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The thawing edge: Gretel Ehrlich’s Empire of Ice

By Ford Cochran Award-winning author Gretel Ehrlich visited National Geographic headquarters last week to discuss her new book In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape. The volume chronicles her experiences among indigenous Arctic people living on the thawing edge of climate change. I spoke with her about what she’s witnessed over many...

By Ford Cochran

Award-winning author Gretel Ehrlich visited National Geographic headquarters last week to discuss her new book In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape. The volume chronicles her experiences among indigenous Arctic people living on the thawing edge of climate change. I spoke with her about what she’s witnessed over many years of travel in the far north.


Tell me about your latest book.

In 2007, I received a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant to go around the top of the world and talk to Arctic people about how they’ve been impacted by climate change.

My journey began in Arctic Alaska. It was January. It always takes awhile to get someplace in January in the Arctic, but we finally got to the village of Wales. I was with an Inuit friend who was born in Wales, but hadn’t been home for a long time. So when he arrived, everybody in the village came to talk to him, which was wonderful.

They were forthcoming with their thoughts about what had happened up there to the ice, to the animals, how the weather was changing, and how their lives were changing as a result.


I think what people don’t realize is that in an ice-adapted ecosystem, of course, humans are part of the ecosystem. And everything–polar bear, walrus, whale, seal, Eider duck, arctic fox–it’s all part of this same tiny ecosystem. There are only a few elements in it, really, because not much can live at the top of the world. So one tiny change in the weather impacts everybody very quickly. Not only do traditions come apart, but then it becomes a life and death situation of who has enough to eat, and where do they live when storms start causing coastal erosion and villages fall in the water. All sorts of things happen on every level.

You’ve traveled all around the Arctic talking to people in communities affected by climate change. And you’ve seen these effects everywhere?

It’s dramatic. I started traveling in the Arctic in 1991, so I experienced the ice in winter and spring. The seasonal sea ice, it has a long season. It starts in September and ends in June. It used to be 10 to 14 feet thick. Now the sea ice is seven inches thick. That’s how much has changed since 1991. That’s really fast!

People travel and hunt on the sea ice–in Alaska they hunt in skin boats for bowhead whales, in Greenland they hunt with dogsleds. The ice is their highway. The ice is also the ecosystem in which marine mammals and terrestrial animals such as polar bears exist.

When the ice starts to go, in many cases it’s broken up by wind waves from underneath, because just like the lower latitudes the Arctic is more stormy than it used to be. In the summer, it’s also warmer, so there’s more melting. Glaciers are calving way too productively. The icecap in Greenland is collapsing. They’re having ice-quakes in Greenland.

So, for example, in Alaska, the pressure ice is receding way, way out, past where walruses can dive for mollusks, past where polar bears hunt seals. Those animals are either just not there or are dying, or in the case of polar bears they’re coming into villages because they’re hungry. So that middle distance which used to be all ice, which was the platform for them to live on–the seals had their pups there, the polar bears used it to hunt from, the walruses used it to rest on and also to make their shallow dives, and the humans used to use it to go out to the ice edge, get in their skin boats and hunt bowhead whales–that’s gone.

In Greenland, it’s so warm that, even in the middle of winter when it’s 30 below zero, there’s hardly any ice at all. So what used to be a nine month season for hunting is two or three months at best, and they’re not consecutive days. There were marine mammal hunters that used to go out for a month at a time, big family groups, they just lived out on the ice. And now they’re hardly out at all. Many of the hunters in Greenland have had to shoot their sled dogs because they don’t have food for them.

When that starts to happen, you know the next things that go hungry are humans. So things come apart in the natural world very quickly.

What people don’t understand about the Arctic is that this isn’t just about those other people, those Eskimos that have nothing to do with us. The Arctic drives the climate of the whole globe. It’s our natural air conditioner. The ice and snow radiates solar heat back into space, and so it keeps the rest of our temperate latitudes cool and livable.

When that ice goes and it’s open water, the open ocean is a heat sink. So right away, exponentially, the global temperature rises and it keeps rising. Any place in the ice where there’s a big gap, a big lead in the ice, what you’ll see in the spring is that it creates water vapor that forms a cloud of mist over the open water. That itself keeps the water underneath from getting colder again. So the ice can no longer form there. The open water creates more open water.

Those are the kinds of positive feedback situations that are stacking up in the Arctic and make it really scary.

If a person reads this interview or your book and wants to change what’s happening in the Arctic, is there something constructive one individual can do?

They can scream at, well, starting with Obama, and all the way down to the grass roots. They can become involved in environmental organizations. And hopefully it goes way beyond that, because this is about everyone everywhere. We’re all working at changing our habits so that we consume less.

There are really important things that can be done easily. For example, in architecture, it should be part of the building code that every new house or commercial building has to have solar and wind, depending on the climate you live in. There are so many things. All this, where we’re sitting here, we should be growing food here, everywhere. Every school should have its own garden and greenhouse. There are millions of things that are fun and inventive and imaginative that people could do.

Some of it, sadly, has to be legislated, because things are expensive. We need some help making these transitions to alternative energies. And also this country is lagging behind every other developed country in the world in getting on board with imaginative alternative energy ideas. In Spain, in Germany, in England, in China, they’re much more open to radical changes than we are, because they’re not as embedded in a traditional economic system. We need to break some old barriers down and change our minds about things.

We also need to see how intimately we’re connected with the inter-living systems of the planet. Every footstep we take, every action has a consequence. We breathe in weather, but we breathe out CO2. We’re responsible for weather and for climate.

Not to put guilt trips on people: It’s not about guilt, it’s about developing an intimacy with the planet that we live on, to remember that it’s a fragile membrane. It’s like we’re walking on someone’s face. You wouldn’t just wear your high heels and dig in, but that’s what we’ve been doing.

I think that one of the ways to change things, besides working on a sense of who we are and where we are, and paying attention to be awake and aware, is we need to power down.

And we need to find a way to become better citizens of the planet and not to be human-centric, because we’ve been demoted from the “ownership” of the world. That was an illusion that is now showing itself to be detrimental and absurd. We need to see ourselves as equals with all the other sentient beings on the planet, and to find ways to be co-residents rather than domineering … I won’t say the word!

This is hard for people who don’t live out in the boonies like I do. But it’s everywhere. There are trees and plants and birds–it’s everywhere around us. We are animals. We are nature. We have to really embody that. And then, as they say in Africa, the world will tell you the truth if you listen. The land or the ice will tell you the truth if you listen.

And if you don’t, the gods of the weather and the power of nature will show their wrath, which I think is happening here. We think we’re not being affected by climate change, but the storms we’re having in the southeast in this country are totally created by changing climate. There’s more water vapor. The climate is a complex mechanism, but it doesn’t take much reading to figure out how sensitive this planet is and how careful we have to be.

Read Gretel Ehrlich’s article “Last Days of the Ice Hunters” in National Geographic magazine, hear Boyd Matson’s interview with her on National Geographic Weekend radio, and get her new book In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape. Inspired to do more? Trim your carbon budget with National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge.

Ford-Cochran.jpgFord Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn