Editorial: On Thinning Ice

In Sellwood Bay, Northwest Territories, Vallely’s rowing team saw a chunk of ice that looked eerily like an outstretched human hand. They dubbed it the “hand of Franklin” after John Franklin’s lost expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Photo: Kevin Vallely

North Vancouver architect Kevin Vallely has a unique side profession: he is an internationally recognized explorer. He’s set a record for the fastest trek across Antarctica to the South Pole and was the first to ski the Iditarod sled dog race trail. He’s retraced a WWII death march through the jungles of Borneo and has biked the length of the frozen Yukon River.

Recently, Vallely was part of a team of four adventurers that attempted to traverse the Northwest Passage completely under human power in a row boat, in a single season. By doing so, the team hoped to demonstrate the profound effect that climate change is having on the world: ice loss has begun to open up the historically impassable seaway. In 2007, the passage was ice-free for the first time in recorded history.

The team braved frigid waters that could bring on hypothermia within minutes of exposure, winds that blew their boat backwards, and close encounters with ice that came close to crushing their vessel. The conditions were dreadful, and they ran out of time before finishing the traverse, with the ocean starting to freeze over at the end of August.

The evidence of climate change surrounded them—particularly the overall decline in sea ice. “Just a century and a half ago, Sir John Franklin’s ships the Erebus and the Terror350 and 370 ton warships with hulls as thick as battering rams—were crushed and sunk in the sea ice,” says Vallely, who documented his journey in the book Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea. “We headed out on the Passage in a 25-foot rowboat with a 1” plywood-and-fiberglass hull, without sail or motor.”

For local Inuit, the effects of climate change have long been evident. The winter ice is setting in later each year. Thinning ice has made subsistence hunting far more dangerous. In Tuktoyaktuk, longer summers are leading to melting permafrost and the rapid erosion of the coastline: several homes have been moved to prevent them from sliding into the sea. Vallely’s team sighted a grizzly bear on Victoria Island—a species that is only recently starting to extend its habitat to the High Arctic because of the warming climate.

The new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), reviewed by Trevor Boddy in this issue, centres on scientific research, but also acts as a community science hub to welcome locals with their intimate knowledge of the landscape. Vallely’s work as an architect also addresses environmental concerns: he’s a trained Passive House designer, and hopes to someday help design a healing centre for the community of Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, where in February 2018, 12 young people tried to commit suicide. Social, cultural and environmental issues are deeply intertwined in the North.

The overall warming of the globe, sea level rise, and instable weather patterns are all related to the changes that are being seen in the Arctic. “The Arctic is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for our planet,” writes Vallely. ”The biggest concern up north is lack of ice, which means a warming ocean. Sea ice from space appears as a white surface and reflects most of the solar radiation back out of the atmosphere, but as ice melts, we’re left with an ocean surface instead. It’s a catch-22 situation… less ice means more ocean to be warmed by the sun, which means less ice. Soon we will have no ice in the summers up there. We don’t even know what this will mean for the planet, but all indications are that it will be worse than the most dire predictions.”

Vallely notes that the cold temperatures seen on the Eastern seaboard in late April, are also linked to changes in the Arctic. “A warmer Arctic means a less strong jet stream. Instead of acting like a belt around the Arctic holding in all the cold air, it now meanders like a sine wave, allowing the cold air to slip south. As Eastern Canada is experiencing colder winters, the north is experiencing unprecedented warmth.”

In April, Environment and Climate Change Canada reported that, overall, Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, with a 3.3 C average temperature increase in the winter. This means more rain and less snow, which could have a significant impact on the availability of fresh water; the warming temperatures will also allow for new pests and diseases. New ways of building must be found in coastal regions that contend with the certainty of future sea-level rise, but also in cities that face extreme temperatures, flooding and an imperative to reduce their carbon emissions.

An Inuit saying goes, “Once the snow melts, you’ll see the dogshit.” As architects, we have a responsibility to create buildings that will weather the coming storms—literally and figuratively. We must moreover be leaders in changing the culture of building—adapting to the extreme weather conditions that are becoming the new normal, and finding new ways of constructing that will help mitigate the unfolding climate crisis.