Message from the North

For a few days in early November, and again in early December, Santa Fe was colder than Anchorage, Alaska. As humans and the remaining straggling birds shivered, as the last of the marigolds in my garden froze solid, friends in Alaska resignedly told me that the snow that had cheered (most of) them up had melted. It was 40 degrees and pouring rain. Which of course turned to ice with the darkness, making for dangerous walking and driving.

And then there was an earthquake in Anchorage, and then more weirdly warm weather, and more icy roads, driveways, parking lots, and trails.

I’ve been going to Alaska regularly since 1996, doing my healing work and networking with environmentalists, climate change activists, and Alaska Natives. In 1998 I attended a Healing from the Four Directions conference in Anchorage, where practicing healers, Medicine Men and Women, storytellers, and others came from all over the world to share their diverse perceptions, worldviews, ceremonies, and healing modalities.

The Master of Ceremonies was an Aleut man named Ilarion Merculieff who has over the past two decades become a powerful and eloquent voice for indigenous people and for the planet. At that conference he spoke the Whirling Rainbow prophecies, both dire and hopeful. In those prophecies, it was said that “the message would come from the North.”

And there we were in the North, calling together healers from all directions. And later I came to believe that the “message from the North” was about the severity of climate change. The Arctic, which along with the Antarctic is the world’s refrigerator, is warming at twice the rate, at least, as the rest of the planet.

Melting glacier – Version 2

In the 22 years I’ve been coming to Alaska, I’ve seen glaciers shrink noticeably. This in the lifetime of your college age son or granddaughter. On my early visits, there was lots of reliable snow in winter. In Anchorage, it would freeze up in November, if not before, and never get above freezing till the long-awaited and by that time welcome “breakup” in April sometime.

I’ve been there in record snow, back in March, 2012, but the last few winters have had a discouraging pattern of freezing and thawing, and so little snow that the cross country ski trails are too dangerously icy except for experts. Driveways, parking lots, and streets turn into ice rinks from rain on top of melting snow.

And those are just the things obvious to an attentive visitor. Since 2015, the Iditarod dog race has had only a ceremonial start in Anchorage on trucked-in snow most years, and the race proper has begun in either Willow or even Fairbanks. Anchorage isn’t quite a Seattle with longer winter nights and summer days—yet—but its climate has changed radically.

Last September, I went to the Climate, Jobs, and Justice rally in Anchorage, because I happened to be working there. A small but enthusiastic knot of people gathered on the Park Strip to hear speakers and singers with messages of hope and urgency. It was a very sunny day—welcome to many Alaskans after a chill, dismal summer—but it felt weird to have to take off my fleece jacket in the intense sun, and I noticed nearly every speaker was wearing sunglasses.

AK climate rally
Climate, Jobs, and Justice Rally in Anchorage, Alaska

There were messages of hope and proactivity. Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz spoke of “fate control” and the various initiatives already being taken to mitigate what seems an inevitable and wrenching climate alteration already well underway.

I learn things I didn’t know. A number of communities in Alaska, for all its economic dependence on oil and gas, have already made the switch to renewables. Kodiak Island’s micro-grid is 99% renewable, between wind and hydro. Many communities throughout the state are moving to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels Solar panels, I find out, work quite well in Alaska, despite its cloudy days and short winter days.

I am moved by the songs of Anchorage singer-songwriter Libby Roderick. Introducing one of her songs, she says, “Take care of the Earth and the oceans so that all our other struggles can go on.”

Libby Roderick
Singer-songwriter Libby Roderick

Later, I interview the rally’s coordinator, Ceal Smith of Alaska Climate Action Network—whose acronym is AK CAN—for a story I will write for the Voices for Biodiversity website. Ceal is animated and passionate, and extremely well-informed. By Alaskan standards, she’s a newcomer from “Outside,” having only been in the state about five years. But as an ecologist, she couldn’t help but be concerned by the severity of climate change in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

She catalogs the effects that the breakdown is already having on Native populations. I know this anecdotally both from my own travels around the state and from the stories my Native friends tell me. The sea ice has already retreated from many villages, such as St. Lawrence Island. It’s becoming harder and harder to live a subsistence diet based on hunting and fishing. A friend has told me of Native women saying they can’t sew the seal skins anymore, because they are too thin and tear easily. And people are afraid to eat the fish that have strange growths on them.

Anyone who follows climate change news at all has heard of the whole villages that are already seriously eroding and need to be relocated. Somewhat more subtle, the melting permafrost is causing serious problems with infrastructure, from roads to hospitals, in the far north. And let’s not even think of the possible methane release and its cascade effects.

Ceal tells me that the ice plug between the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea melted this summer, for the first time…in what, thousands of years? Bird and fish species are being seen that have never been seen here before. There is a serious bird die-off, for a variety of reasons that scientists are not yet sure of. The oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening phytoplankton and thus the whole food chain. In some areas of the Aleutians, there are virtually no birds at all.

As an ecologist, Ceal sees the multitude of reasons for this: habitat loss, human encroachment, overfishing. But “climate is the final insult,” she points out. The ranges of many species are very limited, the balance delicate.

On the upside, she says, “Alaska still has a vibrant population of top predators” and “whole eco-systems are in place.” It is truly one of the last vast wildernesses on the planet, in many areas, but a giant industrial zone in others—the Prudhoe Bay oil facility is so massive that it can be seen from space.

A systemic shift of epic proportions, culturally and economically, is going to be required to transform, well, everything, in time. Some adaptation is possible, some mitigation is possible. The people of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea are using old barges as platforms for the walrus to haul out on. The village of Savoonga wants a reindeer herd to supplement the sea mammals that are becoming harder to subsistence hunt as the ice retreats.

The two weeks I spend working in Alaska in September are splendidly beautiful, but weird. It doesn’t rain a drop, and the days are relentlessly sunny. People are still harvesting their gardens in late September when I leave. Some years I’ve been here in August and the termination dust—the first snow on the Chugach Mountains that signifies the end of summer—has occurred in late August. This year remains oddly sunny and dry. “When is the latest termination dust?” I ask a friend. “I think we’re about to find out,” she replies.

At the airport on the way out, I stop at Mosquito Books, an independent bookstore that I hope will carry Weather Menders. I leave a copy of the book for the owner, and poke around the Alaska authors section. In between the thrillers, murder mysteries, and survival stories, I find a cli-fi novel called pH by Nancy Lord, who was Alaska’s writer laureate from 2008 to 2010.

The novel is about ocean acidification—and a whole lot of other things like corporate control, the indigenous relationship to the Earth, and art as teacher and expressive outlet. Lord’s sometimes ironic sense of humor and her finely drawn, vibrant, self-aware characters make the subject of ocean acidification exciting.

I’m soon pulled into the plot. Marine biologist Ray Berringer is leading a research cruise in the Gulf of Alaska for the fictional University of the North. Berringer is charmingly flawed. He drinks too much and tells jokes that almost always fall flat. But he is passionate about marine life, especially the pteropods, tiny zooplankton near the base of the food chain whose shells and life cycles already appear to be affected by increasing ocean acidification.

Berringer is resentful and somewhat jealous of his academic rival, a smooth-talking, privileged Texan named Jackson Oakley who is supposed to be co-leading the cruise but abruptly and breezily jumps ship. Oakley is off to fundraise for the new Institute of Ocean Acidification, which he heads. He leaves Helen, a talented Alaska Native Inupiat grad student with whom he has been having a discreet relationship, in charge of his part of the research.

A colorful cast of students and others are in the mix, all believable Alaskan characters much like people I’ve met over the years. Ray’s daughter Aurora is the smart but bored and somewhat sulky mid-teen who could be a friend of my friends’ daughters or granddaughters, but who is able to be touched by the magic of Nature.

I’m especially fond of Annabel, the environmental artist, sometime substitute teacher, and seer in her 60’s who is on board to create “ephemeral art.” Annabel is sublimely eccentric and well aware of it as she reads energy biofields and learns the science of OA—ocean acidification—with equal passion.

I learn a lot through the discussions among the characters about the science involved, but it’s always interesting and relevant to the plot. All the characters, including participants at a commercial fishing conference that Helen addresses, come to understand that increasing carbon in the atmosphere caused by burning of fossil fuels ends up in the ocean, and is already pushing its natural pH to greater acidity. The lowered pH has a cascade of consequences, from making it more difficult for pteropods and others to form and maintain shells to decreasing the food supply for salmon, and thus humans.

On the science cruise, Ray thinks of the overall decrease in wildlife in recent decades, especially seabirds like murres. Tourists are excited to see even a few puffins or an orca here and there, not realizing that these are mere remnants of wildlife populations that were thriving mere decades ago. Probably no one but an old-timer or a Native Elder truly has any idea how much wildlife has declined.

Helen, who lives between two worlds, dedicated to Western science and yet influenced by her cultural and spiritual Inpuiat heritage on her mother’s side, reflects that “Alaska Natives knew everything was connected” and is rather surprised that science is only now figuring this out. She reminds me of lots of Alaska Native friends of mine, from shamans to scientists.

Annabel, who the hard scientists find at first irritating with her effusive way of communicating—“I don’t copy nature; I reveal it”—wins everyone over with a magical performance art piece as she offers prayerful paper sculptures to the sea goddess Sedna—the mother of all sea creatures in many Arctic cultures—by setting them alight on mini-melting icebergs floating in the sea.

Conflict arises when, back in Fairbanks at the university, Ray finds the irritating Oakley is obstructing release of crucial and urgent data about ocean acidification. Oakley constantly dissembles, claiming that they must not be premature in their conclusions. Ray discovers evidence that Oakley is on the payroll of the ironically-named “Council for Science Integrity,” a pro-fossil fuel, science-denying front group that could be funded by the very real Koch brothers.

Ray is soon in hot water with the university administration when his accusatory email to Oakley is mysteriously leaked to the press. As Ray is set up for “unprofessional behavior” and accused of everything from excessive drinking to inappropriate anger to sexual harassment, he and his unlikely allies, from Helen to various students to Annabel, must do some clever sleuthing to reveal Oakley’s corrupt ties and restore both Ray’s and science’s reputation.

You’ll have to read the book to find out if they succeed. It’s a clever and heartfelt entry to the cli-fi field, which I hope will reach a wide audience.

I plan to go to Alaska in January, and will pack my Icebugs, the boots with the built-in cleats. Maybe, just maybe, there will be enough snow, and not too much ice, and I’ll be able to cross country ski. As of a couple of days ago when a friend sent pictures of an almost snowless landscape on Anchorage’s Hillside, it’s not looking promising.

It’s gotten to the point where every moment that seems almost normal—in my second chosen home of Alaska, my longtime home of Santa Fe, or anywhere I travel—is precious to me. We are already living on the disastrously climate-changed planet that Bill McKibben has called “eaarth.” But though I accept the current reality, I will NEVER call it anything other than the New Abnormal, and will always defiantly hope that a miracle of exponentially raised consciousness can bring us back into balance now at the twelfth hour.

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