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In the Beautiful, Threatened North

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

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