Under the pale light of the Arctic summer night, I return to the edge of the ice floe to watch yesterday’s dive site disappear on the horizon. The iceberg that was lodged in sea ice has broken free and begun a journey to its demise as it heads out of the mouth of Eclipse Sound. Yesterday’s exploratory dive will never be seen by anyone else.
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In 2000, I led a National Geographic diving team to make the first cave dives inside the largest piece of ice ever seen on our planet. The B-15 iceberg had calved from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, and we were drawn to explore this gargantuan portent to global climate change. When I wrote the script for my first documentary film, Ice Island, I was warned that politically charged terms like “climate change” and “sea level rise” might limit the acceptance of our film. I was told that without scientific credentials, any claims regarding “unproven science” were a bad idea.
Thanks to support from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, I’m making that untenable leap again as an artist documenting our transient cryosphere. It’s approaching twenty years since I floated through the cavernous blue voids inside B-15, and now many scientists believe that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in another twenty.
Will my photographs of the sea ice hang in a gallery of great extinctions beside the dodo bird and perhaps even our cherished polar bears? With every dive I conduct in the Arctic, I realize I’m swimming in an environment that has never been seen and will never be seen again. Groundless? Unproven? I know with certainty that I am in a race to record the last ice.
A Place of Great Change
The Arctic is transforming more rapidly than anywhere else on our planet. Temperatures in the Canadian north are rising at twice the rate seen elsewhere. With the Arctic food web shifting from shrinking sea ice, traditional Inuit hunts are disrupted, and the tenuous balance of food security is lost. Permafrost melting, sea level rise, erosion and an increase in stormy weather pose risks for a society that has always lived in balance with nature. With the Arctic becoming more navigable and accessible, resource speculation is on the rise. Oil, gas and shipping industries are jockeying into position to snag new routes and drilling rights in the open water. These activities will indelibly alter the complexion of the Arctic and bring new threats to an otherwise pristine sanctuary.
“The Arctic is unraveling,” says Rafe Pomerance, who chairs a network of conservation groups called Arctic 21. A recent report from his organization found, from 2011 to 2015, the Arctic was warmer than at any time since records began around 1900. Sea ice has diminished, and the snow cover in Europe and North America is half of what it was in the days when I swam through the B-15 iceberg.
Traveling 700 km north of the Arctic Circle takes a bit of work. From my part-time home in Florida, it’s the equivalent of a journey to the center of the earth: some 6424 km. But the airline trip out of the relative abundance of Ottawa to the simplicity of Pond Inlet is delightful. The flight from my nation’s capital included refills in Iqaluit, Hall Beach, and Igloolik. Each stop provides an opportunity for families and friends to reconnect.
As our plane dropped into the tiny outpost of Hall Beach, cheering and applause erupted in the small cabin. One woman yelled, “There is my house! There is my house! Can you see my house?”
She was genuinely excited when two quads roll into the airport parking lot, piled high with aunties, young men, and women wearing traditional amautis. Tiny eyes peered out from the dark recesses of a quilted hood, and a small baby crawled around a young woman’s neck and emerged onto her shoulder to reach toward the passenger from the plane. They nuzzled a familial greeting filled with joy, and then hugged and giggled with gratitude for their brief connection. Thirty minutes later, after the cargo was swapped and fuel loaded, we were called back to the tarmac. Some people might call these stops an inconvenience, but I can think of nothing better than being a part of these brief, loving reunions.
Our arrival in Pond Inlet was just the beginning of our journey.It would take another half day or more to reach our camp on the sea ice. With the sea ice melting and rain in the forecast, a direct course to Arctic Kingdom’s encampment was unlikely. Though the ice was still safe for travel, large melt ponds and long cracks meant a circuitous path to reach the temporary outpost set far enough from the floe edge to remain viable for a few more weeks.
Beneath Fleeting Ice
For diving, we loaded sleds again and traveled on traditional qamutiks from our comfortable canvas yurts. I was awestruck by the majesty of the snow-covered peaks. Glaciers descended to the sea ice that my Inuit guides call “the land.” Misty clouds poured down the valleys in swirling masses of white that blended into the tableau before me. I felt the connection of people, snow, and mountains: the Arctic is one harmonious organism.
The line from the qamutik to the Skidoo swung sideways and sprayed a rooster tail of slush in the way a boat creates wake. Our driver, Kevin Enook, looked back to signal “okay” and ensure we were still grinning from ear-to-ear. We turned abruptly to follow alongside an open lead in the ice. The crack was remarkably straight and too wide to cross. A mile closer to shore we found a spot where our Skidoo could bridge the gap. Kevin unhooked the qamutik, revved the engine to full speed, and flew across the lead. He threw us a rope and pulled the longer sled across. Although this ice was fastened to the shore, I began to appreciate the transient nature of the melting pack.
We resumed our race to a pinnacle on the horizon: an iceberg that made a journey from the glaciers of Greenland to be locked in the fast ice for a winter. Upon arrival to the looming berg, Enook and Billy Mergosak took careful steps to test the ice. A small strip of open water provided testament to the fact that this frozen monument is struggling to free itself from the grips of the floe. Under the bright sun, fresh water cascaded down the face of the ice in streaming rivulets that furrowed the surface in vertical channels. We’d found the perfect site for an exploration dive.
Nathalie Lasselin fired up the compressor, which seemed deafening in this pristine place. Enook threaded a titanium ice screw into the surface a few meters back from the cobalt blue hole where we would descend to undetermined depths. He prepared lines to connect us to the surface and knocked away the unstable margin of the hole we’d enter. I placed my camera by the water and wondered whether I should tie it off too. One small crack would send it plummeting into the unknown.
I settled in the water first and pushed away the slush that obscured my view. Enook passed me the camera, and I dropped through a fuzzy halocline of mixing fresh and salt water.
Long runners of algae flapped horizontally in the current, held fast to the undersurface of ice. This alga and other nutrients held within the ice feed the zooplankton that serve as the base of the Arctic food chain. Bottom dwellers such as anemones, sponges, and halibut, in turn, feed other fish and marine mammals like belugas, narwhal and bowhead whales.
The surface of the ice was dimpled and fluted, carved by the undersea currents that now pull my rope taut. I’m connected to Enook like a fish on a line; only I hope he does not lose this catch. Falling down the facade, I observed layers of time that could date this ice back 10,000 or more years. Some seams were distinctly transparent while others were packed white with small air bubbles that fizzed as they dissolved.
Deeper, I reached a colorful carpet of orange kelp that hid a miniature garden of crustaceans and Cnidaria. I looked upwards in the glaciated cathedral to see Nathalie descend on a silver wire of bubbles. Her silhouette glided through the cerulean depths as she worked hard to pull her line toward me. We met in this temporary palace and realized how privileged we are to document this fragile kingdom of ice.
Nobody can be certain when the Arctic sea ice will be gone, but scientists agree that we’re on a precarious downward spiral. Professor Jason Box, a glaciologist with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland declared, “the loss of nearly all Arctic sea ice in late summer is inevitable.” Others assert that an ice-free Arctic Ocean will arrive within decades.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to preserve this memory, but what will happen to the people and animals of the North. How will they adapt to the last ice?
Jill Heinerth is a Canadian cave diver, underwater explorer, writer, photographer and filmmaker. Many consider her the best female underwater explorer in the world, and she has dived in some of the most extreme locations on the planet, from underwater caves to icebergs in the frigid waters off Antarctica. She is currently chasing icebergs in the calving grounds off the coast of Greenland.