Indigenous peoples and people of color are disproportionately affected by our global climate crisis. But in the mainstream green movement and in the media, they are often forgotten or excluded. This is Tipping Point, a new VICE series that covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.
Simon Nattaq paid a heavy price for the Arctic’s melting permafrost—his legs.
Nattaq, a traditional Inuit hunter living in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, a remote part of northern Quebec, hit a patch of ice thinned by the warming climate near his home. His snowmobile plunged into inky water.
Searchers found him two days later in a snowdrift he had dug into for insulation, says his neighbor, Inuit environmental and human rights advocate, author, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier. And when they did, his frozen legs had to be amputated.
What was so shocking about his accident, she says, was that his generations of expertise reading snow and ice that began in his childhood weren’t adequate to help him avoid the dangers.
Watt-Cloutier watched Nattaq’s recovery from her home across the street. “He learned to get about on his prosthetic legs, and then get back on his snowmobile and go off to the land and sea to hunt for his family, an inspiring example of a strong and resilient Inuk hunter,” she said in a phone interview.
When Watt-Cloutier was growing up, stories about hunters breaking ice were rare. But around 1990, when Nattaq fell through, similar stories and other troubling changes started coming in from every corner of the circumpolar North, she says.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Arctic land ice, which comprises over 2 million square acres is diminishing rapidly due to the climate crisis, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Arctic permafrost is also disappearing at unprecedented rates, and the center reported that sea ice set a record low of 2.9 million square miles in July, a loss the size of South Carolina from the previous low record set in July 2012. Scientists forecast that Arctic sea ice could vanish in the summer by the 2040s.
Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat Inuit and executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, says she is seeing the same phenomenon in Alaska. “Everyone knows someone who has fallen through the ice and never returned home,” she said.
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium found the number of accidents had increased each year from 1990 through 2010, the majority of victims Alaska Natives.
The melting ice has meant that travel by snowmobile is no longer safe in many areas, Watt-Cloutier said. She says some Indigenous peoples in remote villages are taking risks to provide for their family, a concern also raised by the ANTHC report.
Some hunters in Alaska have gone back to using traditional dog sleds. “The dogs are better at foreseeing dangers and won’t try to cross thin ice,” Cochran said. “My nephews now use these traditional ways that have kept us alive for millennia.”
But dogs won’t be enough to ensure safe travel too much longer. In June a scientific expedition found that permafrost in the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted.
Nor is this some far-away problem. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” said climate scientist Peter Kalmus, author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.
Global sea level rise from disintegrating polar regions, in particular Greenland’s melting ice sheet, is predicted to swamp parts of Florida and some major U.S. cities, but it doesn’t end there.
“Recent research has shown that Arctic warming affects the jet stream, leading to extreme weather throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere—wildfire conditions, heat waves, and drought in some areas, and heavy storms and flooding in others,” Kalmus said in a phone call. “These extremes are projected to worsen as Arctic warming continues.”
If we lose the Arctic, warns Watt-Cloutier, we will lose the wisdom the Inuit could teach the world to live on the planet in a sustainable way.
“We may be far from the world’s corridors of power, but the hunter who falls through the thinning sea ice in the Arctic is connected to the industries in the south, to the rising waters and stronger hurricanes which threaten the United States, to melting glaciers in the Andes and the Himalayas, to the flooding of low-lying and small island states,” Watt-Cloutier said.
Kalmus says while it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all that is happening, he is actually feeling more optimistic now than he did 10 years ago.
“I’m seeing such a rapid shift in culture,” Kalmus said. “People all over the world are waking up, fast. Each one of us needs to do everything we can to quicken that process of waking up. We need to talk about climate breakdown every chance we get, educate ourselves on the issue, engage in protest and civil disobedience, reduce our use of fossil fuel to better communicate urgency, and use our unique talents to think up creative ways to accelerate the movement. We’re all in this together.”
Terri Hansen is an Indigenous journalist who focuses primarily on environmental and scientific issues affecting North American tribal and worldwide Indigenous peoples. She's been on the climate beat since 2007. Follow her on Twitter.