A brief reprieve from smoke-filled summers

I gave a sigh of relief when this summer ended with no significant wildfires. The past two summers have been filled with eye-watering, throat-choking smoke so thick you couldn’t see across the street.

Image: New York Times

We were spared this year and, instead, read about the miserable wildfires in Brazil. The Group of Seven leaders indignantly berated Brazilian President Bolsonaro for allowing the burning of the “lungs of the earth.” In a token gesture, the G7 offered a measly $20 million to fight the fires and to send in “multilateral green helmets” to save the day.

The hypocrisy is palpable: the seven wealthiest countries on Earth extract $20-million worth of resources from Brazil every minute; Canada’s mining industry alone holds more than $10-billion in Brazilian assets (Arno Kopecky, Globe and Mail, September 6, 2019.)

If we are going to start enlisting ecowarriors to save the planet’s trees in the name of fighting climate change, Canada had better prepare to be invaded too.

Canada has the second-largest intact forest on Earth after the Amazon. Our boreal forest is being logged at the rate of 400,000 hectares per year and most of it turned in to Kleenex and toilet paper to supply the United States.

However, logging is not the biggest threat to Canada’s boreal forest –wildfires are. A study done by the journal Ecosphere in 2018 predicts that Canada is headed for a fivefold increase in the area burned by forest fires by the year 2100.

Last year, 1.2 million hectares of our forest went up in smoke. A similar amount of forest burned the summer before. So far this year, wildfires have only burned two per cent of that.

B.C. isn’t out of the woods by a long shot. I’d rather think that we are back to wildfire-free summers but that’s a nostalgic dream of summers past.

What’s more likely is that the years between the devastating wildfires of 2003 and 2017 were an anomaly. It was in 2003 that I was evacuated from my home in Westsyde, Kamloops, because of a fire across the street and  when the residents of Barriere and Kelowna watched helplessly as their homes burned to the ground.

After the “summer of fire” in 2003, the BC government appointed former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon to head a commission of inquiry. The commission’s February 2004 report warned of bigger fires in the future: “The wildfire zone is not only getting closer to people, but people are getting closer to the wildfire zone.”

Now forest-fire ecologist Robert Gray now says: “the problem is as big, or bigger than it was then, because, of course, the conditions continue to deteriorate. The areas that we thought were low to moderate hazard are probably high hazard now because, of course, that was all before the mountain pine beetle epidemic.”

Then there’s the impact of climate change says Gray “which is going to put more and more pressure on trees. They’re fighting for light and moisture and nutrients. This is just going to stress them out. We’re going to have mortality. And then we have forest fires and we go back and replant them in the high-density stands again. We are awash in fuel in BC.”

My relief at a wildfire-free summer this year is dampened by the prospects for next summer.

 

 

The odds of making it through the Northwest Passage

If I were a betting man, I would bet that we’d make it through the fabled Northwest Passage. Adventure Canada has had good success with our ship, the Ocean Endeavour. Eight of the last ten attempts have made to Kugluktuk.

image: The Guardian

However if you wanted me to bet on John Franklin’s chances in 1845, I would be more hesitant.

There were times when it didn’t look promising for us. Ice sloshes back and forth in the channels and it takes a skilful captain to pick a way through the ice.  Some days one path would open up only to close up the next.

Many explorers tried to find the Northwest Passage but probably the most well-known was Sir John Franklin. He left England aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. We visited the grave sites on Beechey Island where two of his men perished where they overwintered.

Franklin is not famous because he made it but because of the mystery surrounding why he didn’t. Many others, including those sent to rescue him, found out more about the Arctic and lived to pass on the information.

One reason Franklin didn’t make it was bad luck. Jerry Kobalenko, onboard author of books on Franklin, told me that if only he had gone down Prince Regent Inlet instead of Peel Sound, he might not have got stuck in the ice and perished.

We were faced with Franklin’s choice -Prince Regent Inlet or Peel Sound? The original plan was Prince Regent Inlet but when ice began to pile up there, we chose Franklin’s route down Peel Sound where the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ended up at the bottom of the sea. There was ice in Peel Sound but not as thick.

You would think that a rapidly-warming arctic would make navigation easier. But Canadian Coast Guard representatives aboard said that warming has only loosened existing ice so it can shift around, making it less predictable. Without the benefit of reliable ice charts, we too might have found ourselves blocked.

While minor compared to Franklin’s, we did face some challenges in Peel Sound. The Ocean Endeavour has a strengthened hull but not strong enough to break through the ice that faced us. The captain called the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Terry Fox to clear a path for us.

Unexpectedly, while we waited for the Terry Fox to arrive, one of the passengers became ill and although not in critical condition needed medical treatment. So we had to turn back up Peel Sound towards Resolute, which would take 12 hours one way. From there, the passenger could be flown out.

The risk in this delay is that clearing ice for passenger ships is low on the list of priorities for the Terry Fox. If they were called some emergency, we could be out of luck. While the Terry Fox was available now, who knew about 24 hours from now when we got back?

Fortunately, it didn’t take that long. Canadian Search and Rescue sent a ship from Resolute to meet us; the passenger was transferred, we returned south more quickly, and the Terry Fox was still available. The only delay was waiting for another ship to catch up so the icebreaker could escort us both in a convoy through the ice.

Soon we were safely through Peel Sound, leaving the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in their watery crypts, and on our way to Kugluktuk.

The migration of Canada’s Inuit to Greenland

I’m aboard the Ocean Endeavour, east of Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle, approaching Lancaster Sound. We left Kangerlussuag, Greenland, ten days ago and we’re headed for the Northwest Passage.

image: GoodNewsFinland

Sailing through Arctic is tricky, so making it to our destination in Kugluktuk is not a certainty. The ship’s captain has been studying ice flow charts and with a bit of luck we’ll actually make it. Last year they didn’t. While the Ocean Endeavour is not an icebreaker, the bow is strengthened enough to plough through ice if it’s not too thick.

Along with the 168 passengers and 100 crew members, there are 33 scientists, artists, photographers and Inuit “culturists” aboard. The Inuit are from both Canada and Greenland.

We watched a 90 minute documentary by Canada’s National Film Board titled Vanishing Point. It featured one of the culturists aboard who also narrated it in Inuktitut. The film traces the trek of an Inuit band from Baffin Island to Greenland 160 years ago. It’s a compelling, yet tragic tale.

I spoke to the narrator of the film, Navarana Kavigak, an Inuit from Greenland, about the trek.

In1856, an Inuit leader named name Qillarsuaq left Baffin Island with a band of 50 followers. Qillarsuaq was a charismatic leader, a shaman (angakkuq), and he was on the run. He had killed a man and according to Inuit justice he could be killed anytime, without warning, by the victim’s family.

Qillarsuaq’s run from vengeance took him across the then ice covered Lancaster Sound to Devon Island. From there they travelled north-eastwards along the coast of Ellesmere Island by dog sleds. They struggled through rough and broken ice, waiting for the right conditions to cross deep bays. Qillarsuaq and his followers endured treacherous terrain, climbing and descending glaciers, all the while hunting to provide food and skins for clothing. The journey took several years.

I asked Navarana how Qillarsuaq knew where he was going. Obviously, he had no map of Greenland. There are two versions. Navarana told me one:

“He came into himself and his mind was travelling across the land. His vision directed him to Greenland.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia has a dryer version. Qillarsuaq met Captain Edward Inglefield and his Greenlandic interpreter. Inglefield was on Devon Island in search of the missing Arctic explorer John Franklin and he knew Greenland well. Through his interpreter, Inglefield told Qillarsuaq where to find some Greenland Inuit (Inughuit).

Some of the group began to doubt Qillarsuaq’s vision of a new world and turned back to Devon Island.

The remainder, about one-half the original number, ended up near Etah in northern Greenland near where Navarana was born.

Qillarsuaq found Navarana’s ancestors in desperate condition. Navarana told me that their numbers had been decimated by disease, possibly spread by European whalers. Her people were on the verge of extinction. They had lost the knowledge of how to make kayaks, fish spears, and bows and arrows.

Qillarsuaq re-introduced these tools and shared knowledge about hunting and surviving in the Arctic. He brought Navarana’s people back from the brink of starvation. Through the gift of technology and intermarriage, the two groups integrated. Qillarsuaq was highly respected by the Greenland Inuit. Navarana referred to him as “Great Quillaq (The Great One).”

Only seven years later, an aging Qillarsuaq decided to head back to Baffin Island. He died in the first year of the return,. The remaining followers faced starvation and only five survived the trip.

One of those survivors was Navarana’s great, great grandmother. Many families of northwestern Greenland trace their ancestry to the allarsuit -the Canadian migrants.

 

 

Lessons from the Little Ice Age

Climate change will challenge our ability to survive and our world view. Business as usual will not be an option.

Image: National Post

Our survival skills are already being tested in Europe. In 2003, heat killed at least 30,000 people and caused 13 billion Euros in financial damages -the hottest summer since the 16th century.

We inherited our current world view from the seventeenth century. Climate change had a profound effect on European agriculture, philosophy and religion during the Little Ice Age from 1570 to 1684, argues Phillip Blom in his book Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present as reviewed by Nathaniel Rich.

During the Little Ice Age, Europe was two degrees Celsius colder than historical averages. It doesn’t seem like much until you consider the effect.

The sun dimmed. Birds fell from the sky, frozen midflight. Wine growing regions moved 400 kilometres south. Seas were packed with so much ice that ships couldn’t enter or leave London. Imperial armies marched across the frozen Danube. Forty sperm whales died on the Dutch coast.

The Thames hasn’t been hasn’t been frozen for two hundred years but during the Little Ice Age the river froze so thick that merchants set up huts on its surface. Taverns, brothels, open fires were built on the ice. Whole oxen roast on spits.

It might sound like a winter carnival but the effect on humanity was devastating. “Every moment,” observed John Evelyn back then, “was full of disastrous accidents.” The poet Henry Purcell wrote “I can scarcely move or draw my breath/Let me, let me freeze again to death.”

The Little Ice Age pushed Europeans to change the way they produced food. Faced with declining harvests, farmers experimented with growing potatoes, tomatoes and corn. They consumed more beef and milk as sources of calories.

Feeding people affected commerce. Nations relied more on foreign trade which, in turn, gave rise to a merchant class requiring expertise in finance. The need for expertise created a demand for education. The rise in the merchant class propelled growth in the middle class. Now a substantial sector of the population could afford to send their children to school.

Religion was affected. Before the Little Ice Age, the Church was the pillar of philosophical thought and education. The notion of rational thought and scientific investigation was heresy. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for speaking of parallel worlds and an infinite universe.

The power of an educated merchant class began to rival the religious hierarchy. The ability to feed the minds and bodies of the populace had shifted. The new religion was the marketplace.

Even now, we are not surprised to hear the new religion described in mysterious ways as when Adam Smith referred to the “invisible hand” of the marketplace.

Climate change will challenge the way we move through the world and the way we think about it. The faith in globalization is already being tested by the 99 per cent who see the injustice of a rigged system.

Who knows what the new world order will rise from the ashes of a heated, chaotic planet?

Satellites make good neighbours

A lot of fuss is being made of the Apollo 11 landing of a man on the moon one-half century ago but not so much about Canada’s launch of the Alouette 1 at the same time. Canada was a leader in space -the third in the world to launch a satellite.

Alouette 1. Image: National Post

And Canada was the first to launch a satellite in 1972 that would allow television broadcasts to be broadcast from coast-to-coast-to coast: the Anik A1.

Anik A1 personally affected me. As a microwave technician, I worked on microwave stations that used to be to only way to get signals across Canada. Now the microwave system had been made redundant by the Anik A1.

As more countries launched satellites, their use expanded beyond communication to rescue. This capability is especially important for countries in the Arctic Circle like Canada where populations are sparse and the environment harsh.

Canada, France, the U.S. and Soviet Union cooperated to pool the resources of dozens of satellites. The first rescue took place in 1982 in northern B.C. just weeks after the Soviet Union launched COSPAS-1.

With the belligerence of the current U.S. administration, it’s hard to imagine that they could cooperate on anything.  But the original agreement, forged when tensions with the USSR were high, is still in force. Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC, says:

“Yet, satellites-based search and rescue exists only because of a remarkable exercise in Cold-War co-operation (Globe and Mail, July 27, 2019).”

After the Cold War ended, co-operation continued with joint military exercises between Arctic countries. One, called Vigilant Eagle, had U.S., Russian, and Canadian jets responding to a mock hijacking of a commercial aircraft.

After a South Korean fishing trawler sank on the Russian side of the Bering Sea in 2014, Russia requested help from the U.S. Coast guard which sent help immediately.

Russia has been a major contributor to the International Space Station and last month, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques returned from the station in a Russian Soyuz capsule.

Despite tensions with China, the Chinese tech giant Huawei is working in partnership with Canadian internet providers to launch satellites to improve connectivity in Canada’s north. Without the new satellites, two million Canadians in Arctic communities don’t have reliable high-speed internet.

Unlike the old technology, the new satellites will be placed in a much lower orbit. Traditional satellites have two problems. One is the low bandwidth because of the curvature of the Earth. The other is “latency,” that’s the delay in getting signals to and from the satellite. You may have noticed it in TV broadcasts where the foreign correspondent stands in silence after being asked a question –they are waiting for signals to bounce around the globe.

The Trudeau government recently announced that it is investing $85 million to build a Low Earth Orbit constellation of 120 satellites in Canada’s north. At only 1,000 kilometres above the ground, latency is not a problem and since the satellites can be networked, bandwidth is as good as optical fibre.

It’s a good investment, not only because it connects Canada’s rapidly warming North with the rest of the country but because the sale of high-speed internet service a lucrative business.

The pride, politics and tokenism of Indigenous land acknowledgements

While some Indigenous Canadians take pride in the acknowledgment that we live on their un-surrendered lands, others are not so sure.

The facts of our occupation are clear from both a legal and archaeological standpoint. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Indigenous land rights have not been extinguished in the Delgamuukw decision of 1997.

Indigenous archaeological sites in Kamloops. Image: Kamloops this Week

The discovery of human remains beneath a Kamloops street that predate European colonizers are further evidence of the first people who lived in the Thompson valley. Kamloops archaeologist Joanne Hammond says:

“The area along the river from Kamloops to Chase has been called the ‘cradle of Secwepemc culture’ –cultural traits that first appeared here are found through Secwepemcúl’ecw [Secwepemc territory]. Among B.C. cities, Kamloops is only second to Victoria in number of known archaeological sites within 10 kilometres of the city centre (Kamloops This Week, July 26, 2019).”

Land acknowledgments take on a ceremonial quality in the opening of parliament, school days, concerts, university events and even hockey games.

While some land acknowledgments are well-thought out, others border on the silly, like the recent one at Toronto’s Pride that didn’t even mention First Nations at all. It included vague statements, such as “no matter what part of Mother Earth our family originates from, we all have a relationship and a responsibility to the land. Let’s build a healthy relationship together.”

A panel of three Indigenous leaders spoke about Toronto Pride’s statement and land acknowledgments with the host of CBC’s The Current, Megan Williams (July 2, 2019).

Hayden King, an Anishinaabe writer at Ryerson University:

“I think I was, for me it was a little bit absurd I guess. Yeah it’s a token gesture that ultimately can become symbolic, merely symbolic and meaningless.”

Sheila Cote-Meek, Anishinaabe and associate VP at Laurentian University, agreed that they are token gestures and added:

“I think we should be doing them but being more thoughtful about how we do them. . .”

Emily Riddle, Vancouver writer from the Alexander First Nation in Treaty 6 territory in Alberta, said some Indigenous people welcome them:

“I think for lots of indigenous people, particularly in the interior, they would say it means a lot to hear that their territory is being recognized in their presence.”

Politics puts those Indigenous Canadians who doubt the sincerity of land acknowledgements in the uncomfortable position of being on the same side of the issue as Conservatives.

Under the new Alberta government, land acknowledgements are now a matter of “personal preference.” The Minister of Indigenous Relations for the United Conservative Party of Alberta, Rick Wilson, says:

“We’re kind of leaving it up to everybody on their own accord; it depends on the situation (Edmonton Journal, May 29, 2019).”

Emily Riddle was asked what she thought of the Alberta government’s approach:

“I don’t think that they have any intention to acknowledge or move forward with treaties. I know Jason Kenney said in his campaign that there are no treaty lands in Alberta. So it would be disingenuous for him to do acknowledgements in my opinion.”

Alberta is located on Treaty 6, Treaty 7 and Treaty 8 territories.

Junk publishers threaten what we know

Most of what we know is not from our day-to-day experience. If I were to trust my intuition, I would believe that the Earth is flat. I depend on others who have studied our planet to inform me.

imge: University of Phoenix Research Hub

The only way we can separate fake news from genuine knowledge is through the meticulous investigations of others. Regrettably, junk publishers give me reason to doubt the reliability of what should be indisputable.

Driven by the dictum of “publish or perish,” otherwise honest scholars cut corners and submit to junk publishing.

“If a critical mass of scientists become untrustworthy,” say engineers Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy who researched the problem, “a tipping point is possible in which the scientific enterprise itself becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences to humanity (Walrus, June, 2019).”

The problem is so bad that that for the first time in history more fraudulent and flawed studies are published than legitimate research.

Professors who expose the extent of the problem are sometimes celebrated. One those is Eduardo Franco, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. In 2017 he sent an email to his colleagues warning them of a global “epidemic” of scams by academic journals that was corrupting research and endangering the public.

The dean of medicine at McGill praised Franco as “the champion in our faculty in dealing with this problem.”

Derek Pyne, economics professor at Thompson Rivers University was less celebrated.  In 2017, Pyne published a study that found that 38 of his colleagues wrote for junk journals.  He wrote that “the school has adopted a research metric that counts predatory publications equally with real publications.”

Pyne found that predatory publications advanced careers. He determined that there was a direct connection between padded CVs and higher salaries and promotions at TRU.

TRU administration had no accolades for Professor Pyne. He was banished from the campus in May 2018, suspended in July, and allowed back on campus in December. He says he was threatened with medical leave if he didn’t agree to a “psychological evaluation.”

One doesn’t expect such Kafkaesque treatment of academics who blow the whistle. Professor Pyne is credited for being one of the top three prominent academics in Canada for tackling the problem of corruption in academic publishing.

Professor Pyne says his suspension is tied to his findings of predatory publications but TRU administration disagrees. Christine Bovis-Cnossen, university’s interim president said:

“Much of the media attention has incorrectly stated that faculty member Dr. Derek Pyne was disciplined for his research. This is not the case. The discipline imposed is related to matters which I am unable to comment on due to both employment and privacy law (Kamloops This Week, November 16, 2018).”

I asked Professor Pyne if it was still TRU’s position that his suspension had nothing to do with his exposure of junk publications. He replied by email:

“That is a good question. Back in the fall, they were openly saying that to the media. In February, their submission to the LRB made the same claim.   However, since then, I have been told by a couple of media outlets that they are not commenting on my case.”