Home page: www.treks.org. This page: www.treks.org/arcticthe.htm. (or treks.org, select North Pole on world map).
Personal visits:
Arctic safari ; Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island ; Diary visits ; Yukon (NW Canada / Alaska) .
Comments or feedback:
treks.org@gmail.com. Review by Nosey Parker
Related link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_environmental_history

Last update May 2018. Visitors since 15 October, 2006:

Related link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_environmental_history

The Arctic: Remnants of a natural but dynamic world

The Arctic, approximate limit of summer pack ice and glaciers in white, after [1]. May 19, 2008 multi-year sea ice percentages, after [1] Also see situation 29 Sept, 2008. Click on all figures or maps below to enlarge. Photographs Copyright author's except where referenced.


Empty and rich. The Arctic is an empty and rich area. It seems empty because of very few human settlements and the endless clear views in an open landscape without trees or animals. However, it is rich because of the sparse but highly diverse flora and fauna. There are a lot of different animals, on land and even more in the sea. During the short Arctic summer a few hundred species of flowers are in bloom.

Mysterious natural world. The Arctic may remain one of the last remnants of true nature on earth. I was fortunate to visit this area several times during geological expeditions and in this web book hope to give some insight.

An Arctic climate dominates. Few people realize that an Arctic climate is the dominant climate at the middle latitudes in Europe, Asia and North America over the past 3 million years. The current temperate climate is exceptionally warm and normally lasts for a period of 5,000 to 10,000 years, returning only every 100,000 years. We made excellent use of it to start farming 12,000 years ago. The climate is dynamic, in cycles of roughly 11, 200, 1480, 23,000, 41000 and 100,000 years, but an Arctic climate is the norm.

A cooling planet should be the trend. The dominant trend in the natural climate cycles was cooling for the last 5500 years (since 3500 BC) after a warm period of 8,500 years (starting in 12,000 BC). However, we seem to be influencing these cycles, especially since the last 75 years and possibly already since 3000 BC when the land use by agriculture and herding exploded allowing a sharp rise in the human population and cities to develop. The earth is now heating up and the CO2 level exceptionally high compared to natural variations over the last 3 million years.

Environment and climate are a common good. The Stern Review states that there is now overwhelming evidence that we are dramatically changing the environment on a global scale and consequently influencing the climate. It may require only 1% investment of our GDP to prevent economic damage of 5-20% of GDP. Man-made disturbance of the climate will affect the developing countries a lot more than the developed world. This will be even more in the Arctic.

Do you believe in climate change? Personally I do believe that our environment and the natural climate variations are disturbed by increasing human activity, definitely regionally and probably even globally. In the short term, it will lead to more extreme weather conditions and more frequent natural disasters, and in long term, to sea level rise affecting many people, see the Stern Review, [summary] and [table] in Part 2. The real problem is not climate change but global pollution of the environment caused by an expanding population and rise in standard of living. Only demographic and economic measures could counter act this and we now live on the edge. Climate change is only the consequences of global polution.

Biodiversity. By 2048, 80% of the biodiversity in the oceans may have disappeared if we carry on with “business as usual” [See Worm et al]. On land this will be similar [1]. A mass extinction period already started 10,000 years ago. This is also visible in the Arctic by the major reduction in big mammals.

We may be hungry. Native people know that the balance with nature is precarious, if you destroy nature, you will be hungry.

Table of Contents
1. Introduction.
2. Geography and access.
3. The last of departing nature.
4. The climate.
5. The bugs.
6. The wild animals.
7. The native people or “First Nations”.
8. The first Europeans moving in (Vikings etc.).
9. Early expeditions (1600-1900).
10. Modern expeditions.
11. Modern white men “running into trouble with Arctic nature”.
12. Personal visits to Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Island.

13. Personal visits to the Yukon and Alaska.
14. Exploiting natural resources.
15. A sustainable pristine world?

Appendix 1. Environment and climate change.
Appendix 2. Population increase since the last 80,000 years.

1. The Arctic: Introduction

White hares on Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, NE Canada, 80o latitude. Back ground a 6 km wide salt dome. Elevation 500 m. On the left, ice covered Mokka Fiord. View to the South. July 1982. 4o Celsius. For location see Google Panoramio.

Snowy owl. Photograph by Brian Hawkes. Click on all photographs to enlarge.

Eila, a domesticated white Arctic wolf from Jana and Chris from Lake Tahoe, 75% Arctic Wolf and 25% Timber wolf. Third generation in captivity. Photo taken at Mammoth Lakes, Eastern Sierra Nevada, USA, January 2002. -6o Celsius. For location see Google Panoramio.

Arctic wolves chasing muskox. Photograph by Jim Brandenburg.

A mysterious world. The high Arctic regions are a fascinating pristine world, especially by its apparent vast emptiness. It is not wasted by us as very few people live here, chased out, when they dare to enter, by a hostile climate and very little to live off. In the short warm summer, bugs are a serious hindrance, mosquitoes being very gentle compared to black flies.

The Arctic regions may be the last remnants of true nature on earth. It is very simple to maintain this sustainable ecosystem, just stay out. “If you care about nature, live in the city.” [After Belle van Zuylen]. To preserve it, we also need to clean up the oceans and atmosphere so our junk like plastic and polluted air doesn't drift in.

On one of the most remote places on earth, Central Ellesmere Island in Northern Canada, I witnessed plastic bottles and fishing nets on the beach near the Eureka weather station [1] in 1989. The visibility on Ellesmere has been reduced from 100 km in the 1950's to only 50 km 30 years later.

Already at an early age I was fascinated by descriptions of the living conditions during the ice ages when km thick ice sheets covered Northern Europe reaching London, Berlin and Moskou. The wind-swept tundra was the home of now extinct large mammals, most impressive the mammoth and saber tooth tigers. How could they have lived in such a cold climate? Another puzzle was how the strong wind on the tundra could have deposited thick layers of loess (a mix of silt, clay and other minerals) close to the ice sheets?

During my first visit in 1982 to the mysterious high Arctic on Ellesmere [1] and Axel Heiberg Island [1], see [1] for location, I got the answers. With Spitzbergen and Northern Greenland these are the coldest regions in the Arctic.

Map of Canada with main roads. Ellesmere and neighbouring (West side) Axel Heiberg Island are the Northernmost islands. Click on map to enlarge. After [1].

Every major valley has plenty of grassy shelters which attracts a single male muskox or even a muskox herd. In the morning we could wake-up with a muskox herd of some 10-20 animals laying down at only a few hundred meters from our tents. When opening the tent door, they would immediately run away after spotting us. Not surprising, we choose the same sheltered grassy spots for setting up camps.

Muskox bull, “Fred”, our neighbour. Whitsunday Bay Valley, Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, June 1983. 4o Celsius. For location see Google Panoramio.

In the dry desert region, our tents were slowly accumulating dust particles, or loess, blown in by the constant strong wind usually coming from the North. In 1988, during the late summer, I witnessed a dust storm and our helicopter had to fly high to avoid it. In Europe during the ice ages, the dominant Western wind blowing along the ice sheets picked up dust particles on the dry North Sea plains [1] formed by the 120 m drop in sea level and deposited them on the continent.

Dust storm on Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, end of July 1988. 6o Celsius.

Stone forest, burned coal seams. A big surprise was to find a stone forest [1] that had tree stumps which dates from the Eocene period and coal seams in Tertiary rocks with evidence of underground burning (near the head of Mokka Fiord). The trees were some 50 m tall and 2.5 m across and formed in semi-tropical swamps only 56 to 44 million years ago when the area was already in the current polar region.

Hardship? When modern expeditions return from the Arctic after a few weeks of so-called hardship, the shower is called the best modern comfort they missed. Based on my experience, it is at most third best, they should stay longer. After you spent two months camping for several summers in the Arctic, you discover the real modern comfort: Firstly, level ground, for sitting and sleeping; and secondly, darkness, for a good sleep.

Two months camping in winter temperatures is hard but possible. This is comparable to isolated mountain treks or climbing trips. Losing 3-10 kg in weight after each season may not be healthy but is not caused by lack of food but lack of comfort and stress.

Why this write-up? Interest in the Arctic regions is growing, especially as climate change will affect this area more those at lower latitudes. However, knowledge is sparse, also as very few people go there.

The descriptions in the next chapters are by no means an exhaustive description of the Arctic like Barry Lopez in his excellent 1986 book “Arctic Dreams”, but a selection of natural history, personal thoughts and experiences inspired during visits.

I try to recreate a still vivid remembrance of staying in such an empty and rich area, which seems a contradiction. Empty because of the endless clear views in an empty landscape without trees and not even animals it seems. Rich because of the sparse but highly variable flora and fauna. However, you need a long time to encounter the wild animals, especially the shy wolves.

The Arctic is very different from the rest of the world and difficult to imagine. You should camp in a small tent to blend in and stay for a long period in this wild area. You will enjoy the vast empty space and after a while you start seeing things.

A natural but dynamic world. Is this area really a sustainable world? No, it is a natural but dynamic world. We are currently living in a warm period that started 12000 years ago. The world is normally dominated by cold periods and even ice ages.

Since 3500 BC the climate is trying to get cooler again, in cycles of warm and cold. For the last 70 years, we live in a warmer period, presumably by higher activity of solar spots. From 1580 to 1920 there was a colder period. Difference, however, is only a few degrees Celsius, also see 4. The climate.

An Arctic climate and environment is the norm. This is the norm in those regions in Central Europe, Asia and North America that now have a temperate climate.

2. The Arctic: Geography and access

Access to the main airports in the Arctic is relatively easy with daily flights to most communities, even when they have only a few hundred people. As there are very few roads and ice free shipping lanes year round, this is the only means of transportation from the South with distances of 1000 to 2000 km.

Distance post in Resolute Bay, Cornwallis Island, Northern Canada, distances in miles. After [1].

In Canada (see [1]), the main access ports are Iqualuit on Baffin Island in the Northeast, Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island in the far North, and Inuvik in the far Northwest. Alaska has Anchorage and Fairbanks, Greenland Nuuk (Godthab), Spitzbergen Longyearbyen, and Norway Hammersfest. In Russia you could go to Murmansk but I wouldn't recommend this yet.

Best accessible is Iceland which has a major hub for flights between Europe and North America. Flights that stop in Iceland are cheaper and take you directly to airports in the USA, and with no charge you could stay an extra day visiting the famous natural wonders close to Reykjavik like the Gulfoss waterfall (see below), the geysers and the mid-Atlantic ridge.[1].

Gulfoss waterfall, 150 km North-East of Reykjavik, Iceland, July 2006. 8o Celsius.

For Euro 500, you could fly from Reykjavik to East Greenland for the day and put a foot mark on the island. You will visit the Inuits now living in modern houses and look at the barren mountains, fiord's and glaciers. At such a short distance, the landscape is very different from Iceland by its much higher mountains capped with glaciers. The climate is much colder by the freezing winds coming down from the permanent ice cap [1].

Traveling within the Canadian Arctic during the short summer has severe limitations as there are very few roads and the distances between the sparse settlements are enormous. Small planes like the Canadian Twin Otter [1] are used for a distance of up to 500 km and affordable on scheduled or group flights. At $500-1000 per hour for a private Twin Otter, not including the fuel, you have to plan carefully to charter such a plane for yourself and it is best to join a group. Single engine sea planes [1] can land on any lake and are much cheaper, and these are used for shorter distances. They are generally manned by old timers with their characteristic grey beards and checkered shirts. Flying their plane is their way of life.

Twin Otter at a camp on Hare Fiord, Northern Ellesmere Island. Note the glaciers nearly touching the sea, late June 1989. 2o Celsius.

Only Alaska [1], Iceland and Norway have a reasonable road system but the Arctic regions of Canada [1] and Siberia have very few roads.

Inuvik in the Yukon is accessible by a 780 km long gravel road starting in Dawson [1], the Dempster Highway [1] to Innuvik, a classic drive for many Canadians. From Whitehorse or Anchorage the one-way distance is some 1200 km. Some locals do speeds of 180 km per hour, boasting they can drive the 780 km from Inuvik to Dawson City in 5 hours but tone down after the news reports yet another car skidded of the road on a wet spot and the driver was killed.

The Dalton Highway in Northern Alaska from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean is a 9 m wide gravel road with lots of steep hills. It is dominated by trucks supplying goods to the oil industry. It is definitely not recommended as a scenic drive as the giant trucks could push you off the road. There is also a caribou risk as they cross the road frequently.

The Lonely Planet has a special volume covering the entire Arctic but they have very few suggestions for onward travel. They treat the Arctic more like a luxurious “pensionades” visit, as if you should have been there. There is really no point in leaving a foot mark at or near an airport.

I recall the couple in Resolute Bay in Northern Canada that walked around the airport in desperation for something to see, unable to go any where without a plane or helicopter (rates of $1000 and $500 per hour, resp., in 1982), winter camping gear and a shot gun. The government in Resolute will stop you from going into the field on your own given the polar bear hazard. The couple looked very disappointed just seeing a mostly snow covered, almost flat land in June. It was hard to make make out the transition between the snow-covered land and ice-covered sea at Parry Channel by the snow, mist and low clouds [1]. There is only a single, short road leading to the Inuit hamlet of 200 people living in small but modern houses [1], not very inviting for a walk by splashing mud of passing cars. As a tourist visiting these places without on-going transportation, is like visiting a zoo instead of Africa on a day when they keep all the animals inside. Boring, unless you are a flower person looking for rare flowers which are abundant.

Russian icebreakers offer expensive trips from e.g. Resolute Bay to Tanquary Fiord on Northern Ellesmere Island but I wouldn't know what to do during the two weeks. Such commercial ventures are disturbance of the land and no doubt violate environmental regulations as the profits are small.

A better plan is to spend a few hundred dollars to fly in for the day like the scheduled Twin Otter tourist flights offered in Inuvik to various National Parks.

3. The Arctic: The last of departing nature

Porcupine Caribou Herd in the ANWR, Alaska. After National Geographic [1].

The Arctic regions are one of the last remnants of true nature on earth. Other regions are in Antarctica, the taiga and boreal forests of the Northern hemisphere, some of the large desserts like the Kalahari in Namibia, and the quickly disappearing tropical rain forests like the Amazon.

3.1. The Arctic: Do we need nature?

This question often gets mixed answers but when translated in “Do we need a sustainable world?” the answer is now usually “yes, of course”, very different from a few decenia ago. With daily alarms in the news media on the scarcity of natural resources and disappearing natural habitats which still have many secrets for e.g. finding the badly needed new drugs, awareness is currently high.

Still, as the heated discussions on oil and gas exploration in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in NE Alaska show, there are different interpretations how to deal with this. In the USA, one camp (“bloody rednecks”) shouts “drill” and another (“bloody liberals”) “stay out”. The Canadians who manage the Eastern extension, called the Ivavuk National Park, have an even simpler view, “not up for discussion”.

In the pristine ANWR 125,000 caribous migrate from the Porcupine River [1] South of the Brooks Ranges to the Arctic plains on the shore of the Arctic Ocean for calving and feeding on the fresh grass and lychen.

When asking my American colleagues “Where would you, as a naturalist, want to go but nobody goes there, is daily in the news (in 2006), creates polarized discussions and is of professional interest?”, they have no idea but when you answer ANWR, they react like, “You must have gone there” or “Why would you want to go there?” (see [1] for a 2006 visit).

Pristine nature is now scarce on earth and even those sparse remnants have been visited and often visibly disturbed by “white men”, originally Europeans, usually for commercial reasons, e.g. whaling, gold mining, and these days, for oil and gas.

Native people know that the balance is precarious, if you destroy nature, you will be hungry. Their numbers remained constant and excess people had to move out. Their population density in the Arctic was one person per 100 km2.

The natives way of life and ancient tales show a complex relation with nature based on experiences developed over the last 3 or 4 million years, when the homo genus split of from the other apes. This is also supported by the brain size of Homo Sapiens, modern man that developed 180,000 years ago. His brain size was 10% larger when he was still a hunter-gatherer compared to those of the farming communities that started 10,000 years ago. Sapiens was also taller, around 1.85 to 1.90 m, and more muscular built, feeding on a protein rich diet. This may be our natural shape.

3.2. The Arctic: Current population and bio-diversity

The Arctic is the only area on earth where the population is still sparse. Figures below are distorted as most people now live in cities. When recalculating this for the country side only, figures for population density could probably be reduced by a factor of 3-10.



Area km2

Persons km2

km2 per person






Nunavut, Canada





North West Territories, Canada





Yukon, Canada




















Current population density in the Arctic regions, includes major cities. In reality, this is 3-10 times lower in the country side.

The increased population and standard of living in the world will have a disastrous impact on the land use and destroy the last remaining pockets of near-real nature on earth. Some 80 or 90% may be destroyed by the year 2100 as farming and suburbia have only 5 or 10% of the biomass of a mature forest.

The only exception could be the Arctic and Antarctic regions and probably also in the sub-Arctic regions with their long, cold winters like the taiga of Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

Mass extinction period

Geologists already call the period since 10,000 years and possibly up to 20,000 AD when the next ice age will set in, a major extinction period or cataclysm, given the numerous species that are already, and will be extinct. Since 1979 we lost 40% in total bio-diversity.

Decrease in biodiversity over the past 30 years. After [1]

On land this is very visible but it is also happening in the oceans. Studies indicate that in the oceans the reduction will be 80% in 2048, see Worm et al. Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services. Science 314:787-790

The thin sediment layer deposited in our period will be used as a world-wide marker horizon to correlate our very distinct time zone. This will also be a distinct marker horizon like the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary caused by a giant meteorite impact. Sediments from that period have high values of an exotic cosmic element, Iridium, from the pulverized meteorite. In these sediments, there is also a peculiar mineral, coesite, a very high pressure variety of crystalline quartz. This formed by the impact of the meteorite.

Worldwide, the sediments deposited in our times will have a high concentration of strange material, long chains of carbon molecules from disintegrated plastics and oxidized exotic metals, especially lead, all chemical waste.

3.3. The Arctic: Remnants of nature

Some years ago I still had the ignorant idea that some areas on earth with pristine nature were never visited by modern man. I now know the answer: “There isn’t”.

At that time I already realized that, except perhaps for perhaps Antarctica and some islands in the Arctic Ocean, most areas on earth have been inhabited by native people but they do not exploit the land like we do, “conquer, pillage and get out”.

Modern white men from Europe called their visits to the far corners of the world a “conquest” or an “exploration”, but these were often just an overambitious commercial (or bounty) trip, an “exploitation”, and could result in newly acquired territory for the home land or was translated in an heroic achievement.

All this so-called newly explored land was already well-known and extensively used by native people.

One of the best anecdotes is the encounter in Northern Canada between the local Inuits and the starving crew of the John Franklin expedition who tried to walk back to civilization in the winter of 1847. The local Inuits, they just live there, thought: “What are these white men doing here?”. See: Early expeditions (1600-1900).

Despite our poor reputation, some white European men wandered into native land fitting in well and staying for long periods making use of the natives or “First Nations” inherent hospitality. Well known is the exploration of NW Canada and Alaska in the 19th Century. The low density in native population and the few white trappers and traders entering through the Hudson Bay Company in the 19th century, prevented conflicts. This is so unlike the bloody conquest of the Western United States which had good farm land. Fencing off the land is a concept in severe conflict with the natives way of life. The natives share the land with the wild animals and respect them by taking up minimal space.

In 1982 I visited the Canadian Arctic for the first time and thought we were the first on a large mountain ridge on the East coast of Axel Heiberg Island, North of Mokka Fiord. Alas, some 20 or 30 years earlier a land surveyor put a concrete post here to mark the highest point [1]. My 1:250,000 maps were about 20 years old and the highest point of the ridge had an accurate height on the map, measured by triangulation. Still, I hoped the land surveyor may have been the only one but later on I found out that biologists visit this region every summer, studying flowers and rabbits, the latter present in the tens of thousands. In 1988 I spotted very clear foot tracks in the mud on top of the salt dome near Mokka Fiord, see Introduction from two colleagues who were in our field party in 1982 and who walked up 6 years ago. Polar bear tracks on the beach of Whitsunday Bay in 1984 spotted by one of my students could be years old. He also found a one meter Narwhal tusk on the same beach.

The 2006 visit to the Canadian side of the ANWR [1], the Ivavuk National Park, was an even bigger shock. In the 1980's, there was a fully operational gold placer mine with comfortable living quarters and an office on a side creek of the Firth River. It is now a ranger station but rarely used. A big yellow Caterpillar bulldozer was still sitting on the bank of the river. It was driven in during the winter from Inuvik, a distance of 200 km. Later on, reaching the Arctic Plains on the Arctic Ocean we could see a building on top of a hill at some 20 km distance. In the 1950s the Americans built the DEW line at the 70 parallel, radar stations with spacings of 300 km to warn against incoming Russian nuclear rockets and bombers. Some are still in use as weather stations but many have been abandoned.

These days the Ivavuk park is strictly protected as a wildlife park and only two rafting parties per week are allowed on the Firth River, up to a total of 40 per year. Also, all the refuse, including feces, must be carried out and liquid waste must be thrown in the river to prevent smelly camp sites that could attract grizzly bears, see trip report.

Is this why native people in the jungle always use rivers to dispose of trash? This keeps their settlement clean and free of odors and the low population density will not impact the water quality.

3.4. The Arctic: A false impression.

What does the Arctic look like? You usually get the answer, “Barren; only rocks, snow and ice?”, “Freezing temperatures?”, “No animals except for the polar bear and seals?”, and “How can people live there?”

This is a false impression and only true for the higher elevations in the Arctic mountains but not in the low lands where the land has the green and yellow colours of grassy vegetation. Animals can live here because there is a lot of grass and people because their is sufficient wild life, in the sea and on land. The grass grows during the short summer, like a hot desert that blooms after rare, heavy rains.

Still, the land cannot sustain many animals as the growing season is only a few months, so neither many indigenous people which can only be hunter-gatherers as crop growing farming could never develop.

In Eurasia the natives started following the herds and later even herding the reindeer which provided a stable food source. In North America this never developed and the natives relied on the return of the caribou with their yearly, usually stable migration paths. When the caribous changed their course or the timing, the native could be short of food, just like the wolves.

To give an example of the scarcity of animals, there are only 2500 wolves in the Yukon, an area of 483450 square km, half the size of France. A territory of a wolf pack is about 600-900 km2, similar to a single grizzly bear. Hunter-gatherers in the Arctic have 100 km2 per person [1]. Migratory birds profit of the low density of prey animals, especially foxes and snowy owls, their numbers kept down by the harsh winters.

Only 3600 native people still live in the Yukon out of a total population of 27,000. Of the 27,000, around 20,000 live in Whitehorse and the other 7000 accupy an area half the size of France. Before we started settling in this area in the 1850's, only some 25,000 native people lived in the entire Arctic region of North America, about 1 person per 240 square km.

Despite the mysterious nature of the land with its “vast empty space”, not that many books (see Literature below) have been published about the wild life and natural history but the interest is growing as we start to realize that the Arctic may be the last region on earth with pristine nature, “almost not changed” to be politically correct, or “not wasted”, to be more honest, by modern man.

4. The Arctic: The climate

Is the current climate in the Northern hemisphere the normal climate over the past few million years? The answer is that our current climate is exceptionally warm and an Arctic or sub-Arctic climate is the dominant climate in much of Europe, Asia and North America at middle latitudes which now have temperate climates.

The climate in the Arctic is highly variable. In the tropics changes of 1o Celsius, translate in 2-3o Celsius in temperate zones and 5-8o Celsius in the Arctic.

4.1 An Arctic or sub-arctic climate dominates

The current Arctic climate is a good reflection of the dominant climate for much of North America, Europe and Asia.

10 degrees summer (July) isotherm and tree line in the Arctic. After [1]

The Arctic region is defined as, see [1]:
* The area north of the treeline (the northern limit of upright tree growth).
* Locations in high latitudes where the average daily summer (July) temperature does not rise above 10 degrees Celsius.

The world has been dominated by ice ages for the last 3 million years BP, see the Wiki page “Ice Age” [1]. The last 11,700 years, called the Holocene period, the climate was much warmer which coincides with a short, warm period every 100,000 years. The climate is also influenced by 23,000 and 41,000 year climate cycles creating slightly less cold periods but during most of a 100,000 year period the climate at the current temperate climate zone is much colder, Arctic or sub-Arctic.

The 100,000 year cycle is caused by the Earth's eccentricity and orbital inclination ( the ellipsoidal shape of the earth orbit). The Northern hemisphere catches more heat and when this is closer to the sun in the summer, the earth heats up, but the reverse happens when the earth is further away in the summer. The 41,000 year cycle is related to the obliquity (or tilt) of the earth axis and also has a major effect. The 23,000 year cycle is related to the precession (or spinning) of the Earth's axis and has a minor effect. Again, see the the page Wiki “Ice Age” [1] for a full discussion.

A much publicized picture of the temperature and CO2 variations over the last 400,000 years is shown below.

Temperature variations (inferred), CO2 level and dust from the Vostok Ice core from Antarctica. After [1]. Current CO2 level is around 380 ppm, in the past never higher than 280 ppm. Temperature variation is roughly 5-10oCelsius at the poles. Effect is highest in the Arctic, least in the tropics. Note that for the last 5500 years the trend should have been down.

There also seem to be shorter cycles of e.g. 1480 years, 200 years and even 11 years (solar spots) but this remains speculative.

Below are two graphs that look back even further using ice core data from Antarctica. Note that the influence is likely to be less at lower latitudes.

Temperature and CO2 variations on Antarctica using the EPICA DomeC and Vostok ice cores.

Temperature and CO2 variations since the last 600 million years. Uplift of the Himalaya and Tibetan plateau by the Indian plate subducting the Asian plate starting in the Miocene (23-5 mln years ago) and the decrease in temperatures with higher elevation, is thought to account for the sharp temperature drop during the last 40 million years. After [1].

Also see the Wiki page on Glaciations in History.

4.2. Climate variations over the last 20,000 years

Since the last ice age 16000 years ago, cold periods were uncommon from 12000 – 3500 BC but very common since 3500 BC. This follows the general trend that should be down for the next 90,000 years, see figure above. The summary below is mostly after H.H. Lamb. “Climate history and the modern world.” His books shows that the climate has been highly variable and strongly influenced the rise and fall of cultures. Very detailled figures are in [1].

Cold period

Warm period



80000 BC

Out of Africa”


75000 BC

Toba megavolcanoe on Sumatra erupts. Temperature drops 5 degrees for 1000 years


45000 BC

Into Australia

35000 BC

Into Europe.

(Live expectancy 33 years)

29000 to 24000 BP

Neanderthalers extinct

20,000 – 16,000 BC

Ice age, sea level 120 m lower; 25% reduction in biomass.
20,000 BC. First people in Alaska and the Yukon.

12,000 – 3500 BC

Warm periods mostly. Switch from hunter-gatherers to farming cultures. Population stress resolved and rapid expansion.

10,000 – 9,000 BC

Many big Arctic mammals became extinct in Europe, Asia and North America by a sudden, very warm period; human hunting was likely a strong contributing factor.

10,700–10,500 BC

Start of Younger Dryas. Cold period. Speculation is that a comet hit the earth and affected big mammels biotope. (After James Kennett, 2007).

In 10,000 BC 4-5 million

8000 – 5000 BC

Very warm period. Spread of agriculture and herding.

( Live expectancy 20 years)

8200 - 7200 BC

Cold period. Giant glacial Lake Agassiz in Canada emptied and influenced the Gulf Stream.

6380 BC

Brief cold period. Giant Lake Agassiz (picture) in Canada broke through an ice dam and flowed into the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson Bay. It influenced the North Atlantic Oscillator.

5600 BC

Sea level rise, Bosporus opened and Black Sea sea level rise flooding fertile farm land. Into Europe: farmers from Turkey and the Black Sea area move into Europe [1] [2].

4500 – 2500 BC

Cold period

3500 - 3000 BC

Move from the Sahara to the Nile delta. In Europe split in Slavic/Albanian/Greece in the Balkan and and Germanic and Latin tribes in the South and Central Europe [1].

In 3000 BC, 14 million

2700 to 1450 BC

Minoan civilization on Crete. Relatively isolated civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt and India.
2500 BC. First natives in NE Canada and Greenland.

1700 to 1500 BC

Dwarf mammoths of Wrangell Island became extinct, some 10,000 years past the mainland mammoths.

1200 - 800 BC

Climate stress, see Lamb, 1982, p. 155.

Mycenaean civilization, Jewish monotheistic faith.
1200-1150 AD. Migration of the “sea-people”, the Philistines, from Greece to Palestine. Population stress due to prolonged drought in Agean Sea area.

In 750 BC 60 millon

600 - 200 BC

Confucius, Buddha, etc. (various monotheistic religions). Scandinavian Goth invading central Europe, first large-scale human migrations in Europe (Volkerwanderungen) [1]. Monotheistic religions illegal in Greece. Fist large empires: Persia, Greece, India, China.
Population stress.

Iin 400 BC 160 million.

200 BC – 400 AD

Dominance of the Roman Republic/Empire. Polytheistic religions dominate. Christianity an illegal religion in Rome.
70 AD. Destruction of Jerusalem and diaspora.
Rom is the first city with over 1 mln citizen in 200-300 AD.

In 200 BC, 150 million

In 400 AD 190 million.

( Live expectancy in Rome 28 years)

400 -850 AD

4 September 476. Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Second large-scale migrations of peoples in Europe.
Monotheistic religions like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam now state religions.

In 800 AD 220 million

850 - 1300 AD

990 -1010 AD

Viking conquest of Europe. Vikings settlements on Iceland (874 AD) Greenland (985 AD) and Newfoundland (1010 AD).
Genghis Khan (1162 -1227 AD) forms the largest contiguous empire ever. Traveling from Europe to China possible (e.g. by Catholic monks and traders like Marco Polo).
Rapid expansion of various monotheistic state religions like Chistianity in Europe, Islam in the Middle East and Africa, and Buddhism in Asia.

Viking settlement on Newfoundland.

In 1000 AD, 250 million

1257 AD

Catastrophic eruption of the Samalas volcano on the Indonesian island of Lombok. One of the largest volcanic eruptions during the current Holocene epoch (11700 BP - present).

1300 - 1350 AD

Start of colder period in Greenland and Iceland around 1300 AD.
Western Viking settlements on Greenland abandoned in 1341 AD.
Eastern Viking settlements on Greenland abandoned in 1435 AD.
No more viking settlements on Greenland.

1347 AD

Plague killed 25 to 33% of the population in Europe.

1380 - 1580 AD

1380 - 1580 AD

Renaissance. Cold and warm periods, climate stress.
First separation of church and state.
Around 1300 AD. Monogamy enforced by the Catholic Church; catholic priests not allowed to marry to retain the possessions of the church.
Total population and agricultural land in Britain nearly unchanged since 1500 BC.

In 1500 AD, 450 million

(Live expectancy 30 years)

1580 – 1920 AD

Regular famines in Europe; Third large-scale migrations of peoples; Europe colonizing the world; 1-2.5 o Celsius colder. Population stress.

1600 – 1700 AD

Very cold winters. Maunder minimum (1645-1715) by low activity in solar spots. 2.5o Celsius cooler. Thule Innuits abandon the Canadian High Arctic.

1800 AD

3% of the population lives in cities

500 million


Year Without a Summer” by the Mount Tambora eruption (Indonesia). Famine in Europe and North America by a 5o Celsius lower summer temperature. In the tropics, 1o Celsius lower.


13% of the population lives in cities

1.6 billion

( Live expectancy 30-45)

1918 flu pandemic

2.5–5% of the human population killed; 20% population affected

1920 – 2006 AD

High activity of solar spots; 40% increase in CO2 compared to 3 mln year average. 40% (?) reduction in biomass.
Secular states dominate.


2.9 billion

2006 AD

Stern Review suggests 1% investment of GDP in climate change reduces the economic damage by 5-20 %.
40% loss in biodiversity since 1970 [1].

6 billion


50% of the population lives in cities

(Live expectancy 67)

20,000 AD

Ice Age, “Back to Africa”.

1 billion or zero

Summary of major warm and cold periods over the last 12,000 years and major events in history. Differences between the short warm and cold periods are 1-3o Celsius. Between ice ages and warm periods 5-10o Celsius.

Related link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_environmental_history

Reflection and conquest. Cold periods with food shortages and dwindling populations seem to be associated with reflection displayed in e.g. religions. Warm periods with good harvests and quickly increasing populations, are characterized by large empires and radically new ideas.

A cooling planet should be the trend. The dominant trend in the natural climate cycles was cooling for the last 5500 years (since 3500 BC) after a warm period of 8,500 years (starting in 12,000 BC). However, we seem to be influencing these cycles, especially since the last 75 years and possibly already since 3000 BC when the land use by agriculture and herding increased rapidly allowing a sharp rise in the human population.

Global polution and climate change. A prediction of temperature and precipitation changes in the world for the year 2050 is given in [1] . It also shows what regions in the world would be affected by sea level rise and how many people would be affected.

When asked “Do you believe in climate change?” I tend to respond with: "Yes, I do believe that the environment and natural climate variations are disturbed by human activity". In the short term, it will lead to more extreme weather conditions and more frequent natural disasters, in long term to sea level rise affecting many people, see the Stern Review, [summary] and [table] in Part 2.

Global pollution is likely to have nasty side effects and climate change is only one of these.

Increase in population. Below the increase in population over the last 12,000 years correlated with major events. 2006 to 2500 is an optimistic scenario. Also see: Appendix 1.

Increase in population over the last 12,000 years and major events. From 12,000 to 3500 BC was a warm period. Trend past 2006 speculative but trend is likely to be down after a maximum population of 12 billion. One billion in 2500 is optimistic. Data after Wikipedia.

From 12,000 to 3500 BC there was a mainly warm period and agriculture greatly improved, pressured by an increasing population.

Successful agriculture in Asia minor gave a population explosion and by 5000 BC they started to move West into Europe and East into Iran and the Indian sub-continent..

Indo-European agricultural expansion based on language studies.

Neolithic expansion in Europe.

Around 3500 to 3000 BC agriculture could already support major cities. From 3500 BC till present time the climate was cyclic, warm and cold with differences of only 1 or 2o Celsius, but on average there was a cooling trend.

Around 400 BC, the population stabilized around 160 million, possibly as most of the fertile agricultural land has been taken. However, as the climate got colder, Scandinavians invaded central Europe. These were the first large-scale migrations of peoples in Europe (Volkerwanderungen)

Migration of Germanic tribes between 100 BC and 300 AD.

The population only slowly increase from 160 million in 400 BC to 310 million in 1000 AD, 425 million in 1500 AD and 500 million in 1800 AD. It did not reach the first billion until 1850 and this is related to the industrial revolution and progress in science.

Since 1920 there is a warming trend but this could be just a high in the natural cold and warm cycles, each lasting 200-400 years, since 3500 BC.

4.3 Current Arctic Climate

Yearly temperatures vary a lot in the Arctic, typically from -50o Celsius in January to around 10-15o Celsius in the summer along the 70th parallel on the Arctic ocean. The North Pole is around 1-2o Celsius in August [1] and on land at 80o latitude about 2-4o Celsius. In some areas inland like in North West Canada and Alaska the temperature rises to 20o or even 25o Celsius.

In Inuvik in the Northern Yukon, air conditioners are used in the summer as the well-insulated buildings heat up quickly by 24 hours of sunshine. In July 2006, the library had proper air conditioners but the Parks Canada Office was an oven, around 30o Celsius inside.

During the few warm summer months with temperatures above 8o Celsius, the Arctic becomes livable for us and we organize tourist trips, hiking trips or expeditions. 24 hours of sunshine limit the daily temperature variation to only a few degrees and helps in warming up the land to a surprisingly high temperature.

The natives have a different threshold, around -20o Celsius, which sounds very cold. However, when the sun is out and you are sheltered from the wind wearing proper clothing you feel fine, warmed up by the radiation of the sun. Still, camping is hard for us as our hands lack protective callusus. Soft office hands take years to transform to suitable outdoor hands like those of the natives.

Western Axel Heiberg Island, Early June, 1983. -7o Celsius. Author on the right (with the shotgun).

The weather in the Arctic is dominated by the Arctic high pressure system with mainly cold and dry Northern wind. This creates a desert environment with less than 150 mm of precipitation a year, mostly snow. On the North Coast of Greenland, Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Island in early July 1983 the weather forecast was very simple for 6 out of 7 days, -1o Celsius with moderate to strong Northern winds. Inland the temperature was higher, 2 to 4o Celsius.

The ice in the sea straits between the Canadian Arctic Islands does not break up until the middle of July, see Greely Fiord sea ice in June on Ellesmere Island [1] [2]. Ice floats may never clear and only ice breaker freighters can reach the weather station of Eureka on Central Ellesmere Island in August.

Sea ice breaking up in Greely Fiord, between Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island, July 1988. 2o Celsius.

In any summer, the weather can be different like in 1989. This happened to be a strong La Nina year, i.e. affecting especially North America by the abnormal cool water currents in the North Pacific, see e.g. [1] , see below.

4.4 Summer of snow, July 1989

The 1989 expedition on Northern Ellesmere Island was the year of snow, snow and even more snow.[1] [2].

Camp on Ellesmere Island, during yet another snow storm in the summer, July 1989. -1o Celsius.

It snowed every few days and even continuously for a solid week. Major depression systems with snow kept on rolling in from the South and covered the mountains in a near permanent layer of thick snow up to a meter thick. Only close to sea level the snow would melt.

This is very unusual for this area, as it is known to be a dry Arctic desert. Average yearly precipitation is only 50 mm on Ellesmere, mostly coming down as snow in the winter and very little as rain during the short summer.

Large volumes of melt water could make stream crossings tricky, especially on an extremely rare warm day of 18o Celsius. Some of the field students ran into trouble in a river crossing as the water level jumped from 1 m in the morning to 1.6 m at night, see [1], for a full decription.

    4. 4.5 El Niño / La Niña

In the winter of 2007 there was a moderate El Niño and in the winter of 2008 a mild La Niña. Visiting the South Island of New Zealand in January 2007, we were very lucky, thanks to El Nino, only two days of rain in a single month.

2009/2010 again had a moderte El Nino event and 2010/211 a La Nina event. La Nina caused abnormal rain and massive floods in Pakistan in the summer of 2010. The high over Siberia in 2010 caused a long dry and hot summer and Moscow was filled with the smoke from peat bog fires.

See: http://www.knmi.nl/research/oceanography/enso/nino/

What is an El Niño and what impact can it have?

El Niño is an irregular climate phenomenon of the atmosphere and ocean in the Tropical Pacific which returns on the average every three or four years. Characteristic for an El Niño is warmer than normal sea surface temperatures around the equator in the Eastern half of the Pacific basin and a lower than normal pressure difference between Tahiti (18S, 150W) and Darwin (12S, 131E). The reverse situation, with colder than normal sea surface temperatures, is called a La Niña.

See for www link or pdf file: http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.knmi.nl/research/global_climate/enso/effects/nino34_temp_SON.png&imgrefurl=http://www.knmi.nl/research/global_climate/enso/effects/&h=263&w=431&sz=50&hl=en&start=2&um=1&tbnid=9KVULX_1jYBT_M:&tbnh=77&tbnw=126&prev=/images%3Fq%3Deffect%2Bof%2Bel%2Bnino%2Bon%2Bworld%2Bweather%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den%26sa%3DG

El Niño affects the weather in large parts of the world. The effects depend strongly on the location and the season. The strongest effects on precipitation are in South-East Asia and the western Pacifc Ocean, especially in the dry season (August-November). There are temperature effects throughout most of the tropics. The number of tropical cyclones also depends on El Niño in most basins. In boreal winter the effects are most wide-spread: from southern Africa to eastern Russia and most of the Americas.

For the four meteorological seasons we computed how El Niño and La Niña perturbed the average weather of the last century. We used observations from 1185 precipitation stations en 402 temperature stations in the GHCN v2 database with at leats 40 years of data and at least 2° apart to comptae linear correlations with the Niño3.4 index.


Blue circles indicate that during El Niño there was, on average, more rain than normal, red circles indicate drought during El Niño. La Niña has the opposite effect in almost all locations. The size of the circles is a measure of the strength of the relationship.

March-May In boreal spring the strongest effects are in the western Pacific Ocean: along the equator rainfall increases during El Niñ and at 10°-15° North and South rainfall decreases. The north of Mexico and the desert states of the U.S. usually get more rain. The North-East of Brasil often stays drier than usual during El Niño. Even in our part of Europe it rains more on average during El Niño.

June-August In these months eastern Indonesia often suffers droughts during El Niño. The rain zone has moved east to the islands along the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The Indian Monsoon is often weaker during El Niño, although by no means always.

September-November This season the effects of El Niño are strongest. Almost all of Indonesia, the Philippines and eastern Australia are drier than usual during most El Niño events. Large parts of India are often drier than usual, but the Sri Lanka and some southern states get more rain. East Africa, parts of Central Asia and Spain are also on average wetter than normal during El Niño in this season, as are Chili and Uruguay.

December-February In boreal winter the Philippines and East Indonesia stay drier, whereas the Pacific islands along the equator remain wetter. Florida also gets more rain than normal during El Niño, this effect extends to other southern states of the U.S. and into Mexico. South Africa is more frequently dry, as is the northern coast of South America and some of the leeward Antilles. In Uruguay en South Brasil rainfall increases on average. Along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru rainfall increases when the coastal waters heat up, an effect also named El Niño but not always coincident with the warming along the equator that affects the rest of the world.


March-May In this season El Niño causes warmer weather in most of the tropics. The north-western coast of North America is also warmer than usual. In constrast, the south-east of the U.S. and north-eastern Mexico are often warmer during La Niña.

June-August The heat signal is very clear in India, West Africa and eastern South America. Summer in East-Asia and eastern Canada is often somewhat cooler than normal.

June-August The heat signal is very clear in India, West Africa and eastern South America. Summer in East-Asia and eastern Canada is often somewhat cooler than normal.

eptember-November The east coast of Central and South America, India and southern Australia are often warmer during El Niño.

December-February The effects of El Niño on temperature are clearest in boreal winter, when El Niño normally is strongest. Northern North and South America, Australia and also southern Africa usually have warmer weather than normal during El Niño.

Tropical Cyclones

During El Niño there are on average fewer hurricanes over the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribian Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. La Niña often brings more. The west coast of Mexico and the United States see more landfalling hurricanes during El Niño. In the central Pacific Ocean El Niño brings more typhoons, both north and south of the equator. Their more easterly genesis makes that fewer of these tropical cyclones reach Australia. In the northern Pacific Ocean the area with typhoons also shifts east. Ther are no effects on the number of cyclones over the Indian Ocean.

5. The Arctic: The bugs

Real nature has bugs, not just a few like in Europe, but lots. They come out in waves starting in the spring, different generations and different types. To us they can be a severe annoyance but, the more pristine nature is, the more bugs there are. They are very useful, no doubt, e.g. as a food source for small birds and fish. Most bugs are vegetarians and only use the blood of mammals for their offspring. Only female mosquitoes will attack you.

During the few warm summer months the temperature rises above 6o Celsius in many areas and mosquitoes will come out. You can see them hiding in the grass at lower temperature, unable to move much but waiting for the temperature to rise. The regular strong wind blows them away but in sheltered areas they can be bad. Even on Ellesmere Island, during the few calm days, the “Arctic Summer”, they are a pest. Covering up is the only real protection, including a facial net and gloves.

Black flies are worse, they create a large wound that bleeds and swells, forming an infection. You barely feel them when they land and bite unlike mosquitoes, and you must be quick to avoid the bites so you see us making spasmodic movements all the time, at every itch, usually false alarm.

The best way to keep the bugs off is to move around all the time, you cannot outrun them. 30% DEET (N-diethyl-m-toluamide) in a gel works very well for a few hours. Applying this a few times a day on your face and hands combined with some moving around keeps the bugs away most of the time. Still, when there is no wind, especially in sheltered valleys and forests, only covering up works.

DEET is a nasty chemical, not for yourself, despite common believe, but for modern materials like plastics. It will dissolve the paint on e.g. watches if you use it too generously like spraying it all over the body and clothes. Many irritated persons spray themselves instead of covering up, insisting on exposing body parts like bare arms and legs to the sun as they are used to on holidays down South.

Swimming at the picnic place of the recreational lake of Inuvik near the Arctic Ocean is a big challenge, not just for the very cold water. You take off your clothes which is the start signal of the bug race. You run to the lake try to stay in the very cold water for a minute, get out, run for your towel, dry off quickly while moving around and dress again while still moving around. Now the black flies are really going for you as they smell the wet skin. All you really get out is a record, swimming at 69.9 degree latitude.

Thinking back, the sauna dip on Strand Fiord on Western Axel Heiberg Island at 80 degrees latitude [1, early July] [2, late July], would have been much better as there are no bugs. However, dipping in a -2o Celsius sea with ice bergs, air temperature of only 2o Celsius, a windy fiord, and the sea at a distance of 400 m (a 2 minute run one way) from the sauna tent wasn't attractive, so I chickened out.

Nasty bugs are also common in more temperate areas like New Zealand and Scotland. When they are absent, watch for water and air pollution as bugs are very sensitive animals. They do not like polluted lakes and air. Most of them will die off quickly. Only the toughest and smartest species can survive in our cities like the small mosquitoes that sneak up to you at night. Bugs in nature do not sneak up, they attack you blindly, and are easy to kill.

Sand flies in Southwest New Zealand resemble small house flies and are called the “guardsmen of the Fiord Lands” in Maori tales. They cause similar itches as black flies but come up to you silently or at night like in trekking huts.

My worst nightmare was the waist deep crossing of the roaring Otehake River near Arthur's Pass on the South Island of New Zealand after a night of heavy rain. During the crossing of this treacherous river [1] we were bitten by sand flies, with the risk of losing your footing and tumble in. What would happen when you are on your back with a heavy rucksack taken along by a fast flowing river? The least that could happen is a lost rucksack. Next time I will follow the advise from Australian bush wackers we met earlier. and walk around it, to a foot bridge which takes an extra hour. Even they considered this a scary crossing.

6. The Arctic: The wild animals

Link to photos of various wild animals in the Arctic: Arctic safari: various animal pictures from Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island. For a full description of Arctic animals, see: Barry Lopez. “Arctic Dreams”.

In open areas, on the tundra and barren rocks, wild animals in the Arctic always keep a safe distance, both carnivores and herbivores. The natural curiosity of herbivores like caribou on encountering us will bring them closer but they never stay long. Carnivores like wolves and bears are very shy and always quickly wander off, unless they smell and are in need of food. They are very careful in approaching and you see them hesitating, rarely doing a direct charge unless you are close to their cubs.

Muskox herd on Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, Northern Canada. July, 1982. 4o Celsius. For location see Google Panoramio.

Muskox. Muskox herds are always shy and wander off quickly as they try to protect their calves. A single, lonely old male bull [1] will hold his ground. It has nothing to fear, not even for a pack of 3 or 4 wolves, and we walk around the bull at a polite distance of some 100 m, except when you are a jackass student and want to be on the picture with the Muskox bull.

Muskox bull telling Steve, “jackass student”, to go away or else .... Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, June 1983. 2o Celsius. See [1].

Male caribou. Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, July 1982. 4o Celsius.

Curious caribous, Firth River Delta, NW Yukon, July 2006, 15o Celsius.

Caribous and moose. In the taiga and forests caribous and moose behave differently. They hide in dense bush and if you surprise them, will do a sudden, last second run. The scary part is not the potential encounter with a bear but the sudden crashing noise in the bush nearby. You know it is not a bear as bears behave differently. Also, in open spaces in the bush, you can often smell caribou at a distance of 200 m by their strong musk smell.

Arctic wolves. Four wolves patiently watched our camp for a full week on Northern Ellesmere Island in June 1989. They never came closer than a km. At that time the area had an unusual thick snow cover. I saw many lemmings that could now hide under the snow so food was scarce for the wolves.

Watching four wolves in the far distance (white dots in the distance) staying close to our camp for a week. Northern Ellesmere, late June 1989. 6o Celsius.

Islay, a domesticated, mostly white Arctic wolf from Jana and Chris from Lake Tahoe. Wolfdog descending from 75% Arctic/Timber wolf and malamute/husky. Third generation in captivity. Some 1000 to 2000 wolves are held in captivity as house pets in the USA. Photo taken at Mammoth Lakes, Eastern Sierra Nevada, USA, January 2002. -6o Celsius. For location see Google Panoramio.

Arctic wolves chasing muskox. (Click on all photograph below to enlarge). Photograph by Jim Brandenburg.

Why wolves always keep a save distance is still a mystery to me. A reason could be that in nature not the strongest animal has the best chance to survive but smartest. Survival rate is terrible, e.g. only 10 to 20% of wolf cubs will reach 4 years. The average life span of a wolf in the Yukon is only 3-4 years, compared to 10-12 years in captivity or for dogs their size. It is definitely not smart to dare your own kind, also not when they look smaller. The wolf will get injured which will hamper it in finding food and this could be lethal within a few month. Only when the wolg gets something in return, like becoming the leader of a wolf pack, this pays off. Still, most alpha males in a wolf pack will not last for more than 2-3 years and die soon after being expelled. Life is much easier being a subordinate (gamma) male/female, often called “uncle/aunt”. (More wolf pictures, [1, wolf pups] [2, wolf in the Arctic dessert].

Grizzly bears. In grizzly bear country, you will hear us singing in the bush, doing the anti “bear songs”. Scottish drinking songs are popular as they make the most noise. Pepper spray and bear scares (noisy pen flares) are carried but they are rarely used. Very few persons can tell you by experience if this will scare of a grizzly bear. Usually, a grizzly bear will wander off quickly on encountering people but as they are territorial defending an area of around 600 km2, they may try to scare you off. They are also very protective of the den area where they spent the night and the winter. When you select a camp site in the wild, you should always check if there could be a den near by.

Polar bear. Photograph by Wolfgang Weber.

Polar bear. Photograph by Wolfgang Weber.

Polar bears. Polar bears are twice the weight of grizzly bears and behave very differently as they are not territorial. They may hang around your camp for days, for no reason it seems, and are highly unreliable. They are one of the few carnivores that are not really shy but very curious, especially the males. They are very patient in stalking their prey. They could be big trouble in a camp and you won't sleep well when they are around, so you only have one choice, move your camp ASAP.

From Wikipedia: Polar bears bred with brown bears have produced fertile hybrids,[7] [8] it can be argued that polar bears are a subspecies of Brown Bear. Population estimates are generally just over 20,000.

DNA analysis showed that Polar bear are descendants from Irish brown bears 35000 years ago. In the past it was assumed they split off from brown bears in Alaska and Siberia some 200,000 years ago.

See Wikipedia, “Polar Bears”, Taxonomy and evolution: More recent genetic studies have shown that some clades of brown bear are more closely related to polar bears than to other brown bears,[18] meaning that the polar bear is not a true species according to some species concepts.[19] Irish brown bears are particularly close to polar bears.[20] In addition, polar bears can breed with brown bears to produce fertile grizzly–polar bear hybrids,[17][21] indicating that they have only recently diverged and are genetically similar.[22] However, because neither species can survive long in the other's ecological niche, and because they have different morphology, metabolism, social and feeding behaviors, and other phenotypic characteristics, the two bears are generally classified as separate species.

Polar bears in camp, East-central Ellesmere, July 1989.

Below a short wave radio transmission between a camp near Alexandra Fiord on East-Central Ellesmere Island and the camp manager Barry from the government base in Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, overheard during a 3 day wait for the helicopter while camping at Expedition Fiord on Western Axel Heiberg Island.

Biologist: Resolute Bay, Resolute Bay, Alexandra Fiord, please come in.

Base: Alexandra Fiord, roger.

Biologist: We have a problem, there are three polar bears in our camp.

Base: Oh, .... (silence). What is your situation?

Biologist: Not good.

Base: Where is your meat?

Biologist: Between the camp and the sea, in the aluminum box in a snow bank.

Base: Sounds good.... Ummh, ... Where are the polar bears?

Biologist: They are now on the sea ice.

Base: Do you want a camp move?

Biologist: Yes, as soon as possible.

Base: The two planes are now in the air and not in your area. How about tomorrow morning, in 16 hours?

Biologist: No. We need a plane ASAP.

Base: What about 8 hours, could you hold out?

Biologist: I don't know, we will try.

Base: Roger, roger, standing by.

Biologist: Standing by.

The camp got moved within 8 hours.

Narwhal. From Wikipedia: Some medieval Europeans believed narwhal tusks to be the horns from the legendary unicorn. Some believe that Noah threw the unicorn off the ark and it evolved into the narwhal. As these tusks were considered to have magic powers, Vikings and other northern traders were able to sell them for many times their weight in gold. The horns were used to make cups that were thought to negate any poison that may have been slipped into the drink. During the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth received a narwhal tusk for £10,000 - the cost of a castle, which she used as a scepter.

Note: Click on photographs below for single view


Narwhal tusk, 1.30 m tall. Carved by Baffin Island Inuits

Narwhal (narwal) pictures by Paul Nicklen.

Narwhals in ice holes

Narwhals in ice holes


Shot Narwhal with hunter waiting for passing Narwhals

Narwhal head and tusk.
Also on World Press Photo 2008, bottom

More on Narwhals, habitat in Canada, etc.: After Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Birds. Snowy owl and Gyr falcons.

Like many birds in the Arctic, snowy owls make their nest on the ground. The main predator for the nest is the white fox but one of the owls always keeps a watch and will scare them off. Gyr Falcons build their nest on rock cliffs. They sound like parrots with their typical ka, ka cries.

Nest with young snowy owls. Western Axel Heiberg Island, July 1983, 2o Celsius.

Snowy owl. Click on all photographs to enlarge. Photograph by Brain Hawkes.

Nest with young Gyr falcons in a gypsum cliff, Western Axel Heiberg Island, July 1983. 4o Celsius.

Gyr falcons. Photograph by Kim Poole.

7. The Arctic: The native people or “First Nations”

7.1. Into Europe

When the first modern humans, Homo Sapiens, moved out of Africa some 35000 years ago and entered Europe, they encountered a much colder climate compared to the present day. The world has been dominated by ice ages for the last 5 or 10 million years BP and this was no exception. The last 14,000 years, called the Holocene period, the climate was much warmer which coincides with a short, warm period every 100,000 years. The climate is also influenced by 23,000 and 41,000 year climate cycles but during most of a 100,000 year period the climate remains cold.

Conditions in Central Europe 35,000 years ago were similar to Northern Canada and Northern Europe now, with extensive glaciers at higher elevations and tree-less grassy plains. However, there were also giant mammals like woolly mammoths (for the past 4.8 mln years) and sabre tooth tigers (for the past 42 mln years).

Around the Mediterranean their was taiga, low and open forest, similar to the current taiga in Siberia, Canada and Alaska. This resembles the current Arctic plains which currently have large mammals like caribou, reindeer, bears and wolves. East Siberia still has tigers, the Siberian Tiger, in the sub-Arctic regions, and the Himalyas have the snow leopard living above the tree line.

Newly arrived Sapiens not only shared the area with the large mammals, extinct since 12,000 years BP (likely caused by the sudden climate change changing their habitat), but also with another specie of Homo (or humans), the Neanderthals. Neanderthals already lived in Europe and Asia about 130,000 years ago and were well adapted to the Arctic climate. The oldest evidence of humanoids living in Europe from stone tools is dated at around 2.5 million years. The number of people around 35,000 years ago was small, about 1 per 100 km2 [1].

In Europe the two homo species shared the area only briefly, for some 10000 years, and there were probably five times more Sapiens than Neanderthals. Around 28,000 to 24,000 BP, the Neanderthals became extinct despite being better adapted to the cold climate than Sapiens. The most recent evidence was found in Southern Spain and dates from 28,000 to 24,000 years ago and this was probably the last remaining population in Europe. Were they pushed out by the increasing number of Sapiens? It is also possible that food became too scarce for the increasing number of people at the start of yet another cold period. Latest DNA evidence taken from Neanderthalers suggest we do have have tiny trace of them suggesting interbreeding.

7.2. Into the Americas

Sapiens reached Alaska and the Yukon around 20,000 BP and finally Central North-America in 16,000 BP, after the last ice age of 20,000 to 16,000 years BP. They probably used the ice free N-S corridor that opened 16000 years BP along the East side of the Rocky Mountains. Sites of 14,000 to 12,000 years BP are found in South-America and Sapiens was remarkably fast in his migration. Sites dated at 32,000 BP in Chile are disputed.

Sapiens could already be present in the Bering Strait area 45,000 years ago. There is a theory that they could have migrated earlier than 16,000 ago. Using their skin boats they could have followed the pack ice from the Bering Strait to the South along the coast of North America.

7.3. Into Northeast Canada and Greenland

After the melting of the Laurentian ice sheet that covered most of Canada until around 5000 BP Sapiens moved into Northern Canada and finally into Greenland. Earliest evidence of sparse colonization of the North including Greenland is from around 2500 BC.

Migration of the natives in the Arctic regions of North America after the last ice age. After National Geographic.

The major colonization of the Arctic regions of North America was by the Dorset (800-1000 AD) and Thule Culture ( from 1100 to 1700 AD). The latter did a rapid expansion East from Alaska forming the largest population and had well insulated homes. In SW Greenland they met the Vikings in the 14th century. After initially sharing the hunting grounds, a prime habitat for Walrusk and Narwhals, North of the Western Viking settlement on Davis Strait, a violent clash followed with a sorry outcome for the vikings, see below: 8. The first Europeans moving in (Vikings etc.).

Inuit hut in Resolute Bay of the Thule Culture around 1400 AD, made of rock slabs and whale bones. 2OCelsius. June 1982.

Stones forming a semi-circle, used as a hare trap on Eastern Axel Heiberg Island. Thule Culture around 1000 - 1600 AD. 4OCelsius. July 1988.

Tent rings on Eastern Axel Heiberg Island. Thule Culture summer camp around 1000 - 1600 AD. 4OCelsius. July 1988.

The little ice age in the 17th century forced the Thule people to move out of the Canadian Arctic Islands and they migrated South.

7.4. Modern settlements in Canada and Greenland

The Canadian government managed to move some Inuits back in again to Resolute Bay [1] and Grise Fiord [1] from Port Harrison, Quebec and Pond Inlet in 1948, with the promise of good hunting grounds. The real reason was to inhabit the area with Canadians to enforce the Norther boundary of Canada. There was a fear that the Russian could take over this inhabited land.

Earlier, a Norwegian explorer, Otto Sverdrup, travelled across the Arctic Islands from 1898 to 1902 and named many sea straits and bays on Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island with Norwegian names and they are still in use, see some names of fiords in this paper. This resulted in a Norwegian claim of the land. In 1930 Canada payed them off for $67,000, a small sum for an area of 100,000 square miles.

Currently there are 200 Inuits in Resolute Bay [1] on Cornwallis Island and 120 Inuits in Grise Fiord [1] on Southern Ellesmere Island.

During the cold war in the 1950's, the Thule Air Base was build by the US Air force on the prime living and hunting grounds of the Thule Innuits. The inuits were forced to move to a less favourable area. They are still trying to go back.

(More on art, 3000 of 30000 natives in the Yukon live of art [soapstone Narwhal] [carved Narwhal tusk], ..... of traditional hunting).

8. The Arctic: The first Europeans moving in.

In the 19th century, the Arctic was seen as one of the last areas to explore, next to the rain forest of the Amazon and Borneo. There were earlier attempts in the 17th century but the little ice age, wrong approach and lack of commercial opportunities stopped this despite earlier successes of the Vikings during the Medieval warm period from 800 to 1200 AD.

8.1. The Vikings in Greenland and Newfoundland

The Vikings (or Nordic or Norse) people came from Iceland and started farming communities in Greenland in 984 AD.

Viking settlements in Greenland. After [1].

They were led by Erik the Red who was expelled from Iceland after a dispute. In the year 1000 there were about 500 people on Greenland. His son reached Newfoundland around the year 1000 AD and established a winter camp for about 80 people, as a base to explore the new land or “Vinland”, interpreted as being the the land of vines or grapes but this could also be the land of grass.

In Greenland, there were 5000 people in 1200 AD, 4000 in the Eastern settlement and 1000 in the Western settlement. They even had a bishop paying tribute to Rome. Essential for their existence was seal meat and walrusk tusk ivory. Seals supplemented 70% of their diet as the land could not support much cattle and the barley harvest was minimal so they were often starving. Only high-ranking officials like the bishop had 70% cattle meat and only 30% seal meat in their diet.

The walrusk was hunted primarily for the ivory, a precious and vital commodity in trading with Europe for iron tools. Narwhal ivory [1] was even more rare and in high demand, sold as the unicorn, the horn of the mythical horse. In medieval times the value was many times their weight in gold. The 17th century nobility in France believed that drinking powered ivory of the narwhal would protect them from poisoning by their wife or (ex-)maitraisse(s), apparently a risk factor in those days.

Around 1350 the climate got much colder and the pack ice did not break up anymore along the coast in the summer. The seals and walrus stayed out in the ocean, too far for their boats to reach. The climate change and heavier ice conditions also hampered trading ships to come in and in some years all the harbours remained blocked by the pack ice so none could come in. To make matters worse, at same time the trade in ivory shifted to cheaper elephant ivory from Africa causing an oversupply.

Finally, the Inuits (or Eskimos) moved in. In the11th Century they started to migrate from Alaska and NW Canada to the Eastern Arctic during the medieval warm period, reaching West Greenland in the 14th century. There are remnants of their presence on Cornwallis Island like a small hut made of whale bones, rocks and soil [1]. Further North on Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island there are sites with tent rings [1] and U-shaped rabbit/caribou traps [1].

The Vikings met some of them already on Western Greenland near Baffin Bay were they shared the same hunting ground for walrusk and seals but probably always kept a distance and the number of Inuits may be small. There is evidence that they did some trading with the Ellesmerian Inuits betweem 1200 and 1400.

The Vikings were not very hospitable people. On meeting the Inuits and after disagreement on trade, they would kill them, feeling superior. As Christians, they considered them pagan's, wild men. This was a big mistake.

Vikings in Newfoundland. They made the same tactical error on Newfoundland a few hundred years earlier, around 1000 AD. Their community of 80 people on the isolated and well defendable NW tip of the island at L'Anse-aux-Meadows [1] only lasted 10 years.

Rebuilt Viking settlement at L'Anse-aux-Meadows, North tip of Newfoundland

Newfoundland seemed a perfect place with a much better climate and plenty of wood which is absent on Greenland. Their presence in Newfoundland is not a surprise as they also made regular trips to Labrador, a distance of some 500 km from Western Greenland, across the Labrador Sea, to collect building wood, not present on Greenland.

This could have been the start of the Viking or even European invasion of North America once this would be known as life was also very tough at that time on Iceland for the expanding population.

However, when you do not have the skills to make friends with your new neighbors, the native Indians, and just kill them after a quarrel, you do not realize that they may have many, many “friends”. Metal weapons were insufficient as they were outnumbered.

500 years later, fire arms and cannons prove to be more decisive in the conquering of the Americas, but not without the help of European diseases like meazles and smallpox which wiped out 90% of the natives within 20 years after arriving in certain parts of the Americas.

The hostilities never ended forcing them in the end to move back from paradise (compared to Greenland) after severe losses. For next 300 years they regularly came back to get wood in Labrador and to trade goods with the Innuits and Indians but they never established a settlement.

There is speculation that they did a reconnaissance along the coast of Nova Scotia and the Saint Lawrence River but so far without clear evidence. As there are even more Indians in that region, they could have tried once, but would quickly have to retreat not even being able to survive on the remote North tip of Newfoundland.

Vikings in Greenland. The Inuits on Greenland, having by nature a very friendly culture for accepting visitors, responded in a similar way as the Indians on Newfoundland to the hostilities of the Vikings. Much better skilled to survive the harsh winters in the 14th century and having a tradition of following the seals on the ice floats using their kayaks, they probably gave the starving Vikings the final death blow, first the Western settlement and finally the Eastern settlement. By 1410, the Nordic communities on Greenland were extinct.

(Mainly after: Jared Diamond. Collapse, p.206 etc.; Ingstad and Ingstad. The Viking Discovery of America.)

(Note that in hunter-gatherers societies 30% of men die from hostilities).

8.2. Possible Arctic European migration to North America around 20,000 years ago

The Viking may not have been the first to enter North America from Europe. European cultures were well-developed in SW France around 20,000 years ago during the last ice age, living conditions similar to those currently in Greenland and Northern Canada with glaciers reaching Central Europe, roughly from London to Berlin and Moskou. Their culture resembles that of the Inuits, fully adapted to living in the icy conditions and they already had small boats made of skins to go on the open sea close to the pack ice. At that time, the pack ice extended from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and across to Ireland.

World during the last ice age around 18,000 years ago. Note the large extend of the pack ice south of Greenland and the wider coastal plains in Europe. After [1].

Using small boats, they could have followed the pack ice West ward as pack ice stabilizes the ocean waves. Reaching land several times and again moving on, they could have made their way to North America in only 500 or 1000 years, a similar distance as the migration path of the Inuits from Alaska, through Northern Canada, to Greenland. Traces of distinct European DNA have been found in some native American people on the East coast of the USA and it is speculated that it comes from the South of France some 20000 years ago [1]:

The Kenosha County digs show that woolly mammoths were butchered by humans here more than 13,000 years ago - at least 2,000 years older than what was once thought to be the oldest site in the U.S. Stanford and Bradley also point to recent DNA analysis involving a particular genetic marker known as haplogroup X. The marker is found in a minority of American Indians, including some in the Great Lakes region, and Europeans, but is not found in Asians, suggesting an ancestral link between Europe and North America.”

8.3. Russian expansion into Siberia and Alaska

The Russians moved into West Siberia in1582 and reached the Pacific in 1650. In 1812 they founded Fort Ross, 100 km North of San Francisco. See [1] for a full description.

Alaska was sold by Russia to the USA in 1867, for $7.2 million ($113 million in today's dollars). In this period, in 1875, they signed a treaty with Japan to keep Sakhalin Island for Russia and to give the Kuril Islands to Japan.

9. The Arctic, early expeditions (1600-1900)

Northeast passage (8, purple) and Northwest Passage (2, yellow). After [1]

The Northeast passage from Europe to China along the North coast of Siberia and the Northwest passage from the East coast of North America to the West Coast through Northern Canada were still unexplored in the mid 19th century as for most of the year the sea straits were blocked by ice floats.

Whaling ships went very high up in the Arctic regions, especially in the first half of the 19th Century, but they had to stay clear of the frozen sea channels. These opened up for only 1 or 2 months a year but they would still be filled with risky ice floats.

In Canada, whaling ships went to Herschel Island on the North Coast of the Yukon and the North side of Baffin Bay close to Ellesmere Island. They were already in Spitzbergen since the early 17th Century.

They made contact with the Inuits around Baffin Bay in North-East Canada and here the stories originate that Eskimos would welcome strangers to sleep with their wifes to avoid inbreeding. The only reason was survival as life was very tough. The whalers brought very interesting goods like guns and tobacco, but also diseases. In 1780, 90% of the Eskimos around Baffin Bay had died of contagious diseases.

All the early explorers were affected by the colder period between 1580 and 1900 with a mini Ice Age around 1600. The Vikings were lucky, they did their explorations during a warm period, from 850 to 1200 AD.

9.1. Northeast Passage: Willem Barents on Nova Zembla, 1596-1597

Was it Dutch courage what Willem Barents tried in 1596/1596 or was he one of the earlier great Arctic explorers?

No doubt he was driven by commercial interests, the trade with China. His quest to find the Northeast passage to China were very much trips into the deep unknowns of a frozen world. On his 1596 trip he even discovered Spitzbergen which soon after became a whaling station.

In the end, he did not get very far, spending the winter of 1596/1597 on Nova Zembla. His ship was crumbled by the ice. They shot polar bears for food but were suffering from scurvy. Some of his men died by eating the polar bear liver which contains toxic levels of vitamin A, 450 times the daily recommended dose, see [VITAMIN A].

He and his crew went back in small boats and most of the men were picked up at the Kola Peninsula by their sister ship that was looking for them. Willem Barents died very soon after starting the return trip. The remaining crew was rescued by the sister ship searching for them.

Death of Willem Barents. Artist: Christiaan Julius Lodewyck Portman, 1836.

9.2. Northwest Passage: John Franklin Expedition, 1845

Explorers routes 1576 – 1870.

Explorers routes 1870 – 1939

In 1845 around 500 km (as the crow flies) of the NW passage through the Canadian Arctic Islands by ship was still not really known although there was ample evidence that a shipping route was not possibly due to the permanent heavy sea ice. Early expeditions over the ice are shown above.

The route south of Victoria Island seemed most promising as it is the ost southernly route, passing South of the current Cambridge Bay.

Mighty England, the old empire, decided that a well-equipped Arctic expedition would finally chart and sail the remaining of the Northwest Passage between Devon and Banks Island.

John Franklin who did already several trips up North, was very keen to command this large expedition with two ships and 129 men. It was set up as the ultimate example how the Royal Navy 'rules the waves' using the latest technology. The ships had steam heated cabins for the comfort of the crew. They had canned food for a luxurious variety in meals and lemon juice to avoid scurfy. With three years' worth of preserved food supplies, they could spent three winters in the ice in full comfort.

Luck was not on their side. The winter of 1845 was the start of a 5 year cold period and some of the crucial sea channels never cleared. The solder used to close the cans had a very high content in lead. The navy farmed out a very cheap contract for canning the food and they got what they payed for, a poor job.

They were last seen by whalers in Baffin Bay on July 26, 1845, and reached the West coast of Devon Island at Beechey Island, in the fall of 1845 when the ice froze. As planned, they spent the winter in their well-insulated ships. Three men died in the winter of 1845/1846 and were buried at Beechey Island. They died of TBC, a natural death at the time. Their bodies were very well preserved being frozen since they were buried and an examination showed that they already accumulated very high levels of lead in their bodies within the first year,

The sea opened in July and they continued South for 300 km, taking Peel Sound, East of the Prince of Wales Island. This area was at the fringes of known navigational sea channels and Franklin had strict orders to take the larger M'Clintock Channel on the West side. Why he chose the smaller East channel, Peel Sound, is unknown but he soon got stuck in the ice floats near the narrowest part at Franklin Strait and had to spent a second winter. They covered only some 200 km of the 1000 km between Lancaster Sound and the Beaufort Sea, a major set back as they hoped to get through that summer. Franklin died during this winter (1947).

The next summer, the sea remaining full of heavy ice floats and they made little progress, again only 200 km to the North side of King William Island. They had to spent a third winter.

In the third winter, food supplies were running very low. Most of the officers already died from lead poisoning as, ironically, the officers were entitled to a higher portion of canned food. The lemon juice lost most of its vitamin C and all the men developed scurvy.

Sir John Franklin "dying by his boat". Artist impression. After [1].

In the early spring of 1948, 30 men of the starving crew decided to walk South to a trading post of the Hudson Bay company to the South, a trip of some 1000 km across unknown territory. They pulled one of the wooden life boats along and some sledges for crossing open water but this severely hampered their progress to a few kms a day. They were not equipped for the hike as they had no insulated boots or jackets necessary in the -20 to -30o Celsius spring temperatures.

They met a few Inuits in a hunting camp who were very surprised to see them and thought: “What are these white men doing here?”. The men were starving, hunting only for small birds, and had no idea how to catch bigger game like caribou and seals. The Inuits gave them the food they could miss and the next day secretly left them. In this area it remains difficult to find sufficient wildlife to feed more than a few men.

They all died near the mouth of the Back River on the main land, South of King William Island (some 150 km South of the current village of Gjoa Haven). They still managed to walk 200 of the some 1000 km.

More ships and men were lost looking for Franklin by some 16 expeditions in the next 10 years than in the Franklin expedition. Local Inuits pointed one of the search parties to the Back River site where they found the men. The search party was surprised of the goods and amount to carried, quote from [1]:

Hobson continued his search, and days later came across a lifeboat, littered with clothing, weapons and skeletons. The sight was described by Hobson as 'Pitiful.' The only food found around the boat was chocolate and tea, yet, the astonishing array of needless articles such as books, slippers, toothbrushes, silk cloth, combs, boots, vast amounts of soap, and many other items, puzzled Hobson, the extra weight in this mountain of luxuries must have only caused unnecessary burden to an already exhausted party. Further searches uncovered more remains, some of which bore the horrific evidence of cannibalism, a theory that was backed by Inuit stories. As the years past, interest in the lost expedition diminished, as the hope of finding survivors became non existent.

It took another 60 years before Roald Amundsen managed to sail the 1000 km long Northwest passage, from 1903-1906. He could live of the land during the winter as he had a small crew using a little boat. He was in regular contact with local Inuits.

9.3 Did Robert Peary reach the North Pole in 1906?

European history books do not tell us that apart from Robert Peary and Inuits dog slay drivers a black American was also on the trip, see Matthew Henson.

Matthew Henson, a black American explorer, Peary's companion on his successful (?) 1909 North Pole trip. After [1].

Peary's trip to the North pole remains a controversy as he did this in a record of 37 days covering a distance of 800 km between Ellesmere Island and the North Pole. Did he falsify his log book? He would not have been the first with a hoax claim as all explorers at that time depended on external sponsorship and therefore results.


From Wikipedia: Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole has always been subject to doubt, for a number of reasons. He had no sooner returned from the Arctic before he learned that Frederick Cook was also claiming to have reached the pole the previous year. The party that accompanied Peary on the final stage of the journey included no one who was trained in navigation and could independently confirm his own navigational work, which some have controversially claimed to be particularly sloppy as he approached the pole. The distances and speeds Peary claimed to have achieved once the last support party turned back border on the incredible, almost three times that which he had accomplished up to that point. Peary's account of a beeline journey to the pole and back—the only thing that might have allowed him to travel at such a speed—is contradicted by Henson's account of tortured detours to avoid pressure ridges and open leads. The conflicting, and possibly dual fraudulent claims, of Cook and Peary prompted Roald Amundsen to take particularly extensive precautions in navigation during his South Pole expedition to leave no room for doubt concerning attainment of the pole. See Polheim.

Some polar historians believe that Peary honestly thought he had reached the pole. Others have suggested that he was guilty of deliberately exaggerating his accomplishments. Still others have suggested that any hint that Peary did not reach the pole must be the work of pro-Cook conspirators who are simply out to discredit Peary. In 1989, the National Geographic Society concluded, based on the shadows in photographs and ocean depth measures taken by Peary, that he was no more than five miles away from the pole.

In 2005 British explorer Tom Avery, with four colleagues, completed his trek to the pole in 36 days, 22 hours and 11 minutes using 16 husky dogs, and pulling two sledges which were replicas of those used by Peary. Many Arctic historians believe Avery's expedition has vindicated the memory of the American adventurer, showing that Peary's speeds were not so impossible after all. However, Avery was airlifted off the North Pole rather than repeat Peary's return journey to Ellesmere Island, which the explorer had claimed to have made in only 17 days, or half the time of the outbound journey.

9.4 Robert Scott on Antarctica, 1911/1912

Robert Scott, statue downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. Designed by his widow.

Polar explorer Robert Scott insisted that honest manpower rather than dog sledges would be the way to reach the South Pole. Roald Amundsen proofed him wrong. Amudsen sacrificed over half of his dogs along the way as dog food but Scott considered this unethical.

Quote, see Wikipedia [1]:

On November 1st 1911, twelve men, each with a pony and sledge, left Cape Evans in detachments. This included the final party of five that would push on towards the pole.

They reached the pole on January 18th to find a small tent supported by a single bamboo flying a Norwegian flag. Inside was a record of the five who had been the first to reach the pole.

The return trip started out fairly well but the weather would inevitably become more severe and there was no incentive of being the first to reach the pole to cheer them and spur them onwards.

On the 29th of March 1912 Scott made his last diary entry; "Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more."

The tent and three frozen bodies were not discovered until nearly 8 months later on November 12th that year.

10. The Arctic: Modern expeditions

These days, modern transport with planes and helicopters make you go anywhere quickly in comfort.

If you would try an expedition, e.g. travel on foot to the North Pole from Ellesmere Island, there is always a commercial plane available to pick you up when things go wrong. Twin Otters from the Bradley Air company are commonly seen in expedition documentaries. For their pilots, it is just a well paid job.

Still, this is not just a walk in the park. It is 800 km from Ward Hunts Island or Cape Columbia at the North tip of Ellesmere Island to the North Pole, the route also followed by Peary in 1906. You need 4-5 months for a return trip covering a distance of 10-12 km per day before the ice breaks up in the summer. Pressure ridges in the ever moving ice forming steep ice walls several meters high are real obstacles for crossing as well as open water tens of meters wide.

A cross Arctic ocean trip from Russia to Ellesmere is not very often done and requires the members to report to customs at the Eureka weather station on Central Ellesmere Island as it is nearest official border post between Russia and Canada.

Eureka weather station on Central Ellesmere Island, 80 degrees latitude. 4OCelsius. More [1].

The Eureka weather station has a population 10 in the winter and more in the summer. This is an important base for scientific expeditions in the region and I used it every year during my visits. The meaning of Eureka in Greek is “I have found it”. What, always wondered me.

Staying in the field in tents can be hardship at temperatures around freezing but modern equipment is very good. E.g. portable Coleman lamps are excellent as portable stoves in small tents. As you do not need any light in this area by the 24 hour light you get frowning faces when you take them on an expedition.

Canadian Ice Island, Arctic Ocean, 1984-1993

Ice islands are large chunks of flat thick ice that break of a coastal ice shelf. These are ideal to set up a floating base as they follow the very slow clock-wise current in the Arctic Ocean. The Russian's had one for years in the Central Arctic Ocean.

Canada established one in 1984. It drifted slowly from Northern Ellesmere Island to West of Axel Heiberg island in 9 years, see Chapter 12 for a map with the route. After [1]:

1984: Polar Shelf erects seven wooden buildings and a runway on an ice island - a 3000-year-old chunk of freshwater ice measuring roughly 8 km x 3 km that broke off Ellesmere Island's Ward Hunt Ice Shelf. The runway would melt each summer and would be rebuilt at the start of each spring field season.

1985: Scientists carry out seismic experiments on the ice island to glean information on the structure of the polar continental shelf.

1993: The Ice Island drifts southward among the Arctic Islands and breaks up; the research station is decommissioned.

Unfortunately, the island did not drift into the main Arctic Ocean as planned, see part of the route in the figure below, but in the end went South, and stranded West of Axel Heiberg Island in the seasonal ice pack, where it melted and finally broke up.

Magnetic art, Resolute bay, June 1989

The location of the North magnetic pole drifts. In only 100 years it migrated 1000 km North, see below. Using a compass in this area is highly unreliable and for precise measurements you need solar compasses.

In about 50 years it will end up in Siberia, at a rate of 40 km per year and at some point we may get a magnetic reversal with a very weak magnetic field.

North magnetic pole migration over the last 100 years. After [1].

In 1989 an artist from Vancouver won a price for her “magnetic mobile installation” and she got a grant to display the installation at Resolute Bay. It included a large magnetic declination needle hanging horizontally on a wire on a tripod. This aligns with the declination (horizontal) force by the horizontal rotation. There were also two inclination needles that rotate around a vertical axis. In 1989, Resolute Bay was only 350 km SE of the magnetic pole.

Inclination (tripod) and declination (two vertical stands) needles. Art project, Resolute Bay, June 1989. View at the sea. 2OCelsius.

I was fascinated by the slow movement of the needles. The horizontal needle rotated around its vertical axis, changing from clock-wise to anti-clockwise in a very slow chaotic order, making full turns every 10 or 20 minutes. The inclination needles were turning on a horizontal axis and made full turns every few minutes, often hesitating to do a full turn.

Our students did not think much of it and imitated the movements, see below.

Declination needles with the prof and students. June 1989, 2OCelsius.

11. The Arctic: Modern white men “running into trouble with Arctic nature”

In Alaska and Northern Canada, few people, except the natives and very few whites, have the right mindset to live in the wild.

There are a large number of white city dreamers who would like to live in and off the pristine land year round. Of those who tried, the number being surprisingly large, few manage to survive and stay there. They do not realize that true nature is very harsh and selective. It requires the right balance in intelligence and knowledge combined with a physical and emotional endurance few city people still have.

The old nomadic Inuit hunters were carefully selected, by nature. Infancy death was high, maximum average life span was around 40, so a 50 year old man was considered a respectable wise man as he managed to survive so long, a crucial skill for hunter-gatherer cultures.

John Krakauer's book 'Into the Wild', by far superior to his “romanticized” or possibly even “imaginative” climbing adventures on Mount Everest and the Eiger Face (Switzerland), has a number of hilarious examples of white city people who ran into trouble with nature, see below.

11.1. Wrong berries

A young man who tried to live off the land in Alaska got very sick after eating the wrong berries. He ate very similar looking pea berries instead of the edible berries.

Half dead on his way back to civilization he got stuck before a river with high water by the summer run-off. He crossed the same river in the early spring when frozen. He failed to gather all the knowledge of his paradise as he did not know that there was a cable lift to cross only a few km away. Now he had no choice but to go back.

He died a few weeks later, a combination of starvation and poisonous berries. He was found 3 weeks after his death by hunters.

11.2. Know the signal for SOS

A man was dropped off on a lake by a float plane in an isolated part of the Brooks Ranges in Alaska, in the region of Arctic Village.

He wanted to stay for a month in a small tent for an ultimate nature experience and did not want a two-way radio for communications. Unfortunately, he forgot to arrange a pick-up date. End of August, no plane.

In September, a plane passed by, and made two loop to check him out as camping is unusual this time of the year. He waived for help, with one hand, the signal for “hello” and “all fine”, and did not know he had to put up two hands for “help”. The plane left as it couldn't land having wheels, he thought. He expected a float plane would arrive soon and started packing. Three days later, no plane.

In November temperatures already plummeted to -5o F or -22o Celsius. Staying in a small summer tent lacking proper winter gear, he developed frostbite on fingers and toes. Now without supplies, in desperation, he used his gun to kill himself. He was found in February by Alaskan troopers inspecting his camp.

11.3. Timothy Treadmill, the grizzly bear hugger

Werner Herzog, in the documentary “Grizzly Man”: “Nature is chaos, hostility and murder.”

Summary and pictures below are based on the documentary.

Timothy Treadmill filming himself and the grizzly bear that ate him.

Movie made by Werner Herzog.

Bear Eyes.

After 16 years of camping in between and hugging grizzly bears, Timothy Treadmill was killed by a very old (28 years) bear. He shot minutes of film of presumably the bear that eventually killed and ate him (not 100% certain).

The bear was still diving for salmon remains on the bottom of the river in late September as it did not yet collect sufficient winter fat. Being old, it was probably losing its skills to find food, loosing in competition with other bears. Salmon remains have little nutritious value.

The bear probably turned to him as a final food source. Timothy was very often near him for weeks on end and easy prey for a hungry. This, despite, the reluctance of bears to attack humans. Humans have an unknown, so wrong smell.

12. The Arctic: Personal visits to Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Island

Map of the Eastern Arctic Islands: Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Island. With approximate locations of camps. 1982 camp is at Buchanan Lake. Some 30% of the land is covered with glaciers (purple). Path of the Ice lsland (Ile de Glace) in the 1980's indicated. (large picture).

Most of my visits were on Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island for two months each summer in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1988 and 1989. We did some 25 fly camps in total and were supported by Canadian government planes (Twin Otter) out of Resolute Bay and a helicopter (Bell 206) out of Eureka.

Ellesmere Island has the size of England, roughly 600 by 200 km. Axel Heiberg Island is similar to Switzerland in size. The distance from Resolute Bay to Eureka, the main weather station on Central Ellesmere Island, is 500 km.

Resolute Bay, population 200, [1] is the only main airport with scheduled flights using jet planes. The jet engines have special blowers to enable landing on a gravel run way. Gravel could ruin the engines.

Composite satellite image of the Arctic Islands and Greenland. After Google Earth (large picture).

The Northernmost part of the satellite image is covered in snow, other parts show the glaciers.

White hares on Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, NE Canada, 80o latitude. Back ground a 6 km wide salt dome and on the left ice covered Mokka Fiord. View to the South. July 1982. 4o Celsius. For location see Google Panoramio.

Same picture but from Google Earth at 5 km height. Buchanan Lake at the head of the Fiord.

Same but vertical overview and map view to the South to align with pictures above. Buchanan Lake top/central of the picture. With location of picture with rabbits (above) taken.

12.1 Visits: The first day, a landing in the wild.

(Hare Fiord, Northern Ellesmere Island, June, 1988)

Twin Otter landing at Whitsunday Bay, Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, July 1983. 4o Celsius.


It is the start of a two month expedition on Northern Ellesmere Island [1]. It seems the two pilots of our Twin Otter plane have a landing site in mind, they are pointing at a flat area near the main stream in the mostly snow covered valley between mountain ranges [1]. I can't communicate with them more than a few words without a head phone, “Yes, good spot, try it” is all I can shout.

Two more loops, the plane suddenly drops, engines are slowed down, a sudden touch down, rocks hitting the big soft tires, propellers at full speed in reverse to slow down the plane and the plane shaking in a roaring noise. Within a few seconds the plane stops. We used a minimal runway, less than 100 m.

After unloading the plane, the pilots wish us good luck, “Will pick you up in two months”. Bye, bye civilization, welcome Arctic wilderness.

Resolute Bay

Yesterday we left Toronto for Ellesmere Island on the Arctic Ocean. Toronto suffered from a mid June heat wave of 36o Celsius. We traveled through Montreal and Iqualuit (Frobisher Bay) on Baffin Island, to Resolute Bay [1] on Cornwallis Island [1], some 4000 km. In Resolute Bay it was around 0o Celsius and most of the island was still covered in snow. The sea straits were frozen solid and would not open up until mid July. Even Baffin Bay was still frozen solid.

Hare Fiord, Northern Ellesmere Island

A small government plane, a double engine Twin Otter with big soft tires for landings in the wild, would take us another 600 km North to Northern Ellesmere Island [1, see 1988 camp] on the fringes of the Arctic Ocean, at 81 degrees latitude. This is the Northernmost border of Canada, officially the border with Russia when you are a North Pole traveler daring to cross the 2000 km cross Arctic Ocean trip.

Normally the two government planes were fully booked for the day, also because of lost time by the common poor weather, and you may have to wait for three days to get a plane. To my surprise, a plane happen to be available and the government camp manager was keen to get us out ASAP. We had only two hours to sort out the 600 kg of equipment and first shipment of food for 6 weeks that arrived the week before on a cargo plane. The equipment was on loan from the Geological Survey in Calgary and the food ordered through and shipped up by a supermarket in Montreal.

Landing in the wild

After 3 hours flying, I could now see the camp site area I hand-picked from aerial photographs in a broad, rocky valley south of Hare Fiord on Northern Ellesmere Island.

Hare Fiord, view to the West, June 1989, 4o Celsius.

Otto Fiord, with ice bergs, located North of Hare Fiord. End of July, early August, View to the East. After [1].

Mike, my undergraduate student and field assistant, was in disbelieve when I told him in Resolute that I selected a landing strip based on aerial photographs. "Are you sure we can land there?", he asked me. I answered, "Likely, if not, nearby, I hope, else we have to go to Eureka and take a helicopter".

There is still a heavy snow cover in the valleys, some 70%. I hope we can find a decent landing area, all we need is a 100 m flat area without big rocks and snow.

Two more loops in the plane to check the landing site. The best sites are on gravel bars but I do not see any in the km wide braided river stream. If you have a weak, acid stomach by eating a breakfast of eggs and grape-fruit, you may be in trouble as the plane loops with its strong G-forces may turn over your stomach.

It seems the two pilots have a landing site in mind, they are pointing at a spot and the engines are slowing down but I can't communicate with them more than a few words without a head phone, “Yes, good spot, try it”.

A sudden touch down, rocks hitting the big soft tires, propellers at full speed in reverse to slow down the plane, the plane shaking in a roaring noise. Within a few seconds the plane stopped and used only a minimal runway, less than 100 m.

Setting up the camp

We get out, a fierce cold wind is blowing. We unload the equipment and food for 6 weeks. Two heavy, sturdy tents will be ”home” for the next two months. I check the two-way radio for the power and connection with the government base in Resolute Bay, some 600 km South and locate the 12-gauge shotgun and ammunition. The dry Arctic wind is strong as usual and it must be around -2o Celsius. My hands are cold instantly. The pilots wish us good luck and the empty plane takes off ysing a 100 m runway only. Bye, bye civilizations, welcome Arctic wilderness.

I load the shotgun in a routine but we will not see a polar bear as we are 10 km from the sea. Wolves are also no worry as they never attack humans, they prefere huskies. Polar bears are rare in this area as seals, their favorite prey, are uncommon as the sea straits are frozen solid for most of the year. Only from late July to September the sea straits -may be open.

We start setting up the camp in a hurry to get a shelter for the cold and strong wind. Two hours later we have the cooking stove going which heats the small kitchen tent. It will take another two weeks before our bodies will be acclimatized to the cold.

Two months to go

I wonder how Mike feels. It is his first time but the changes are very extreme. we left Toronto in a heat wave yesterday. Today we were first in a comfortable plane whch dropped us in a desolate wilderness consisting of rocks and snow only, at freezing temperatures and a howling wind.

Two months to go.

Mountain range South-West of Hare Fiord, Northern Ellesmere Island, June 1988. View to the East. 2o Celsius.

12.2. Visits: Buchanan Lake Animal Highway, wolf visit

(Buchanan Lake, Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, July/August 1982)

Buchanan Lake top/central of the picture, with camp. Animal highway left-bottom of mountain range (bottom-right to top-left). Sea mostly frozen, ice cap of main mountain range top-right After [1]

Buchanan Lake on Eastern Axel Heiberg Island is an animal highway in the late summer. The sea ice breaks up and the open water funnels all the migrating animals in the km wide passage across the Buchanan Lake stream delta in front of the central mountain range, the only N-S route in the summer on the island.

In 1982 we camped at Buchanan Lake for two weeks and chose a camp site 3 km from the coast to have some distance from potential polar bears. We watched the daily passing of large animals, mostly going South. Caribous and muskox dominated. Every day we saw a few caribous traveling in small groups of 2 or 3 animals. Muskox herds of around 10 animals were less common. If you want to shoot a documentary on the big land animals in the Arctic, this is the place to go in late July and August.

Most fascinating were the occasional wolves, passing by every few days at their typical dull pace, presumably conserving energy for when they needed it..., for a chase. On passing, they might briefly turn their hat to look at our camp but would carry on having no interest.

One night around 2 PM we woke up, there were large animals in the camp and we weren't sure what kind. The immediate thought was a polar bear, the worst visitor. The sea was now without sea ice and we have seen seals in the fiords over the past few weeks, the polar bears favorite food.

Being inexperienced in the area, this was my first year in the Arctic, and having little knowledge of polar bear habitat in the region, we feared the worst visit, a 2-3 year young, starving polar bear, as it was just expelled by its mother and not yet experienced in finding food.

My student got a cast iron pan and a spoon ready to make a loud noise. I grabbed the shot gun next to my pillow and cranked the first shell in the chamber. There were still three in the magazine holder. A warning from a zoologist at the start of the field season flashed through my mind.

On arriving at the base in Resolute Bay two months ago at the start of the field season, a zoologist spent hours cleaning and greasing his riffle in our eight-men dormitory. I asked him what he studied and he said “polar bears”. He explained that shotguns are useless against polar bears and that you need a high powered riffle to kill them at a safe distance when they attack you. This was not a good start of my first season up North in, to my knowledge at that time, prime polar bear habitat. The reason shotguns are recommended is that we are not suppose to kill and we will not be able to, unless they come very close. Also, in our area there are basically none as the sea ice is frozen most of the time, until late July. We were not in prime polar bear habitat, partly as so many already disappeared over the past two centuries.

After whispering for a seemingly endless few minutes what to do, we noticed the animals were slowly moving off the camp dragging something along.

We finally dared to look outside, the shot gun barrel sticking out of the tent ready to fire. We were relieved, it was not a polar bear, just two white wolves!

The wolves were attracted to the smell of our garbage bag and were dragging it off the camp site, happy with the “kill”. We tried to chase them off by shouting and banging on the cast iron frying pan, but they barely looked at us. We slowly started to realize that we had an unexpected, major problem. The wolves would litter the delta plain with garbage. As the entire region is a strictly-protected wild life area, we were not allowed to leave any trace. After the summer season, all camps would be inspected by the government and any litter would be cleaned up at our costs, a bill in the tens of thousands of dollars, comprised of man power and Twin Otter flying time.

We tried the ultimate measure, firing the shotgun above their heads. They briefly looked at us, definitely not used to guns, and carried on dragging the bag.

We only had one weapon left over, emergency flares. They should know lighting and thunder though it is rare in the area. I only saw and heard it once, in 1988.

I pointed the flare pencil just above their heads and fired a shot. It made a loud bang following by a hissing sound created by the flying phosphorous shell, as if a small rocket is fired. This worked, the wolves were gone in a split second,.

Relieved we cleaned op the area.

The same flares are said not to work for polar bears, not even the very loud bear bangers, still everyone carries them.

12.3. Visits: Jeffy and the wolf

(Strand Fiord, Western Axel Heiberg Island, July 1984)

Strand Fiord, early July 1983. 2o Celsius.

Summary. After spending a day in the field, Jeffy was not happy. He discovered that his meat supply for 10 days, some 5 kg, stored in a metal bucket in a snow bank was snatched by a wolf.

Meat stolen

On the third days Jeffy got into trouble with the rare wolves of Western Axel Heiberg Island. The smart wolf got away with Jeffy’s meat supply for 10 days and as a meat hungry Canadian he was royally pissed off. The evidence was clear, foot prints in the snow around the metal bucket in which the meat was stored.

We normally store meat in a big aluminum box and put this outside in a snow bank, not only to keep it cold but also to divert polar bears from the camp and to avoid other animals like foxes and wolves from taking it. Jeffy, instead, put the meat in a sample pail (metal bucket) and just closed the lid. He used the sturdy aluminum box with proper locks for the kitchen utensils which is handy, this is how we ship it to keep it organized and clean, but definitely not the idea. A pail with a closed lid will keep a fox but a wolf?

Was the wolf so smart or was Jeffy so careless. Opening a lid may be difficult for foxes but wolves are much stronger. Jeffy knew there could be wolves in this area and you should not store garbage in a tent as they will rip it open based on past experience.

He said he was going to track it down and kill it with one of his high powered telescope riffles.

Wolves are the biggest carnivores in this area but they are harmless as they avoid other big animals and have a strict preference for prey. Man is avoided, keeping a large distance and on Western Axel Heiberg Island I never saw one but they are around.

As a near vegetarian I took sides of course with the wolves and suggested to eat the canned meat and fish as it is more healthy anyway. Jeffy settled for the cans of "Spam", the unpopular ham and corned beef which looks fine when eating cold but disintegrates totally into water, grease and soft meat when fried up.

Also see see full story, how Jeffy despite his battery of guns, lost his two week meat supply to a wolf.

12.4. Visits: An unhappy camper, coffee, sugár and cigarettes?

(Buchanan Lake, Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, August, 1982)

Landing in the field on Axel Heiberg Island with a Twin Otter at the start of the 1982 field season, Eastern Axel Heiberg Island. June 1982. 2o Celsius.

After seven weeks in the field, H., the French post-doc, and Luke, a student/field assistant, joined us at Buchanan Lake [1]. Luke was happy to see us as H. stopped talking 4 weeks ago.

When H. stepped out of the helicopter, I was shocked, he looked like a drifter outside the salvation army hostel in Toronto near our university campus. Jeffy would always make a joke walking on College Street and greet drifters with: “Hay dad”.

His long, greasy hair was tied up with our professor's pajama pants and I could smell him even at the 4o degrees Celsius Arctic summer temperatures. Luke said that H. didn't wash for 7 weeks, neither his clothes and definitely not his socks. The first conversation I had with H. was very brief, he mumbled only three words: “Coffee, sugár and cigarettes?” I nodded “Yes”.

Their previous camp had two tents (we only had one). After the two professors left, H. confiscated the second tent as an office. He set up one of the two camping tables and spread out his maps, aerial photographs and notes. He also declared his tent off-limits to Luke who wasn't happy about this.

Luke intended to use the second tent as a cooking and dining tent. The wind shelter made of a tarp between the two tents as cooking area wasn't great. The small stove could not heat up the area because of the wind and the cold 2-4o Celsius outside temperature. Inside a tent it would have worked fine like we did. This must have contributed to the tension between them. The total silence of H. for the next 4 weeks is indeed a solution for a silent truce.

We had plenty of coffee and sugar left over from the last seven weeks as we did not use much. H. on the other hand had to ration the single package of coffee he got each week. His cigarettes were mailed 5 weeks ago from Resolute Bay but never arrived. He quickly found out that to quit smoking on an expedition is not a good idea. Somehow the cigarette shipment was delayed and we just received them.

H. pupils were small and his voice very determined. He went straight to our tent, took the case of cigarettes, and started smoking non-stop. After we set up their second tent as a kitchen tent H. sat down inside enjoying the warmth. For the rest of the day he made and drank black coffee with 30% sugar, uttering just a few words, mainly bitching at our professor who mailed him the cigarettes. He was clearly an unhappy camper.

Three days later a Twin Otter picked us up. Until then, he was “on strike”.

12.5. Other

See: Arctic safari: various animal pictures from Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island.

See: Short stories and pictures on the Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island.

See: Long diary of 5 summers on Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island.

13. The Arctic: Personal visits to the Yukon/Alaska

See: Firth River Trip. NW Yukon (NW Canada / Alaska).

Driftwood of large logs (5-15m) on the beach of the Arctic Ocean, Firth River mouth, West of Herschel Island, Yukon. July 2006, 15
o Celsius. For location see Google Panoramio.

Summary. Sitting on a large driftwood log, I am staring at the icebergs in the Arctic Ocean [1]. Back after 17 years, same blue sky and same strong wind but in the Western Arctic it is much warmer than on Ellesmere Island [1], 15oC in stead of only 4oC. We saw a herd of 20 musk-ox's today, with binoculars at a large distance. The beach is full of driftwood [1] but I do not see any plastic bottles or fishing nets. All cleaned up by Parks Canada? Tomorrow a Twin Otter will land on the spit, a gravel bar with a rough 300 m landing strip [1], and take us back to Inuvik after a 12 day rafting and hiking trip down the Firth River.

Epiloque. The Twin Otter landed on the gravel bar along the coast [1] this morning and we are now flying along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. I see two caribou herds of some 20 animals each on Herschel Island which has an old American whaling station from a century ago.

I am staring out the window and we enter the MacKenzie Delta. My fingers are still sensitive from pulling the raft through the shallow river delta two days ago. I finally see my first moose standing in one of many lakes, only 40% of the delta is land. Kms long, very straight seismic lines crosscut land and lakes, created in the winter by seismic trucks driving on the ice.

People have been in this area for 20,000 years and the warm summers explain this. This area has affected but now almost all have left, most of the Inuits, whalers, prospectors and DEW (distant early warning) line stations crew.

The oil industry may be here soon in full force. In the 1850s, whalers were astounded when they ran out of customers for oil before they ran out of whales, a few years after the first oil well was drilled by Drake in August, 1859. The Herschel Island whaling station was active for a short period only, from 1891 to 1898. By 1910, whaling in the Arctic was not profitable any more. The whales are still recovering from near total extinction. Will the oil industry run out of out of customers before they run out of oil? The stone age did not end by lack of stones.

14. The Arctic: Exploiting natural resources.

On sea, exploitation of natural resources started early. The Vikings were the first around 1000 AD. After 1600 fishermen, especially whalers, started to penetrate into the Arctic regions where there was limited sea ice.

On land exploitation of the Arctic for natural resources did not start until the early 19th century with the Russians entering Alaska and newly arrived Canadians the lower Arctic regions of Canada. At that time the main interest was the fur trade. Pelts from animals like foxes, beavers and martyrs were in high demand.

In the late 19th century this shifted to minerals like gold. The last 50 years the main interest is oil and gas like the giant Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in Northern Alaska and the gas and oil fields in Western Siberia.


The Vikings in Greenland were the first hunting for seals, walrus and narwhal, see Chapter
8. The first Europeans moving in (Vikings etc.).

Around 1600, Portuguese and English fishermen regularly went to Iceland, Newfoundland and Southern Greenland to exploit the rich fishing grounds. They used relatively small boats. North Atlantic storms can be ferocious so many ships never returned.

Whalers discovered the rich waters of Spitzbergen and Eastern Greenland already around 1600 but the biggest boom was between 1800 and 1850. These were risky trips as their boats were unsuitable to navigate in seas with ice floats. Their boats could easily get punctured. Once closed in by sea ice the sailing boats could could not free themselves and would eventually be crushed by the sea ice.

Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams gives a good overview of the history of fishing and whaling in the Arctic.

Gold and other minerals

Gold has always been in the fantasy of men as the way of quickly getting rich and lured them into the vastness of the Arctic, a place of extreme hardship in the winter. In the late 19th century there was the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon. The few men that made any money were mostly outfitters selling tents, spades and liquor. Jack London's famous novel “Call of the wild” gives a good impression. This is about a Saint Bernard dog stolen from an estate in California living a very comfortable life and illegally sold as a sledge dog in the Yukon which changed his life to extreme hardship.

In the early 20th century coal was mined in Spitzbergen [1]. Alaska also has very large coal resources and perhaps one day may be exploited for coal bed methane to supply natural gas to the US.

During the great depression of the thirties copper and gold in the Wrangell - St. Elias Mountains Range of Alaska [1] was extremely profitable and the workers were unaffected by the economic depression living a luxurious life, see the travel book by Brian Keenan, “Four quarters of light”.

Siberian diamonds are now dumped on the lucrative world diamond market undermining the cartel lead by De Beers operating in the countries in Southern African.

Oil and gas

Exploration for oil and gas in the Arctic. After the Financial Times, 5 September 2012, p. 7. Major companies: Shell, ExxonMobile, Gazprom and StatOil.

The last 50 years the main interest in the Arctic is oil and gas and a large number of exploration wells have been drilled. You may still encounter abandoned well sites in the field, often recognizable by an old wooden platform, see example along the Firth River [1]. Most of the land and shallow seas of the Arctic have been explored in the seventies for oil and gas, but there may still be opportunities in the deeper waters.

Successful examples are the giant Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in Northern Alaska and the gas and oil fields in Western Siberia. New to be developed are the gas fields of the Mackenzie Delta [1] in Canada and offshore fields in the Barents and Greenland Sea. The North slope of Alaska could also have several fields and with the current oil price are attractive.

The Hecla Fields at Drake Point on Melville Island of the Canadian Arctic Island had a test installation for LNG in the late 1970's, see [1]:

The Arctic Pilot Project is designed to test the feasibility of year-round marine transportation of natural gas in its liquefied form (LNG) by icebreaking carrier”.

It was abandoned given the environmental concerns and the low gas price. With 9 tcf of recoverable as resources a pipeline could be built to the MacKenzie Delta, joining up with the new to be built MacKenzie Pipeline [1], a distance of at least 1000 km.

Modern oil and gas operations require limited personnel on-site once built and should have little disturbance with a proper infrastructure and management. However, in the past foolish cost savings and negligence often caused havoc to the environment like in NW Siberia. If Russia would enforce their legislature on the gas and oil operations, Russian companies would get broke instantly on the cost of environmental clean up.

15. The arctic: A sustainable pristine world?

Will the Arctic remain as it is now?

In the short term. A very good guarantee is the cold climate which limits the population and even drives people away. The cost of living is very high and most people cannot handle being inside during the long cold winter developing the infamous 'cabin fever'. Few people go outside, mostly for hunting. The moist in your eyes and nose will freeze instantly below -20o Celsius as the cold wind is generally strong.

Opportunities. Warmer periods every few 100 years as we have now, offer opportunities in the sub-Arctic regions. Like the Vikings in SW Greenland around 1000 AD, we could again grow potatoes and barley, and raise livestock other than sheep, for example horses and cows, like on Iceland. This way, native people could have alternative means of subsistence and not be fully dependent on native art, hunting and social security, combined with rare seasonal jobs. The NW passage through the Canadian Arctic Islands may become completely ice free during the few summer months. This is a very old shipping dream. It avoids the slow and expensive passage through the Panama Canal, and for big boats like super tankers and giant container ships, it shortens the long route around Cape Horn. Even the NE passage along the North coast of Siberia may become passable shortening the distance between Europe and Japan.


There are already four serious threats that could affect the Arctic ecosystem.

Number one is global pollution that could affect the precarious wild life balance in the Arctic. PCB and mercury have entered the food chain drifted in by the dominant North-West wind from Europe, North America, Russia and now even SE Asia. PCB levels in fish is 50 million times higher than in the water, in seals 450 million times and in polar bears 31.5 billion times. This affects the immune system causing higher incidents of cancers and infections. Natives are advised to eat less seals to reduce PCB levels in their blood. In Eastern Greenland natives are advised not to eat polar bear meat as it has very high levels of PCB. The polar bear may get extinct soon. Limited and barely noticeable pollution in the air and water very quickly kills off the majority of the bugs. This is why Europe is mostly bug free.

Number two is man made destruction,The 19th and 20th centuries were disastrous. Recovery in the Arctic is very slow. The whale slaughter in the 19th century is well known and has still not recovered. The caribou on Ellesmere Island are still recovering from several of the Peary expedition slaughters 100 years ago. The number of Polar bears are still very small, only 20,000 world-wide. Muskox have recovered in several areas like on Banks Island were they were slaughtered by the Innuits in the 19th century. The muskox are now even back in the ANWR.

Number thee is runaway global warming that will affect the Arctic a lot more. If we keep on raising CO2 levels (and associated nasty contaminants like H2S, NOx, VOC (volatile organic compounds) [1] and fine dust) in the atmosphere and reduce the ozon layer, it is difficult to predict what will happen. Current levels of CO2 are 35 or 40% higher compared to those in warmest periods for the last three million years [1] and are definitely man-made. The pack ice in the Arctic ocean [1] is getting thinner at an alarming rate since 2002 [1].

Number four is accelerating land-use and associated destruction of at least 80% of the bio-diversity. This could tip the balance of our climate until the next ice age catches up with us in 10,000 years. During the last ice age, their was 25% less biomass because of the cold climate but the oceans could take up more CO2 by the lower temperatures.

Mass extinction period. Geologists call the period since 10,000 years and possibly up to 10,000 AD when the next ice age will come, a major extinction period or cataclysm, given the numerous species that are already, and will be extinct. The thin sediment layer deposited in our period will be used as a world-wide marker horizon to correlate our very distinct time zone.

This marker horizon will be similar to the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary caused by a giant meteorite. Sediments from that period have high values of an exotic cosmic element, Iridium, from the pulverized meteorite. In these sediments, there is also a peculiar mineral, coesite, a very high pressure variety of crystalline quartz. This formed by the impact of the meteorite. Worldwide, the sediments deposited in our times will have a high concentration of strange material: long hydrocarbon chains from disintegrated plastics and rare, oxidized metals, so basically chemical waste.

A natural but dynamic Arctic world. From a geologists perspective, the current accelerated destruction of the earth is just a small spike in the history of the earth. Only 3-4 mln years ago the human species split off from the apes. There are about 1 mln known animal species but 29 mln are yet to discovered (from Our Dynamic Earth Exhibition, Edinburgh). There are 900,000 named insects species. There is only a single species of humans.

Mass extinctions on earth happen relatively often, major ones were:

For the last few million years, we had ice age cycles, with major warm periods lasting 10,000 years every 100,000 years, but the world was dominated by cold periods with the lowest temperatures every 40,000 years and to a lesser extend every 20,000 years.

A warm green house or cold white house? The first 10,000 years since the last ice age, called the Holoceen, was the farming period and exceptionally warm. We made good use of it by starting farming. There were already colder periods, mainly starting in 3500 BC, see 4. The climate. The second part of the Holocene until the next ice age in 10000 AD will be decisive. Will man made global warming and the current mass extinction continue?

Or will there be just a natural slight imbalance in wild life by natural climate variations? No doubt, the Arctic will remain cold. Whether it will be with or without wild life will depend on us.

The next ice age will catch up with us in 10,000 years. It will change the world completely. Or will we manage to prevent it by accident raising the current temperature by 5-10 degrees, which is roughly the decrease in temperature associated with the reduction in solar radiation during an ice age? It is difficult to predict how the climate will react.

We are currently heating up the earth by burning fossil fuels and reducing the earth biomass by 80% within the next century. The Stern Report suggest we could reduce the 5-20% damage in GDP by investing only 1% in proper measures, sufficient for a sustainable abatement.

We should focus on demographic, economic and energy problems that lead to destruction of our environment and causes extreme weather conditions. We need at least three and possibly eight times the earth surface to generate the current consumption in a sustainable way with our current methods, so we clearly live on credit.

No doubt, the population pressure and increase in standard of living will have a disastrous impact on the land use and destroy the last remaining pockets of near-real nature on earth like in the tropics. The only exception could be in the Arctic and Antarctic regions and probably also in the sub-Arctic regions with their cold winters like the taiga of Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

Finally. When the next ice age arrives in 10,000 years, we may be moving back to Africa after 45,000 years in Europe. But, in the very long term: The sun formed 5 billion years ago and has another 5 billion years to go before it will run out of fuel.


I started writing this in August, at the requests of a few Canadians friends on a rafting trip in the Yukon. Thinking back, the visits to the North were rough but very much fun, especially by the unique experience.

Contrary to those naturalist's who believe in a peaceful nature with so many, happy, wild animals: “Nature is chaos, hostility and murder” (Werner Herzog, in the documentary “Grizzly Man”). The Arctic is no exception.

If you want to experience the Arctic, try the Alaska Highway. Start in Skagway at the border of Alaska and British Columbia. This can be reached by a comfortable cruise ship or ferry from Vancouver and Seattle. Drive to Whitehorse and Dawson City which have plenty of good hotels along the way. Inuvik is a long side trip. I recommend you go all the way to Anchorage. In the USA and Canada this is known as the trip of a life time.





Appendix 1. Environment and climate change

Local climate change. The urban heat-island effect shows temperature differences of 3-4o Celsius between the cities and the country side [1], but this would be even more when compared with a mature forest. Well known are desert climates where the lack of vegetation causes extreme temperature differences. Is this why Spain is so warm in the summer? The Sahara could be partially man made, by overgrazing of goats, already in 3500 BC and given its size, would have a global impact.

There are many examples of cultures that disappeared when they changed there environment and were hit by a less favorable climate cycle. Man made disturbance can tip the balance. A well known example is the Maya's civilization in Central America. A drought period could not be absorbed by the lack of vegetation caused by removing the forests..

Global climate change. A prediction of temperature and precipitation changes in the world for the year 2050 is given in [1] . It also shows what regions in the world would be affected by sea level rise and how many people would be affected.

When asked “Do you believe in climate Change?” I tend to respond with: "Yes, I do believe that the environment and natural climate variations are disturbed by human activity".

In the short term, 10 or 20 years, it will lead to more extreme weather conditions and more frequent natural disasters, in long term, 50-100 years, to sea level rise affecting many people but mainly in developing countries, see the Stern Report, [summary] and [table] in Part 2.

Future scenario. Below one possible future scenario.

Cold period

Warm period



Sea level rise 1-5 m (?). Worm paper in Science suggest 80% loss of ocean biodiversity. Temperature increase 1-3o Celsius. In the Arctic 5-8o Celsius.


Sea level rise 1-5 m (?). 100% increase in CO2 compared to 3 mln year average. Temperature increase 2-5o Celsius. See: Stern report


Sea level rise 5-10 m (?).

200% increase in CO2 compared to 3 mln year average; Temperature increase 5-10o Celsius. See Stern report.

Major release of gas hydrates from the ocean and the tundra; at least 50% reduction in bio-diversity [1].

2100 – 2200 AD

Humans getting smart. Sustainable world starts.

2200 – 10,000 AD

Natural variable climate. Sustainable energy. Drop in human population.

10,000 AD

Ice Age, 5-10o Celsius cooler. Europe moving back to Africa. Major drop in human population.

A possible scenario.

World population. Below the increase in population over the last 12,000 years correlated with major events. 2006 to 2500 is an optimistic scenario.

Increase in population over the last 12,000 years and major events. From 12,000 to 3500 BC was a warm period. Since 3500 we have warm and cold cycles but the trend is down. Trend past 2006 speculative. Data after Wikipedia.

From 12,000 to 3500 BC there was a mainly warm period and agriculture greatly improved, pressured by an increasing population. Around 3500 to 3000 BC agriculture could already support major cities. From 3500 BC till now the climate was cyclic, warm and cold with differences or only 1 or 2o Celsius, but there was on average a cooling trend. Since 1920 there is a warming trend but this could be just a high in the natural cold and warm cycles since 3500 BC.

Appendix 2. Population increase since the last 80,000 years.

Farming communities started to develop relatively recent, around 10,000 BC, resulting in a shrinkage of the brain size, presumably as life was less complex. The switch to mainly vegetarian with little meat also lowered our physical strength and reduced our body size. Our length lowered from on average 1.85 m to around 1.6 m.

Large cities supported by industry are only 200 years old and the biggest move from the farming communities to the cities did not start until 50 years ago. In some predictions the population is expected to culminate in the year 2050 when the world will reach its maximum population of 12 billion people, and it may stabilize at 9 billion in 2100 and by that time most countries could have a standard of living similar to now in the West, see table below.




80000 BC

50 thousand

“Out of Africa”

45000 BC

Into Australia

35000 BC

Into Europe

14000 BC

Into North-America

10000 BC

4 or 5 million

Start of agriculture, 0.01 person per square km land.

3000 BC

14 million

First civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China.

1 AD

200 million

Roman, Chinese and Indian empires

1000 AD

250 million

Dark or Middle Ages; enlightenment punished by death.

1347 AD

Plague killed 25 to 33% of the population in Europe.

1500 AD

450 million

End of the dark ages; Renaissance or enlightenment period.

1800 AD

1 billion

Industrial revolution; large scale deployment of sewers.

1900 AD

1.6 billion

Average lifer span in developing countries 50 years.

1918 flu pandemic

2.5–5% of the human population killed;20% had the flu.

1928 AD

2 billion

Invention of antibiotics (penicillin).

1945 AD

2.5 billion

End of Second World War, 62 mln people died as a result or 2.5%.

2005 AD

6 billion

Current, no world war for 60 years. 26 persons per square km land on average. Average lifer span in developing countries 78 years.

2050 AD

12 billion

Pessimistic, 72 persons per square km land on average.

2100 AD

9 billion

Optimistic, population goes down

10000 AD

1 billion or zero

Ice age, “Back to Africa” or extinct?

Development of Homo Sapiens and its ever increasing population until 2050. This accelerating since 10,000 BC when we started agriculture.


The world’s urban population increased from 5 mln in 10,000 BC to 200 mln in 1 AD, to 1.6 bln in 1900 and to 2.9 billion in 2000, and the number of cities with populations in excess of 1 million increased from 17 in 1900 to 388 in 2000. (Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report. Pre-publication Final Draft Approved by MA Board on March 23, 2005).

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