Obituary for an Arctic river

dry-lakebed-kluane

Dried lake pinnacles in a newly exposed part of Kluane Lake, Yukon, Canada. Photo: Jim Best/University of Illinois

I haven’t been posting a lot lately, and that’s because I’ve had a hectic schedule over the past month with fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic and conferences and talks on the East Coast of the United States. Now, I’m happy to be back in one place for a little while, which allows me some time to sit, gather my thoughts, and reflect on the latest developments in the Arctic.

Much of the Northern news this week has focused on Russia’s opening of a new Arctic military base on Franz Josef Land, a couple hundred miles east of Svalbard. Fox News took the bait and asked in its headline, “A new Cold War in the Arctic? Russia unveils virtual tour of new military base.” I think the headline answers its own question because if we were on track for a new Cold War, I doubt Russia would be allowing web surfers from around the world to explore the base via its dedicated website (in Russian).

A bigger story this week in terms of rapid Arctic change involves the sudden disappearance of a river in the Yukon, located in Canada’s western Arctic, last spring. In a case of what scientists term “river piracy,” climate-driven glacial retreat caused the glacially-fed Slims River (A’ay Chu, in the native language) to stop flowing north into the Bering Sea and instead west into the Gulf of Alaska. Essentially, the lake on top of the Kaskawulsh Glacier that drained into the Slims River changed its outlet to the previously much smaller Kaskawulsh River. Previously, scientists thought that river piracy happened over the course of centuries. In the Yukon, the drying up of the Slims River happened in a mere four days.

This is the first known instance of post-industrial, climactically-driven river reorganization. The fact that it was “geologically instantaneous,” to use the words of the Nature Geoscience paper’s authors, also suggests that the timescale with which we imagine Arctic climate change is woefully misguided. The retreat of Arctic sea ice, for instance, is usually imagined as taking place over years or decades. For an Arctic river to disappear in a matter of days brings “rapid Arctic climate change” to a whole new level. The authors also urge, “Most studies of the effects of climate change on glacial environments deal with enhanced melt or contributions to sea-level rise. We suggest that the effects can be more far reaching.”

This epic landscape transformation in the Yukon may wreak havoc on downstream ecosystems. The authors also reported that by Fall 2016, months after the river rerouting, “massive afternoon dust storms almost daily on the nearly abandoned Slims River floodplain.” In the future, the picturesque, UNESCO World Heritage-designated lake into which the Slims River flows, Kluane Lake, may even seasonally close. The river and lake, which is the Yukon’s largest, are located in Kluane National Park. This is one of the jewels of Canada’s parks system, containing the country’s tallest peak and the world’s largest non-polar ice field. The Kluane First Nations and other northerners who rely on the lake for sustenance and recreation, along with the fish and other marine species that inhabit it, could all be severely impacted as well.

The colours of Kluane Lake #exploreyukon |Photo by @jte__photography #explorecanada

A post shared by Travel Yukon (@travelyukon) on

A healthy Kluane Lake.

dust-storms-kluane-lake-yukon

Dust storms in a newly exposed part of Kluane Lake. Photo: Jim Best/University of Illinois

This story of the disappearance of the Slims River hit close to home ago because just a few weeks ago, I was in the Yukon. I didn’t have much time to get out on the land, but I did see some incredible mountains flying in and out of Whitehorse, the territory’s capital. The dramatic landscape seems too large – larger than life, to borrow Travel Yukon’s official slogan for the territory – for humans to be able to seriously alter it. But alas, as scientists, satellite imagery, and fieldwork confirm, we have.

River-Yukon-Winter-Ice-Black-and-White

Descending into Whitehorse. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

When I was in the Yukon in March, I stayed in the capital, Whitehorse. The city of 23,000 people sits along the Yukon River, which is also glacially fed. I spent a nice evening in late March, when the sun already stays out until close to 9:00 pm, walking along the Millennium Trail that loops around a five-kilometer stretch of the meandering river. The trail turns back towards town at the Whitehorse Hydro Plant, which underscores how rivers and hydropower have become key sources of energy for northern Canada. No rushing river, no spinning turbines, no hydropower.

Yukon-Hydropower-Plant

Big chunks of ice in front of Whitehorse’s hydropower plant. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

cof

SS Klondike, a historic sternwheeler that used to run freight between Whitehorse and Dawson along the Yukon River during the 20th century. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

Like the Slims River, the Yukon River’s headwaters are located in a glacier (Llewellyn Glacier, to be exact, in British Columbia). If the Yukon River hadn’t existed, much of the territory’s development would likely have never taken place whether in prehistoric or industrial times. Rivers have long provided sustenance for northern First Nations like the Holikachuk and the Gwich’in. In the modern era, salmon fisheries have become an important industry, while rivers have also been used as transportation arteries by steamboats sailing between the Yukon and Alaska. These routes were key for opening up the Canadian and American North to gold seekers and miners. By 1899, 30 steamboats were plying the Yukon River alone.

In the Yukon, rivers aren’t as important as they used to be for industrial transport given that that most of the territory’s communities are now connected by road. Many roadless settlements in the neighboring Northwest Territories rely on barge transport, however. If one of the NWT’s glacially fed rivers were to dry up, goods would have to be flown in at great cost – or else a gravel road would have to be built great distances across unforgiving terrain. The northern communities of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk are already replacing their ice road, built on the frozen Mackenzie River each year, with an all-weather highway that will open later this year. In the Arctic, rivers of gravel are replacing rivers of ice.

inuvik-tuk-ice-road-nwt-canada-arctic

The winter ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. The ice road sits atop the Mackenzie River. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

highway-construction-arctic-ITH

Work being done in a gravel pit near the Inuvik-Tuk Highway. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

Rivers also remain key battlefields in the fight between environmentalists and mining interests. The resource-rich Peel Watershed, which is home to four First Nations, is ground zero for this debate in the Yukon at the moment. The ongoing battle is currently being decided by Canada’s Supreme Court, demonstrating how rivers can serve as organizing forces for both preservationists and developers. If a river like the Peel were to suddenly disappear, however, and turns into a dusty watershed unable to support people, flora, or fauna, then maybe mining will have its day. I suppose this is already happening in the Arctic, where, with sea ice retreating, the response appears to be one of, “Bring in the oil rigs!”

So, to those of you who haven’t experienced the glacial thrill of swimming, fishing, kayaking, or simply picnicking aside a river in the Yukon: get there while you can. I’ll never forget the long day I spent on Canada Day Weekend along the Ogilvie River with friends last summer, casting our lines into the cold water, taking a quick dip in a peaceful river bend, making s’mores under the midnight sun, and seeing a rainbow at two in the morning. Let’s hope more of the Arctic’s rivers don’t disappear anytime soon.

dog-rainbow-yukon

A rainbow at 2am along the Ogilvie River. Photo: Mia Bennett, July 2016.

ARCUS Arctic Research Seminar in D.C. this Friday

A gravel pit along the Inuvik-Tuk Highway. Photo: Mia Bennett/March 2017.

A gravel pit along the Inuvik-Tuk Highway. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

This Friday, April 14, I’ll be giving an Arctic research seminar at ARCUS (the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S.) in Washington, D.C. It’ll be a lunchtime talk from 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm. The title is, “Development on Ice: Social and Economic Impacts of Arctic Transportation Infrastructure.” In my seminar, I’ll discuss the mechanisms connecting northern communities to regional and global transportation networks. I’ll share insights from my research and fieldwork throughout the Arctic, including in northeast Russia and Canada’s Northwest Territories. I’ll also include some updates based on my trip at the end of March to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, where construction has nearly wrapped up on the first public highway in North America to the Arctic Ocean. This highway will replace the ice road that connects the two communities together every winter. So if you want to drive on the ice to the frozen Arctic Ocean, this month is your last chance.

More information about the ARCUS seminar, including a link to registration, is available here. For those who can’t attend in person, the webinar will also be streamed online.

Seminar location
ARCUS D.C. Office
1201 New York Avenue
NW Washington D.C.

inuvik-tuk-ice-road-nwt-canada-arctic

The last ice road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

2016: The Arctic in Photos

In 2016, I traveled to far-flung parts of the Arctic I’d never before visited. I spent over two months of last year in the North, bundling up for deepest winter in Russia’s Sakha Republic and seeking shade from the unrelenting sun of an Arctic summer spent above the treeline in Canada’s Northwest Territories. I also returned to more familiar grounds in Iceland’s charming capital, a city that seems to metamorphose with every visit.

The North’s stark and impressive beauty never ceased to amaze, but more memorable were the people I encountered during my long journeys across tundras and mountains. At times I wouldn’t see another person on the road for hours, and then suddenly I’d be offered a cup of tea made from wild herbs, a bowl of hot borscht, or a piece of fresh-baked bannock in a welcome resting spot.

The hospitality that fills out the wide spaces of the Arctic is what makes it a place that keeps calling me back year after year. Sometimes, in moments when the mercury drops to 40 below, I’ll have fleeting thoughts of switching my research focus to a place like Southeast Asia. But then I’ll remember the mornings sipping Nescafe 3-in-1 out of a quickly melting plastic cup while staring at Soviet apartment buildings, the long evenings playing checkers inside a community center on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, losing every time to a man wearing a ring he had carved into the shape of a polar bear, and the nights spent swimming in the Arctic Ocean under the midnight sun with a sun dog arcing across the orange sky, and I know I’ll be back.

Below are a selection of photos from my journeys across the Arctic in 2016. Most of them haven’t appeared on my blog before.

As for how this year is shaping out, so far, I’m planning to make a trip to Barrow, Alaska for Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s Arctic Business Development tour. In March, I’ll make a return visit to the Northwest Territories to travel along what will likely be the last-ever ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. Later this year, a permanent highway connecting the two towns – and therefore connecting Canada to the Arctic Ocean by land – is supposed to open, thereby replacing the seasonal ice road. I’m also hoping to return to Russia and to Iceland, possibly to hike in the Westfjords. Readers, if you will be in any of these places, feel free to drop me a line.

I look forward to another year sharing writings, photos, and maps from the northernmost places on Earth with you and thank you for accompanying me on the journey so far.

mirny-city-mine

Mirny City, Sakha Republic, Russia. The city sits on the edge of the giant Mir mine, the second-largest open pit mine in the world. A plume rises from the city on the right, and a sun dog sits in the sky on the left.

waiting-for-a-bus-siberia

Our little bus waiting for us to finish looking at the open-pit mine in Mirny City.

snowballs-siberia-mirny-city-sakha

Children throwing snowballs in the main square in Mirny City.

cafeteria-siberia-russia

The cafeteria lady at the Mirny Polytechnic Institute in the Sakha Republic.

mirny-city-guide

Our fur-hatted tour guide explaining the local sights. A large poster commemorating “70 Years of Victory” in World War II hangs on a building in the background.

market-fish-russia-siberia-winter-sakha

A Yakut woman selling fish, vertically frozen, at a market in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic and one of the coldest cities on earth.

school-sakha

Schoolchildren learning about traditional Yakut culture in a school in Namtsy, a village north of Yakutsk.

school2-sakha

Schoolchildren in music class, with portraits of classical composers hanging over head.

ogilvie-river-yukon

Hikers walking on pebbles alongside the Ogilvie River on Canada Day Weekend in the Yukon.

dog-rainbow-yukon

A rainbow at 1am, and a dog, in the Yukon.

goldensides

Taking photos of the midnight light from Goldensides, a trail in Tombstone Territorial Park in the Yukon.

two-moose-lake

A moose swimming in the pink fluorescent rays of the 4am sunrise at Two Moose Lake in the Yukon.

tombstone-territorial-park-panorama.jpg

A panorama of the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon. Full size here.

girl-dog-baby-tuktoyaktuk

A girl, her little sister, and their pet dog in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada.

kids-oil-rig-reindeer-point-nwt-canada

Kids on their bicycles in the community of Reindeer Point. An abandoned oil rig floats in the water, where it has drifted since the 1980s.

tuktoyaktuk-canada-nwt

Fishing at midnight in Tuktoyaktuk. The dome-shaped objects on the horizon are some of the world’s largest pingos, which are ice-cored hills.

tuktoyaktuk-beaufort-sea

A family out for for some fun at the beach in Tuktoyaktuk. Coastal erosion has caused the ocean to creep up much farther inland than it has in the past.