Our November speaker David Fletcher spent 39 years exploring and studying the polar regions and gave us a first-class talk on how the Arctic is changing, writes Walter Blanchard, who has his own memories of the North Pole
David Fletcher, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and holder of the Polar Medal, is a practised lecturer and gave us a first-class talk and set of illustrations. I was particularly interested in what he said since I have the peculiar distinction of actually having been to the North Pole myself, although by no means in the distinguished capacities he has filled for 39 years. No, I didn’t walk there either; it was in the relative comfort and warmth of a crew seat in an RAF Britannia in 1964.
The RAF had decided to find out whether their new navigation systems really could cope at the North Pole so set out to check whether they would register ‘90° 00.000′ N’ and rotate round 360° longitude from 0° through 180° back to 0° while they circled. Well, after a bit of fiddling – it was before computers, after all – they did and we all congratulated ourselves. Then came the dilemma: how to ‘steer 180°’ to get back home since every direction was, of course, 180°! Clue: don’t use latitude and longitude.
We found the North Pole itself visually uninteresting – pack ice and ice floes – but the calving glaciers off the west coast of Greenland are quite something if you’re there when it happens. We were based at the USAF base at Thule, very close to the only place on Earth where four glaciers meet, and while waiting for the right weather had an opportunity to see some calving. (There are plenty of videos on YouTube if you’d like to see it for yourself.) David mentioned the air base – a little disparagingly, I thought – having, according to him, forced the local Inuit to move, but it wasn’t quite as bad as that.
To quote Wikipedia: ‘A cluster of huts known as Pituffik (“the place the dogs are tied”) stood on the wide plain where the base was built in 1951. (A main base street was named Pituffik Boulevard.) The affected locals moved to Thule. However, in 1953 the USAF planned to construct an air defense site near that village, and in order to prevent unhealthy contact with soldiers, the Danish government relocated “Old Thule” with about 130 inhabitants to a newly constructed, modern village 60 miles (97km) north, known as Qaanaaq, or “New Thule”.’
I must say that my main memory of Thule is staggering out of the bar at something like 2am and finding the sun still well above the horizon, but that’s another story and I mustn’t digress.
David’s talk was full of facts, and I may have remembered some of them incorrectly, but with the aid of Anne, my wife, here’s a few.
I hadn’t seen his definition of the Arctic Circle before but he gave it as ‘the area where there are no upright trees’ – an area gradually diminishing as the seas get warmer. The Arctic is the opposite of the Antarctic, being a sea surrounded by land, unlike the Antarctic, which is a continent surrounded by water. Its most prominent feature is Greenland – the world’s largest island, originally settled by Norsemen, who else? A ‘green land’ sales talk by Erik the Red got his followers to join him when banished from Iceland for killing two men. He justified the green soubriquet by pointing out that its west coast, warmed – slightly – by the north-going West Greenland current, actually grew vegetation in the short summers it had and turned green.
Humans have been around in the area for 9,000 years, with varying success at adapting to surroundings, and are likely to continue to do so, their lost trade in sealskin products due to the activities of Greenpeace – for which the campaigning organisation apologised – being made up by mineral drilling, the area being rich in chemicals, oil and diamonds, now all targets for commercial exploitation due to the shrinking of the ice cap permitting transit of the Northwest Passage. Will Greenpeace intervene again?
David described the natural food chain from fish, birds, seals, narwhal, walrus, whales and polar bears. Although the original polar bears are diminishing, brown bears are beginning to colonise, and inter-breeding may bring what? Piebald bears? Foxes are white in winter, stone-coloured in summer and are very curious, approaching if one sits still for a while.
For those who don’t like green vegetables this is the place to go – there aren’t any – but the Inuit get their vitamins from eating a proportion of their meat raw and are no less healthy than anyone else. Children learn Inuit, Norwegian and, increasingly, English, and David had an interesting story about a small girl who emigrated to Denmark, became a qualified doctor, and is now back in her native village caring for locals. The Inuits are extremely resourceful, he told us, and will undoubtedly survive.
Finally he gave us a curious fact: due to the very dry atmosphere rubbish does not degrade very rapidly and some of the tins left behind from Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage are still lying around as new.
He concluded by encouraging us to visit the region, reminding us it is only six hours away. I’m not sure that that really is a good thing, looking at what excessive tourism is doing to other once-remote places – Antarctica?