When Cameron Dueck set sail for the Canadian Arctic to witness what he calls “the front line of climate change,” he did so knowing he would have to brave seas that have killed numerous sailors and reduced men to cannibalism.
In the 450 years prior to the first successful voyage in 1906, people sought to find the Northwest Passage, a potentially lucrative shipping route linking Europe to Asia that would cut out the lengthy journey around the horn of South America.
Many died trying to find it; among them Sir John Franklin whose HMS Erebus and HMS Terror attempted the fabled passage in 1845, but sank without a trace. Their 129 men died eating each other on the unforgiving ice.
However, by the time Dueck set off on his voyage more than 100 years later, 35 sailing yachts had successfully made the trip — a feat made possible by a stark reality: The ice was now melting fast.
“I wanted to see something very few people have seen,” Hong Kong-based journalist and sailor Dueck said at the launch of his book about the voyage, The New Northwest Passage, at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club last week.
“It was about finding out what climate change looked like for real. Not just in terms of what we’re told by politicians, or what corporations say in their mission statements,” he said.
The extent to which Arctic ice is breaking up is an illustration of the growing impact of climate change in the Poles, where temperatures are rising more quickly than in the rest of the world.
“There has been no ice for up to a month in the last several years during the summer,” said Peter Semotiuk, a long-term resident of the Canadian Arctic,
He said last year’s season featured the highest number of yachts ever to complete the passage, with 16 making it through.
“I do see the effect of less ice cover through the Northwest Passage route,” Semotiuk said, adding that commercial shipping is also on the increase as the ice melts. “It seems the whole Arctic ice pack is affected.”
Dueck and his crew sailed the 40ft Silent Sound 8,000 nautical miles — or 15,000 km — from Victoria in British Columbia, up to Dutch Harbor in Alaska, through the Bering Straight amd down into the Beaufort Sea before hitting the Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland.
What they found was startling.
While the loss of Arctic sea ice threatens wildlife such as polar bears, seals and walruses that depend on it as a platform for hunting, mating and migration, the human cost is less well charted, Dueck said.
He met Alaskan fishermen who sail the Bering Sea for fish and crabs, and who are increasingly joining the dots between disappearing ice, warmer temperatures and their own changing fortunes.
Then there are the Inuit — who have been forced to change their way of life, from harvesting berries a month earlier than they used to, to having their ancestral hunting knowledge being reduced to irrelevance by the swiftly warming environment.
“They used to be able to read the ice — look at wind, temperatures, the moon phase and understand when it was safe to be on the ice and when it was time to pack up and head to shore,” Dueck said.
“But these days, they no longer trust the ice, or their traditional ways of reading the ice, because it is breaking up sooner and no longer according to the patterns they know,” he added.
While Dueck admits such anecdotal evidence has not been fully processed scientifically, “when every hunter you meet is saying the same thing, that tells you all you need to know.”