. As Houston explained to me: “There isn’t that much cash income for senior hunters since Greenpeace and friends basically gutted the fur trade. The real cash income for a senior hunter would be to guide a nonresident sport polar-bear hunt, the purse for which can be $20,000 or more. In many cases it would be, by far, the majority of their annual cash income.” In addition to the purse, a single pelt can sell for up to $10,000 Canadian.

Complicating the polar-bear question are two factors: First, while scientists have a strong case for describing what’s going on with bear populations, they don’t have very strong data to back that case up. Andrew Derocher, a biologist at the University of Alberta and the author of Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior, told me that the bears are a highly specialized apex predator dependent on sea-ice ecosystems for their main prey, ringed seals. Less ice means fewer bears. “We expect to lose about two-thirds of the polar-bear population by mid-century,” he said. Yet he also told me that current estimates for the global polar-bear population, around 20,000 to 25,000, have a margin of error of plus or minus 40 percent (meaning the range could be anywhere from 12,000 to 35,000). Data on the bears is spotty, out-of-date, and hard to gather. Inuit call the polar bear Pihoqahiak, “the ever-wandering one,” characterizing nomadic tendencies that, for biologists, make the bear difficult and expensive to study. The simple fact is that if we want to know what’s going on with polar bears, we need more science.

The second factor complicating the polar-bear question is that Inuit and outfitters from Labrador to Cambridge Bay have reported seeing more bears today than in the past. Tagak Curley told me: “We know for a fact, from our forefathers, from the time we were little boys, that polar bears are increasing. I think you will see that anywhere. As my friend Mikitak Bruce said, ‘Nanuit nungujjangittualuit.’ Polar bears will never disappear.” Even if Derocher is correct in predicting that polar bears will be affected by loss of habitat, local observers may still be right: Polar-bear populations have probably grown in recent decades, after mid-century overhunting was curtailed in the 1970s. In addition, decreasing pack ice would likely send bears inland for food, where they’ll run into more humans.

Whether polar bears were endangered or adapting, the stark poverty of Grise Fiord made a much more compelling case for polar-bear economics than Larry Audlaluk had. The houses in town were bleak, the few residents we saw grim. A scowling grandma in a dirty jacket drove by on an ATV. Our tour guide, Rose, showed us the medical center, clean but sparse, and the co-op, a dusty, blighted general store restocked by ship each September. The prices were two to three times what you’d pay in Toronto or New York. Most people, Rose told us, relied on country food like seal, musk ox, and whale.

We were taken to see a statue of a stout Inuk woman glaring at the sea, the official memorial honoring the sacrifice Inuit had made to Canadian national sovereignty. We were brought into the town’s cultural center and given samples of raw Arctic char and Beluga blubber, offered crude sealskin handicrafts and photographs of the memorial for purchase, and shown a performance of Inuit throat-singing and traditional dress. Two of my fellow passengers told me how much they admired Inuit for not being resentful and angry like some other indigenous peoples were.

One of our other tour guides showed us his bear pelt. It was his second kill, he said; he’d shot the bear himself, from about 10 feet away. He was 16 years old. The bear’s thick white fur was rough to the touch.

It was the same bear that appears on the Adventure Canada logo. The same bear that’s become an icon for climate-change activists. The same bear that’s used to sell Coca-Cola. Who had the right to decide what this bear’s life meant? Who was entitled to say what it was worth?

* * *

“When you come from a place like this, and you’ve lived here all your life and you know the seasons and you follow the plants and you follow what the land is doing, and then you get researchers who come up here for two or three months of the year and they’re acknowledged experts… All those people, when it comes to October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, they’re not going to be up here. I’ll be here. Tagak will be here.”
—Bernadette Dean,
advocate of Inuit culture and language,
member of the Nunavut Water Board,
Adventure Canada resource staff

Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage was manned by adventurers who lived the motto of Enlightenment philosophy: Sapere aude! (Dare to know!) Like us, they had believed that with technology, ingenuity, and daring, they could master the unknown. Franklin’s ships, the HMS Terror and Erebus, were outfitted with all the latest cutting-edge equipment, including steam engines, reinforced hulls, and three years’ worth of canned foods. They were crewed by brave, resilient, and skilled sailors. They were commanded by veterans of the Napoleonic Wars with years of experience in the Arctic.

Somewhere in the frigid waters of the Arctic, though, the ships caught fast in the ice. As the stout-hearted crew succumbed to starvation, hypothermia, and disease, they turned on each other, descending into madness and cannibalism. Franklin’s expedition ended in disaster. Franklin’s arrogance may have been partly to blame, as well as his cultivated ignorance of Inuit knowledge, but the real culprit—as Owen Beattie established conclusively in 1984—was the lead used to seal the canned food that Franklin had brought to ward off scurvy. Beattie and his team proved this by performing autopsies on three sailors Franklin had buried: Able Seaman John Hartnell, Royal Marine William Braine, and Petty Officer John Torrington. The men’s bodies lay interred on Beechey Island, a small, bare rock rising up out of Parry Channel.

Today, as more and more cruise ships and private yachts ply the Northwest Passage, Beechey Island has become an important tourist stop. Indeed, when we arrived there on the morning of August 30, we found a 170-foot, custom-built Benetti yacht named Latitude in the harbor, with a covered runabout tethered beside. By the time our fifth Zodiac had unloaded for the day’s expedition, rumors were flying that Leonardo DiCaprio was on board (he’d been spotted camping on Baffin Island in July). Our ship’s videographer thought he’d spotted Michael Fassbender.

Later that morning, after most of us had already done our sightseeing and returned to the ship, a polar bear ambled up out of the water onto the beach. It was the fourth bear we’d seen. Those of us already returned massed on the sundecks at the rear of the Endeavour, snapping photos, while Zodiacs swiftly ferried back everyone still on the island. Meanwhile, the Latitude’s runabout broke away and motored in toward shore, coming to rest about 100 yards from the bear. The bear watched the runabout closely. We watched the bear. Then, after several minutes, the bear suddenly looked up, startled, and fled. Photographs and video showed a drone flying from the runabout and buzzing the bear. Assistant expedition leader Chris Dolder vowed to report the incident to Canadian authorities.

That night, compounding the excitement about Beechey, the bear, Leo, and the drone, we were led in a rousing rendition of Stan Rogers’s Canadian anthem “Northwest Passage,” treated to a special Franklin Expedition–themed dinner, and invited to dress up in costume for an explorer-themed dance party. The mood was high, charged with a peculiar mix of compulsory fun, emotional release, and cultural pride.

When the Franklin Expedition failed to return to England in the late 1840s, the British Navy and Lady Jane Franklin funded numerous search-and-rescue attempts. The rescue expedition led by Dr. John Rae was the most successful, in terms of actual information, but also the most controversial: Rae brought back reports from Inuit that the Franklin Expedition had degenerated into cannibalism. The news was a scandal, and Rae was attacked in the press by Charles Dickens. The controversy ended Rae’s career.

One of my fellow passengers, a retired microbiologist from Los Angeles, was dismissive of Franklin’s allure. “What’s the big deal?” she asked. “He fucked up and he died. End of story.”

“Maybe it was the sense of mystery,” I answered. “The fact that they never found his ships.”

She was skeptical. And as I looked around the dance party at all the pale, pink-cheeked Canadians dressed like Vikings and British explorers, it occurred to me that she was right. It wasn’t mystery. It wasn’t even Sapere aude. What the Franklin Expedition glorified was the war of Man—white men—against Nature. Franklin was indeed a tragic figure, and the tragic flaw he embodied was a will to power that knew no bounds. He was doomed because “nature” proved, finally, unconquerable, but in honoring his memory, we were celebrating and carrying on the war he’d waged.

As the MS Ocean Endeavour burned another 15 tons of carbon, sailing blithely through placid, warming seas, Franklin’s war against Nature was being replayed by retirees dancing to Abba in Viking helmets, confirming Marx’s well-known observation that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

* * *

“We live in different times at different times. The arguments that Tagak and Bernadette are making are in a different time frame than the time frame we live in. What they’re arguing is really good, but there’s another wheel that’s turning. The effect of European trampling is not over.”
—Ian Tamblyn

“It’s all over the Arctic. It’s not only this part. It’s the Russian Arctic, it’s the Scandinavian Arctic. It’s the Arctic everywhere.”
—Stefan Kindberg
Expedition leader, Adventure Canada

The “idea of the North” has long been a whirl around a void, a dreamland, a question to be answered. As Margaret Atwood writes: “Popular lore…established early that the North was uncanny, awe-inspiring in an almost religious way, hostile to white men, but alluring; that it would lead you on and do you in; that it would drive you crazy, and, finally, would claim you for its own.” This conception of the Arctic brings with it a sexual politics, a racial politics, and a geopolitics, all of them calling for assertions of white male mastery—from the search for the Northwest Passage to claims for Canadian sovereignty to the idiotic death chant “Drill, baby, drill!”

Yet for thousands of years before Franklin tried to pierce the Northwest Passage in 1845, humans eking out a tenuous existence there knew very well what the North was made of. It was giant bones and qalupalik; angakkuit who could turn from animals to men and back again; anirniit that were sometimes wind and sometimes women, sometimes waves and sometimes seals. Their world was neither Edenic nor sublime, but fraught with constant danger—from bone-cracking ice, ravenous bears, and innumerable unseen spirits.

“The greatest peril in life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls,” an Inuk named Ivaluardjuk told Danish anthropologist Knud Rasmussen a century ago. “All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, souls that do not perish with the body, and which must therefore be propitiated lest they should revenge themselves on us.”

Those nomadic Arctic hunting cultures have been destroyed by colonialism, by modernity, by industrialization, as completely as were those of the great Iroquois nations and the Nambikwara of Brazil. We no longer live in the world of Ivaluardjuk, in which humans must battle and propitiate invisible spirits. But we no longer live in the world of Franklin, either, in which the white man is locked in an unending war with Nature. The Enlightenment hero’s “Idea of the North,” that conception of the Arctic as a sublime encounter with pristine wilderness, was being destroyed by the very ship I sailed on and the very passengers (few of whom would have survived 17 days in Franklin’s wilderness) I traveled with.

We live today in a world in which we’ve been struck low, perhaps lower than ever before. Unwitting agents of our own demise, unable to control the immense technologies we so arrogantly believed were ours, incapable of exerting the rational collective will necessary to save our civilization from destruction, we find ourselves reduced to something less than human, lacking even the dumb instinct for survival we attribute to plants.

Geologists, scientists, and other thinkers have advanced the idea that the Earth has entered a new epoch, one characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force. They’re calling this epoch the Anthropocene. Some thinkers suppose this idea implies that we have advanced beyond Nature, that the world is now completely human, but while they grasp the truth that we’ve left behind the Enlightenment’s division between Man and Nature, they’ve grasped that truth by the wrong end. The Anthropocene implies not the supersession of “Nature” by human civilization, but the opposite: the reduction of human civilization to the status of a fossil. On a geological time scale, we’re just another rock.

As we sailed south from Beechey Island, I sat with Ian Tamblyn over a glass of chardonnay, watching the sun drop into a black and iceless sea. “When Students on Ice started, their motto was ‘Save the Pole, Save the Planet,’ ” he recollected. “In recent years, that logo’s disappeared, in part because of the reality of the situation. It’s heartbreaking for me, because these kids really want to save the planet. They’re totally dedicated to it. But a few years ago, one of Harper’s ministers came on the trip, and he told the students that global warming should be seen as an economic opportunity. I don’t understand why they did that, but at the same time, that’s a reality. It’s a reality that our prime minister sees, and a reality that others see as well. What do we do? Do we try to save a planet that can’t be saved, or do we adapt? I’ve got a generation of kids who are still living in a paradigm of saving the planet. Others see that we’re beyond that and that it cannot be saved. And so a Machiavellian politician will say, ‘Let’s look for opportunity where we can. Let’s look for the rare metals under the glaciers. Let’s open the Northwest Passage.’ Again, going back to my lifetime, I’ve seen that transition—of going from a pre-climate-change world, to a climate-change world, to a post-climate-change world. We’re acting it out. But I’ve never actually been allowed to say these things. It’s not part of the party line.”

* * *

“I do hear people say, ‘Well, what’s the point?’ What’s the point!? It’ll make the Earth completely uninhabitable for life as we know it. Bacteria and whatever will survive, but I care about life as we know it. We need to be fighting all we can to decrease greenhouse gases.”
—Ree Brennin Houston

“To be honest, the North is doomed. The Inuit way of life is gone. They can’t go out on the ice to hunt, it won’t be long before it’s only annual ice, and I suspect there may be a time when there’s no ice. There just ain’t a rosy picture there.”
—James Halfpenny

“Maybe it’s like the elders say: ‘Ajurtnarmat.’ Nothing to be done.”
—Tagak Curley

The first cruise ship to transit the Northwest Passage, the MS Lindblad Explorer, did so in 1984. This year, six other cruise ships made the passage with the Ocean Endeavour, plus at least seven private yachts, two cargo ships, and a tanker. Next year will see at least as many or more, plus the MS Crystal Serenity, an 820-foot-long luxury liner that can carry more than 1,000 passengers, scheduled to make a 32-day cruise from Seward, Alaska, to New York City.

As the Ocean Endeavour sailed west through Coronation Gulf toward our final destination in Kugluktuk, I was overtaken by the realization that what I’d come to see was already gone. The Arctic was changing in response to global warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, and by the time I’d gotten there, it had already been through the hottest years and the most precipitous declines in sea ice ever recorded. The five record lows for sea-ice extent had all occurred in the past eight years. This year, 2015, saw the lowest recorded seasonal maximum as well, in February, and ranked fourth-lowest in summer sea-ice extent, bottoming out at 1.7 million square miles on September 11. That trend would only continue.

Yet as the Buddhists teach, nothing is ever what it is for very long, and nothing is ever lost. Things morph from one form to another, as matter and energy coalesce and transition back and forth from waves into beings. Any truly empirical view of life must admit the universe is flux, time change, and death nothing more than the shift between states. As the earth’s gyres and floes wheel and pass, diminish and crescendo, there is no final end, no doom, no death spiral: Each wheel turns another, turns into another, and every end is a new beginning.

Passengers board and disembark. Ships sail east and west. Planes fly in and out of Iqaluit, Sydney, Beijing, JFK. Traffic thickens and thins along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the lights along Manhattan turn off, turn on, as the coal-fired grid ebbs and surges. The stock market rises and falls, days turn into weeks, weeks turn into years, money changes hands, and carbon flows from under the earth into the sky. Ice melts into the sea, drop by drop. Another UN convention meets. Another election cycle begins. Another hottest summer ever passes.

As we stood in our life jackets below decks the last day, waiting to Zodiac ashore for our flight to Edmonton, we were met by passengers coming aboard for the next cruise: “Out of the Northwest Passage 2015.” Another crowd of silver-haired adventurers, our group’s uncanny twins, smiling in confusion as we cheered them on.

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