At the gateway to the Arctic, a wavering world

published Monday 10 October 2022 at 05:06

“For all we inflict on them, the Earth will punish us”: Sled dog breeder David Daley lives at the gateway to the Canadian Arctic in a world he finds increasingly difficult to recognize.

We are in Churchill, a small isolated town on the edge of Hudson Bay, where global warming is three times faster than anywhere else in the world and where sea ice is gradually disappearing.

Like his ancestors of the Métis people, one of Canada’s three aboriginal groups, this 59-year-old grandfather lives in communion with nature surrounded by his 46 dogs, where the tundra ends and the boreal forest begins.

In both summer and winter, David Daley travels through this region known for its Northern Lights where rocks, mosses, tall grasses and black fir forests reign. He has always hunted there and has seen the flora and fauna change up close.

“When I was a child I hunted, fished and trapped here and there were hardly any moose, now they are everywhere,” describes the long-haired man who offers knowledge activities to indigenous tourists. “It’s the same for the capercaillie and the marten …”

An observation that echoes scientific studies: Global warming endangers Arctic species, particularly by opening the doors to other southern animals. Here, both animals and vegetation migrate north.

For David Daley, humans “have no choice”, they have to “adapt” as animals are forced to.

– The bear in town –

Adaptation implies in particular a coexistence to be reinvented with the emblematic animal of the region: the polar bear.

During the Cold War, the location, which housed a now deserted US-Canadian military installation, had to be ready to repel a possible Soviet attack from the North Pole. Today its inhabitants fear above all the predatory apex of the Arctic.

Global warming is reducing Hudson Bay’s freezing time and forcing the region’s polar bears to stay on land longer than before during the summer. The months of coexistence with humans are longer and the carnivore, weaker, is getting closer and closer to the city.

Venturing into Churchill requires some precautions: a shotgun, repellent, and never walk alone after dark or in poor visibility.

Here, each inhabitant has a story with a bear. “I don’t remember, as a child, feeling in danger during the summer. Today it’s different, my children can’t play on the rocks, along the coast, like I used to”, says Danielle Daley, David’s daughter, 33 years old. .

The slender young woman recounts her fright at seeing a bear run past her house in July, followed a few meters away by the Manitoba Wildlife Conservation Officers’ patrol vehicle with howling sirens.

It’s even more complicated in the fall, when bears starve to death after months of fasting on land, with no seal in sight. For Halloween night, October 31, a special device is in operation, says Ian Van Nest, head of wildlife protection.

Shotgun on his shoulder and walkie-talkie on his belt, the stern-looking thirty-year-old multiplies his patrols with his colleagues that day. Helicopters are also out to spot lurking bears and allow kids to collect candy.

“We can use explosive devices, it produces a loud bang and a flash that drives the bear away,” he explains.

The city has new radars that can detect bears within two kilometers of the first houses, even at night, even in fog.

Around Churchill, the polar bear population, although declining since the 1980s, is estimated at 800 individuals … as many as the city’s inhabitants.

– “Chance” –

Not everyone has a weak view of these climate-related changes.

“You have to look for the positives in all of this,” said Churchill Mayor Michael Spence, a member of the Cree people.

The evolution of tourism and the development of the port, thanks to the rise in temperature, “are also opportunities for economic growth for the local population”, estimates the municipal councilor who grew up here.

The growing presence of the bear now attracts a few thousand tourists each year to this remote corner of Manitoba inaccessible by car.

And the melting of sea ice allows ships to access the city’s only deep-water port in the Canadian Arctic for longer than before.

The mayor dreams of making it a natural outlet in the north of the country to export cereals grown in the center and possibly minerals, which could be extracted in the great Canadian north, in particular thanks to the thaw.

Much of Canada’s mining potential is found in the Far North territories (diamonds, gold, tungsten, uranium, rare earths, etc.)

But these prospects are hampered by another consequence of global warming: the thaw of the soil, which moves the landscape and therefore the rails, complicating the transport of raw materials to the port.

Floods caused by melting damaged the railway line in 2017 and rail transport was disrupted for over 18 months. Since then, the port has remained inactive. At the bottom of the gigantic silos, old cars rust in the wild grass.

– Poverty –

In Churchill, between the cleaning station and the giant polar bear graffiti, many houses are dilapidated, hastily patched up. Sometimes these are simple prefabs placed on concrete blocks, which seem unsuitable for winter temperatures that often reach -40 ° C.

On the streets of this city, known at the dawn of European colonization for the fur trade, many vehicles, snowmobiles, quads, vans, are abandoned, sometimes boned.

In this locality, which is home to about 60% of aborigines (Inuit, Cree, Dene, Métis), poverty is very present. The descendants of the first peoples of the country (5% of Canadians, 18% of Manitobans) live in communities often marked by unemployment, poor housing, discrimination …

Here, 64% of children live below the poverty line. A situation that for some relegates the question of the environment to the background.

Trapper David Daley dreams of a beginning: “We must, as natives, lead reconciliation with our mother, the Earth.”

The UN climate experts (IPCC) have already stated in their March report, the deep knowledge of the nature of people must be taken into account in the fight against climate change.

Especially since the ancestral lands of these populations host 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

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