Returning to her former home in the Arctic after 20 years away, professor Bathsheba Demuth was stunned to discover how climate change had altered the landscape.
Over 50,000 square kilometers burned in Siberia. Conflagrations in Alaska, where temperatures hit a record 32 C in July, rolled acrid clouds across Anchorage and Fairbanks. This, along with the melting of the Greenland ice, was how the Arctic made the news: with events visible from space.
I was not in the part of the Arctic that was literally on fire, but instead in Old Crow, Yukon, a part of the Canadian territory spared by wildfire. In the middle of August it was cool. The willows were just starting to turn yellow on the cusp of autumn. It felt, down to the smell of gravel dust and wood smoke on the breeze, like the August day 20 years before when I first arrived in this village of 200 people, most of them members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.
Back then, my job in Old Crow was to train sled dogs for a Gwitchin family. Doing this put me out on the land day after day, learning by sled in winter and boat in summer the shape of lakes, the steep course of hills as they descended into bends on the rivers, the habits of bears and caribou, the stands of spruce or thick brush. So when I return to visit, now, I go to see friends – and the places that grew, over the two years I lived there, to be as familiar in their contours and seasonal moods as people.
The way time works on humans and land is supposed to be different. Across two decades you expect to see children grow taller, then become adults; to see adults go gray and move more slowly. A lake or a hillside? They are supposed to outlive us.
In the Arctic they are not. One afternoon we visited a small lake I knew well from crossing it, those decades ago, with my dog team. But everything felt wrong. It took me a few minutes to realise my unease was because the lake was gone. Where there should have been water, bushy willows were already a few feet high.
And this was just a small lake. North of Old Crow, in an area of flatlands covered in lakes, even larger bodies of water are draining. In 2012, Zelma Lake lost nearly all of its water – a surface over six square kilometers – in a few weeks after one thawed bank gave way. Six million cubic meters of water drained to a pan of dank earth, pocked here and there with the bodies of asphyxiated fish.
The rivers too are changing. Traveling up the Porcupine and Eagle Rivers this August, we saw whole hillsides eroding away. The permafrost that once held together loose soil is melting, particularly on southeastern slopes, spilling tons of earth and broken trees into the water. We saw places where the river’s course will move 10 or 20 feet this year.
From these changes come others. The rivers this August were high and filled with silt, some of it the mud from sloughing banks. The dense particulates make it difficult for fish to navigate, particularly the salmon that swim upstream from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs. Those salmon are key food for grizzly bears; bears that are more dangerous when hungry. Where lakes drain, waterfowl can no longer rest and raise their chicks – and the lakes near Old Crow host tens of thousands of ducks, geese, loons, and other birds each summer. Those birds feed foxes and wolves and people.
Geology is supposed to be slow. Forces like erosion and thawing have, for the majority of human history in the north, shifted rivers and hills slowly enough for living things to adapt. Change was visible across generations, not within a quarter of a single lifetime. Now, hillsides are disappearing as quickly as children learn to walk; lakes drain in less time it takes to need a haircut.
This is the intimate, disorienting side of climate change. Disappearing hillsides or absent fish are not visible from space, and usually don’t make headline climate news, as do apocalyptic wildfires and hurricanes. And those wildfires or hurricanes deserve our attention, as do the people they harm.
But surviving moments of catastrophe is only part of what increased carbon in our atmosphere means. Even after the rains extinguish a burn, or a storm blows itself to calm – even after the immediate sense of crisis – climate change does not stop. It remakes the places we know, more slowly than a forest fire but more quickly than land should change.
Climate change takes familiar places and ages them, alters them, in human time.
Bathsheba Demuth is the author of Floating Coast (W.W. Norton, £19.99)
Images: Getty, courtesy of author