In the Beautiful, Threatened North

Subhankar Banerjee
Subhankar Banerjee: Caribou on Sand, from his Oil and the Geese series (Teshekpuk Lake wetland, Alaska), 62 x 70 inches, 2006

Like deserts, frozen places offer timelessness. When I was traveling in northeastern Siberia some years ago I saw gulag camps that had closed down in the 1950s, after Stalin’s death. The watchtowers, the barracks, the barbed wire, the fence lines where the guard dogs used to run—all had survived in amazingly good shape in their almost-year-round deep freeze. While working in Newfoundland on a story about icebergs, I learned that core samples of ice from Greenland’s glaciers, the source of many icebergs, provide scientists with data on global climates and atmospheres going back more than a hundred thousand years. Bubbles in glacial ice from two millennia ago contain lead residues from the forges of ancient Greece and Rome.

The Arctic takes you back to old-time basics, like Vulcan’s anvil and the foundation blocks of the world. In Chukotka, across the Bering Strait from Alaska, I climbed a hill and met a view of rock, sea, and sky that was, for all practical purposes, eternal. For the first time ever I had a sense of what it was to stand on a planet. That the Arctic environment is so basic and its timeline so long suggests the direness of the possibilities as the climate warms. The mess we’re making of the earth may last, as Bill McKibben put it in a recent essay, until “deep in geological time.”*

Among the wonders to appear in the changing Arctic in recent years is the India-born photographer and activist Subhankar Banerjee. Coming from Kolkata (Calcutta), where the average mean temperature is 80.4 degrees Fahrenheit, Banerjee has dedicated himself to recording and working for the preservation of Arctic places. It is safe to say that he has been colder than most people from his native country have occasion to be. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, an anthology of writings by thirty-seven authors that he has compiled and linked with his commentary, pieces of autobiography sometimes jump out: for example, that he started traveling in Alaska only about a decade ago, and that he became a US citizen after his Arctic photographs raised so much controversy in Senate debates in 2003 that he feared he might be deported.

In a short time he has amassed impressive authority on his subject. With an Inupiat companion he stayed in a tent in a blizzard that lasted almost a month at a wind chill of 110 degrees below zero on the coast of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and a photo he took of a polar bear in that vicinity has become, he writes, “one of the most published photographs in the history of the medium of photography.” In Arctic Voices, long-term issues of global importance—the exploitation of wild places for fossil fuels, and whether we’re determined to ride out our energy binge to the grim end—are made immediate and vivid by the enthusiasm of this unexpected man.

Most of the pieces in the anthology are about Alaska, and many involve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (In fact, Banerjee says that he had originally intended the book to cover only Arctic Alaska.) Because of his decision to include some essays about other Arctic areas—about migratory birds and narwhals in Canada, reindeer herders in Siberia, pollution in Norway and Greenland, and aluminum factories in Iceland—he can’t supply a map that would show everything. A detailed map of Alaska, at least, would have been helpful; I found myself following along as best I could with my Rand McNally road atlas.

The selections he has chosen vary from scientific accounts to memoirs to literary narratives to statements presented before government committees. More than one contributor tells us that the Arctic has warmed at twice the global average over the last hundred years, that methane gas is twenty-five times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, that drilling operations on Alaska’s North Slope produce twice the nitrogen oxides emitted by the city of Washington, D.C., and that Point Hope, an Inupiat village on the Chukchi Sea, is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.

Over and over people in this book say that cleaning up oil spills in Arctic conditions is extremely difficult or impossible and that the healing of Arctic environments after they’ve been damaged takes a huge amount of time. It’s discouraging that those against drilling and coal mining in the Arctic must constantly restate such truths. Clearly, the willful deafness on the opposing side is intense. A scrapped Atomic Energy Commission plan from the late 1950s that would have used nuclear explosions to blast a new harbor about thirty miles from Point Hope comes in for derision from many contributors, and keeps being mentioned as a symbol of how heedless and ignorant outsiders have been about Arctic Alaska.

Climate change is only starting to become a practical problem for the big population centers of the lower forty-eight states, but it has been that in Alaska for a long time. Native villages with sea frontage are eroding and must be moved. As one writer points out, no national or international agency exists to assist people who must move because of climate change. Tall new brush and saplings spring up on the tundra where they hadn’t grown before. The season during which it’s possible to drive on ice roads has shortened from 204 days to 124, and cache-pit freezers dug generations ago must be cleaned out because they’re melting.

Alaskan hunters must now go farther out in the sea to hunt because the ice is receding, and that puts them in more danger. The direct effects of pollution hit people and animals harder in the Arctic, too. Airborne pollutants emitted in the mid-regions of the planet swirl north (that’s why you can find lead from the forges of Rome in Greenland), collect in organisms, and continue up the food chain. In an excerpt Banerjee includes from a book called Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic, the environmental journalist Marla Cone writes, “The Inuit living in northern Greenland, near the North Pole, contain the highest concentrations of chemical contaminants found in humans anywhere on earth.”

The plot of Arctic Voices, weaving its way through most of the pieces, is the battle between the pro- and anti-development forces; and the leading villains, unsurprisingly, are the oil companies. British Petroleum, chief among them, comes off as almost comical in its chronic-offender awfulness. In a report titled “Broken Promises: The Reality of Big Oil in America’s Arctic,” Pamela Miller, a wildlife biologist and conservationist, lists BP’s many fines and penalties in Alaska for offenses like oil spills and violations of the Clean Water Act. Its 2006 crude oil spill caused by pipeline corrosion—poor maintenance—was the largest ever on the North Slope up to that time.

Of course that spill was nothing compared to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Those who followed the Gulf spill may remember BP’s plan for protecting the walruses of the Gulf; that particular piece of boilerplate, tossed accidentally into BP’s contingency plans, came originally from the company’s Alaska promises. The fines BP accumulated in Alaska were spare change compared to the $4.5 billion fine—the largest ever assessed against any company—that it received for the Gulf spill in 2012, after this book came out.

Always eager for more drilling, pro-development officials like Gale Norton, secretary of the interior under George W. Bush, called the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “a flat white nothingness,” and Ted Stevens, then senator from Alaska, said that ANWR was “a barren wasteland.” Such reductionism is what Banerjee’s book tries to fight. Arguing against seismic testing for oil and gas in waters where bowhead whales migrate, Robert Thompson, an Inupiaq hunter and conservationist, writes that the whales are so sensitive to sounds that “something as quiet as a heavy footfall will scare them off.” Banerjee has seen a whale brought ashore, and attended two whaling feasts. The book has a lot about whales. It notes that paddling home with a killed whale in tow can take as long as sixteen hours, and that hot sauce is “an essential accompaniment to pickled muktuk” (whale blubber).

In an excerpt from his classic Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes flying over two bowheads that “made a single movement together, a slow, rolling turn and graceful glide, like figure skaters pushing off, these fifty-ton leviathans.” The pilot tells Lopez that the migrating whales are waiting for the ice ahead of them to open up, and that he once saw “nearly three hundred bowheads waiting calmly like this…some on their backs, some with their chins resting on the ice.”

That kind of description makes Banerjee’s book a pleasure, apart from its praiseworthy advocacy. Here, for example, in an excerpt from a book called Being Caribou, by Karsten Heuer, a wolf is stalking a caribou herd:

The wolf didn’t hurry into the chase. Careful not to look right at the caribou, it angled toward them, its late-evening shadow contracting and expanding like a dark spirit as it padded across the snowdrifts.

Heuer and his wife, Leanne Allison, actually walked for five months and a thousand miles with migrating caribou in 2003.

Another selection is from John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, which Banerjee rightly calls “a masterpiece of American literature.” McPhee is traveling downriver in a canoe: “The Yukon, like any number of Alaska rivers, is opaque with pulverized rock, glacial powder. In a canoe in such a river, you can hear the grains of mountains like sandpaper on the hull.” Along the bank he observes a grizzly bear:

He picked up a salmon, roughly ten pounds of fish, and, holding it with one paw, he began to whirl it around his head…. With his claws embedded near the tail, he whirled the salmon and then tossed it high, end over end. As it fell, he scooped it up and slung it around his head again, lariat salmon…. The fish flopped to the ground. The bear turned away, bored. He began to move upstream by the edge of the river. Behind his big head his hump projected. His brown fur rippled like a field under wind.

Some of the best pieces in the book are by Alaska natives, like Velma Wallis, a Gwich’in from Fort Yukon, whose essay recalls the changes in the village’s life. In her girlhood her parents worried most about their children during ice-out time on the Yukon, when “the ice would cascade by like ferocious yawning monsters, and the whole of Fort Yukon would be hypnotized by this event.” Later, when television arrived in the village, she writes,

I bought right into it, and watched television like there was no tomorrow. It was with the same intenseness that we used to watch the ice floes go by, and we could not turn our eyes away…. I noticed that our way of communicating with each other as Gwich’in and neighbors was changing. No longer were children listening to Elders tell stories…. We were acting more like television characters…. J.J., from the show Good Times, was like a brother to me.
Subhankar Banerjee
Subhankar Banerjee: Sheenjek River II, from his Oil and the Caribou series (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska), 68 x 86 inches, 2002

Similarly, Seth Kantner, who was born and raised in the Arctic, tells of his family’s life changing from a time when it revolved around three needs—meat, fat, and wood—to now, when hunters are informed about the whereabouts of game “by text, Facebook, e-mail—even cell phone,” and the sleds are made of plastic or titanium. He wonders about Alaska’s “Native corporations”—“The Eskimos I grew up with were certainly not begging to be members of a corporation.” But now,

every local Iñupiat Eskimo is part shareholder in a multi-million- dollar corporation. NANA [Northwest Arctic Native Association] now is king…[and] the king is mobilizing to build roads and railroads and strip mines in the most important caribou lands on the planet.

He continues:

Out on the land, the caribou are in storm and cold right now; they are cratering down through drifted snow to get to the tundra to feed. Those hunters, the wolves, they are there, too. Neither has changed hardly a blink in the last how many thousand years. We are the ones who have changed. And I’m afraid we’ve only just begun.

Like most books with a cause, Arctic Voices is written mainly for those who agree with it. This is fine with me, because I do, and can’t imagine why anybody wouldn’t. The idea that increased development must damage or ruin the Arctic seems self-evident. As Steve Zack and Joe Liebezeit, biologists with the Wildlife Conservation Society, point out, when oil-field construction spreads it brings nest predators like the Arctic fox, ravens, and glaucous gulls. These “subsidized” predators eat oil-rig garbage and nest in man-made structures and prey especially on migratory birds that use the tundra to breed and raise their young. If you’ve seen urbanized raccoons and crows and starlings flourish elsewhere, you understand how development makes everyplace look like everyplace else.

As for increased mining of Alaska’s rich deposits of minerals, it would no doubt be even worse for the land. The state has up to 9 percent of all the coal reserves on earth, some of it in seams on the tundra’s surface. (Banerjee includes a color photo he took that shows surface coal with caribou tracks on it.) By law, strip-mined land must be returned to the condition it was in before it was dug up. Difficult as that task has turned out to be in more temperate regions, on the tundra it would clearly be impossible.

And yet development never stops battering at the Arctic’s door. I could not keep up with all the plans Shell Oil proposed for drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, or what the ongoing status of those plans might be; and as much as I tried I couldn’t follow the various battles over ANWR and the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska. The oil companies’ doggedness wears down not only their opponents, but the attention of the average reader. (In fact, Shell Oil was about to begin oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea in September 2012 when failure of a spill-containment system led to the postponement of the effort until at least next summer. The process was further delayed in January when a series of accidents involving Shell’s drill ships and support equipment led the Interior Department to open a review of the company’s drilling practices. More than half of the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska is already open to oil and gas drilling, and development there continues. ANWR remains closed to drilling while the Obama administration reviews the situation and environmental groups try to get ANWR full wilderness protection.)

Throughout the book Banerjee puts in photos of Arctic development. He shows a staging area for oil exploration in a wetland, a BP offshore facility in Prudhoe Bay, a drilling site in the Alpine oil field, and the terraced gouge made in the earth by the Red Dog Mine, one of the largest zinc and lead mines in the world. Among the book’s color plates is a photo of gas flaring—i.e., burning off from oil wells—at a Prudhoe Bay production facility, which looms on the gray Arctic horizon like the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.

The gas-flare flames, with their white-orange glare, reminded me of a night when I flew across Siberia in 2009. Going eastward from Moscow the plane crossed uninterrupted blackness beyond the Urals until all at once large points of light began to appear on the ground. I knew that we had reached the western Siberian oil fields, recently brought into booming production, and that the lights were the natural gas flares burning off unusable natural gas night and day. I imagined what those flares were like up close as they lit the surrounding swamps and taiga, and I wondered who was minding them.

Probably a few Americans were there. By my own unsystematic reckoning, evangelists, climate scientists, and oil-field technicians are the categories of Americans most likely to be in Siberia. Once at the Seattle airport I had a conversation with an engineer who was on his way back to northern Sakhalin Island, where he had superintended the building of a kilometer-long dock for loading crude oil onto supertankers. Because of the hard winters, the dock was submersible. Divers brought it back up after the ice was gone in the spring. The details were complicated, ingenious, interesting.

No such witness is to be found in Arctic Voices. Who is working in the witch’s castle with the burning flares on Prudhoe Bay? The reader has to guess. In a book crying out to save the Arctic we don’t necessarily need to hear from those who are maintaining (or not maintaining) the pipelines, running the drilling rigs, building the ice roads, flying the C-130s, driving the earthmovers in the mines. But as a society we still depend on fossil fuel, and the people who produce it in the Arctic are a major presence there. I would have been interested in hearing also from a few of them, even if it meant hearing less from people I agree with already.

I’m sure Banerjee could charm those workers if he set his mind to it. He has a gift for connections. One of the great strengths of Arctic Voices is that it shows how Alaska and the Arctic are tied to the places where most of us live. Readers may be surprised to learn, for example, that the Bering Sea “feeds the world,” that almost half of the fish and shellfish taken in US waters comes from there, and that the main part of the catch is pollock, an unassuming one-or-two-pound member of the cod family, which ends up as fish sticks, imitation crabmeat, and fast-food fish sandwiches. Our McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich is probably pollock from the Bering Sea.

Banerjee pays close attention, also, to the Arctic as a destination for migrating animals. An Inupiat whale hunter says he does not hunt gray whales, but enjoys seeing them because he knows how far they have come (and in fact some of them pass right along the breakwater outside Los Angeles harbor, on their way from Baja waters to the Chukchi Sea). Birds are the Arctic’s main migratory visitors, and the book has catalogs of them—like the dunlins, sandpipers, godwits, oystercatchers, phalaropes, sanderlings, plovers, avocets, stilts, and other shorebirds who inhabit temperate-zone beaches during the spring but fly to the Arctic tundra in early summer to breed.

Some migratory species yo-yo from the Southern Hemisphere to the Arctic and back, countering the planet’s seasonal tilt, to remain in more or less continuous summer all year. The arctic tern, with the longest route of migration, sees more days of twenty-four-hour sunlight than any other vertebrate. Hundreds of millions of birds from all over the globe spend part of every summer in the Arctic; among them is the yellow wagtail, which during other months can be found at Banerjee’s point of origin, Kolkata.

The ponds that breed the insects the birds eat and feed to their young appear to be drying up. Spring has begun to come earlier, and the birds must adjust their migratory patterns. The tundra catches on fire. Sea ice disappears; in January 2011, Arctic sea ice was at the lowest extent ever recorded. Recently the Northeast and Northwest passages were both open in summer for the first time in recorded history. When ice does form, it’s thinner and more treacherous than it used to be. The ice edge, where everything feeds and where men and animals hunt, becomes more difficult to get to. Swimming to it, polar bears drown.

The possibility now exists that climate change and development for energy extraction will whipsaw the Arctic, each causing its own damage so that less is left to save from the other. In this impassioned book, Banerjee shows a situation so serious that it has created a movement, where “voices of resistance are gathering, are getting louder and louder.” May his heartfelt efforts magnify them. The climate changes that are coming have hit soon and hard in the Arctic, and their consequences may be starkest there.


Can Shell Be Stopped? June 6, 2013

  1. *

    “Which Side Are You On?,” Orion, November–December 2012.