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In a Tiny Arctic Town, Food Is Getting Harder to Come By

This story is adapted from 1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought, and Displacement From Around the World, by Devi Lockwood.Igloolik, Nunavut, 1,400 miles south of the North Pole, is an umbrella town. The only way to get in or out is by passenger plane, dog sled, snowmobile, or—for a few weeks in summer when the sea ice melts—boat. Around 1,700 people live there. The few stop signs in town have words in both English and Inuktitut. People say yes by raising their eyebrows, and no by scrunching their noses.When I visited in July 2018, with support from a National Geographic Early Career Grant, the sun was eternal: more than 21 hours of it. If I had arrived in June, near the solstice, the sun would never set at all—just circumambulate around us, a bright yellow juggling ball, always above the horizon. In July, there were a few hours of sunset and sunrise all at once. It never got fully dark. I learned to turn off my eyes to fall asleep.

Life in the north is expensive. Fruits and vegetables are flown in; a 2-pound bag of grapes can cost more than 20 Canadian dollars. Earlier that summer, there had been a spate of polar bear attacks in communities nearby. People were on edge.

There were also beautiful things. I arrived to the sound of ice melting on the beach, when a few flowers were blooming. There were insects on the hillside by the cemetery. Mosquitoes: one. Spiders: two. Sheryl, my host for the first two weeks, went to collect her water as ice or frozen snow in 5-gallon orange paint buckets. She scooped the ice with a saucepan and boiled it back home for consumption.

I visited the Igloolik community radio station, Nipivut Nunatinnii “Our Voice at Home,” and had them run an announcement that I was in town and looking for stories about water and climate change. Then, I listened.The month I spent in Nunavut was part of a five-year journey that took me to 20 countries on 6 continents. I wore a cardboard sign around my neck that said “Tell me a story about water” on one side and “Tell me a story about climate change” on the other. My goal was to put stories of climate change in dialog with each other, giving names and voices to those impacted. I wanted to humanize an issue often discussed in terms of numbers: millimeters of sea level rise or degrees of temperature change. In Igloolik, many of the stories I heard were related to hunting and food security.

Disappearing Walrus

Marie Airut, a 71-year-old elder, lives by the water. We spoke in her living room over cups of black tea. “My husband died recently,” she told me. But when he was alive, they went hunting together in every season; it was their main source of food.“I’m not going to tell you what I don’t know. I’m going to tell you only the things that I have seen,” she said. In the 1970s and ’80s, the seal holes would open in late June, an ideal time for hunting baby seals. “But now if I try to go out hunting at the end of June, the holes are very big and the ice is really thin,” Marie told me. “The ice is melting too fast. It doesn’t melt from the top, it melts from the bottom.”A few years ago, she went seal hunting by boat, and brought the animal onto the land to eat fresh seal meat with her family. The skin looked “really old, and it was very easy to break,” she said. She blames this on increasingly warming water temperatures. Caribou hunting has also changed. In the 1970s and ’80s, she went caribou hunting on Baffin Island in August. Back then, it was “very, very hot, with lots and lots of mosquitoes. Now it doesn’t have any mosquitoes. The water looks colder at the top, but it’s melting from the bottom. The sea is getting warmer,” she repeated.