To the Arctic again

Omair Ahmad | Updated on February 01, 2019 Published on February 01, 2019

Nature at work: Watching the Northern Lights dance in the night sky is an unbelievable experience   -  ISTOCK.COM

While science is still playing catch-up with the far-reaching effects of climate change, a visit to the Arctic Circle drives home lessons in cosmopolitanism and pragmatism

I went again to the Arctic. Just saying that gives me a strange feeling, a mix of joy and guilt. Who gets to travel to such places more than once, and what have I done to deserve this? I can give you the rational answers. The Arctic is similar in some ways to the Himalayan region, which has been the focus of my work. The communities there are dispersed, just like many other indigenous people. They have not contributed much to the climate change problem, and yet they feel the effects more than most others. The Arctic and the Himalayas are warming faster than the rest of the world, and the impact on the people there, and in the regions around them, is significant.

What’s more important, perhaps, is that the eight countries bordering the Arctic region — Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Russia, the US and Canada — have been able to come together around environmental issues, despite significant political differences. The Arctic Council works as a consensus-based body to deal with issues such as the change in biodiversity, melting sea ice, plastic pollution and black carbon.

Significantly, the Council is one of the few international organisations to have representation from indigenous peoples at all levels, with a greater say than even heavyweights such as China and India, who, as non-Arctic states, have observer status in the region.

There is much that we in the Himalayan region — with the greatest storehouse of glaciers after the North and South Poles, and with borders with eight countries through which the river systems of the Indus, Brahmaputra, and the Mekong flow — could learn from such an example. And we, too, are affected by the Arctic directly. Although science is still playing catch-up, we know that rains in the Himalayan region are affected by the ice in the Arctic. More directly, as land ice melts in the Arctic, the sea rises across our coastal region, displacing millions of people, mostly the poor.

It makes sense then, for a journalist covering the Himalayan region, to travel to the Arctic, to see, understand, ask questions, and report on what is happening, and yet it still feels like an incredible luxury. The first time I travelled to Tromso, in Norway, one of the biggest cities in the Arctic Circle, I landed at night. The whole island was lit up in yellows and dusted with snow. This time, too, I landed at night, to the same beauty.

The long winter had just ended on January 21, which meant that the sun peaked over the horizon for just a little bit of the day, and was gone again. But Tromso was lit up in other ways. The Tromso International Film Festival, founded in 1991, was just wrapping up. I was there to cover the Arctic Frontiers conference, on science, policy and business in the Arctic, now in its 13th edition, bringing together senior politicians and academics from the region; and when that ended, the Northern Lights Music Festival, founded in 1988, began. For a city of about 70,000 people, Tromso had a lot going on.

It helps, of course, that it has a fantastic university, with people from many countries. Two years ago, I had met a scientist from India, a Sikh whose wife happened to be from my hometown of Gorakhpur. About 90 nationalities can be found in the city, all out and about in the snow-covered streets, in temperatures that dipped down to -13°C while I was there, and never rose above -4°C.

Two years ago I had gone on a whale-spotting cruise, on a wooden sailboat with an electric motor, spotting pods of killer whales as they played and fed. This year they have moved further north.

Of course, the main reason behind tourist arrivals is the Northern Lights tour. You can do so on dog-pulled sleighs or on vans; you can go to a camp, or chase clearer weather across the land, with some tours heading all the way into Finland so that people can spot the Lights shimmering in the air, dancing, twisting and turning, as solar radiation hits oxygen and other elements in the air. The Chinese are frequent visitors, many of them students from Europe.

Watching the Northern Lights dance in the night sky is an unbelievable experience, but what is hard to describe is how full of stars the sky is. There is limited light pollution, and it feels as if all the stars we normally see have found a hundred companions each.

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on February 01, 2019
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