It's nearly mid-summer, so almost all the ice and snow has disappeared here on Cornwallis Island, though locals tell us it vanished sooner than in years past. What remains is barren tundra, featureless and devoid of trees, where little is able to grow. I find myself wishing there was more white stuff to cover the desert-like ground. Somehow it would make more sense when I look around. It's also been bitingly windy since we arrived, stirring up dust everywhere. Gusts exceed 50 miles per hour. We've driven along the western side of the island, but the roads are extremely rocky and eventually they simply run out. Looking out to sea there are pockets of ice floes, and we've encountered a few collections of seal bones. I'm sure I spotted a polar bear in the distance at one point. We're told in the fall months they routinely lumber through town.
The Hamlet of Resolute, as it's known, consists of a handful of gravel tracks weaving amongst a couple dozen low-rise structures. That's pretty much it. The air of relative poverty or perhaps resignation (or disinterest?) is impossible to deny. All it takes is a short walk. That said I haven't talked to enough locals to positively equate disrepair with despair. (Like today we talked to Ludy, who's been here since 1959 and is proud to call Resolute home. So what do I know?) We see very few Inuit during the day. Some are sleeping (possibly preferring the cooler air of the night, we're told), and we usually just catch the occasional laughing children chasing one another or people shopping at the Co-op. It's like they're usually shuttered up indoors unless necessity brings them out. (Of course who could blame them with this wind.) And that gives rise to the unavoidable question about yearlong, permanent life in Resolute: What else is there to do?
Resolute's rather short history dates back to 1947 as an airfield and weather station. Several years later a handful of Inuit were relocated from northern Quebec to here in Resolute as part of Canada's claim to the region. The bare bones infrastructure has gradually built up over time, especially when the lack of decent amenities was revealed. Now there are vehicles and a store and a school and a community hall and a few hotels and even a couple of fire trucks, as we found out yesterday when a small fire broke out.
In a frozen nutshell, 60 years later and here we are. (Important note: The territory of Nunavut is a huge place, and Resolute is just a tiny part of it.)
We've anecdotally talked to as many people as we could track down. On our first day in Resolute we spoke with some McGill University archeology students who are digging nearby at a site of where a group of Thule people lived some 800 years ago. Those ancestors of the Inuit may have headed east from Alaska to follow the whales due to a warming trend at the time. A reminder that climate change is nothing new. The trick today is getting solid baseline data in the Arctic where the current change is happening relatively fast. Research here is critical to our understanding of global warming, but the amount of quality measurements only goes back roughly 20-30 years.
So as Marty Bergmann, an Arctic scientist with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and a key player in the International Polar Year put it to me: How do you predict a definitive future trend based on a few decades of study when these types of oceanographic, land-based and atmospheric changes are minutely analyzed on a centurial (or larger) scale? While the methodology is complicated the answer is simple: The more we know, the clearer we can see what's ahead.