Words by Stuart Butler
Standing at the water's edge, we all paused – just for a second or so – to reflect on where exactly on the map we were. We had made it to a frozen glacial valley that seemed to mark the very end of the Earth. Here we were, suited up, about to go surfing, under dancing skies of red and green. I was hoping this story would never need to be told or, at worst, that someone else, on some other trip way off in the future, would be the one who'd have to tell it. But unfortunately time itself is against us.
Over the years I have written stories of wars, drugs, globalisation, Aids, and democracy – all important stories, but all too easy for us to sweep under the carpet, pretending they don’t affect us. This story, though, is different. You must believe me when I say that, more than any other, this one will affect each and every one of us.
When winter arrives in a place like this, it's hard not to feel as if you’re standing alone, the last man left, witnessing the very end of the Earth. I know this because I was there when winter came. It was the day that I sat, with my friends, finishing my coffee and porridge and waiting for the first sparkles of dawn to light up the waves. But on this day the dawn never came, and neither would it come tomorrow, nor the day after that. Winter had finally arrived and wrapped its frozen mittens around us. For the next two months, total, permanent darkness and bone-crushing cold would dominate this landscape incessantly.
At 66º 33’ North, the Arctic Circle is that dotted line running around the upper reaches of the globe, marking the point at which, for at least one 24-hour period each summer, the sun never sets, and conversely, for at least one 24-hour period each winter, the sun never rises. But we had passed the Arctic Circle – left it way off to our south. In fact most everything was to the south of us. Hammerfest, claimed to be the most northerly town in the World, was to our south. Alaska was to our south, mainland Canada was to our south, Finland and Sweden were to our south, Iceland was so far south it hardly warranted a mention; half the Greenland plateau was to our south, and even to reach Arctic Russia, the coldest, bleakest part of the entire Arctic, involved spinning around and following the compass needle south.
The idea of this surf trip would recur regularly during the long hot days of summer in my adopted Basque homeland, but every year, before it could be put into action, the leaves would start to turn gold and my thoughts would inevitably turn towards tropical blues. The idle Arctic daydreams might have continued indefinitely were it not for an email citing a call to action. It came from British wetsuit manufacturers, C-Skins, asking if I’d be interested in testing out their new suits. Not being one to turn my nose up at free stuff, and before I’d taken the precaution of reading the fine print, I jumped to sign on the dotted line. It was only when a parcel of heavy 6mm wetsuits, boots, gloves, undergarments, and balaclavas turned up on the doorstep that it occurred to me that this wasn’t going to be a trip to some tropical or even semi-tropical paradise. It was one heavy package.
So, what was the catch that came with our free wetsuits? Not only was our surf trip going to be high up inside the Arctic, but it would happen in winter. So it was that several weeks later I found myself alongside my equally gullible friends, Antoine Touya, Jon Bowen, Nick Saal, and Dan Haylock, surfing at over 71º N, which is quite possibly as high up the globe as any wave has ever been ridden. And it’s at this point that my story turns into one that you can no longer ignore.
The Arctic in winter is famous for being cold. Duh. The lowest recorded temperature seen on the landmasses that fall within the Arctic’s 30 million sq km (about 12 million sq mi) is -68ºC (-90.4ºF), which occurred in Verkhoyansk, Siberian Russia, in 1892. The week prior to our arrival in northern Norway the temperatures had struggled to climb above a daytime high of -15ºC (5ºF), while a few days after our departure saw maximum highs at -28ºC (-18.4ºF). Neither of these is quite as extreme as Verkhoyansk in 1892, but still damn cold.
By chance we had picked the one week of a long winter when unseasonably warm winds had brought the mercury levels to the balmy highs of -4ºC (24.8ºF). Very few people choose to make a home in the Arctic tundra, but those we met were ecstatic at this unexpected return of summer. However, their joy was tempered by the knowledge that this warming could be expected and isn’t actually such a good thing at all.
We have no real idea how many species of plants and animals we share this planet with. We have identified and named roughly 1.5 million of them, but it’s thought there could be anywhere from 5 to 100 million species. However, the actual number is irrelevant, because it is thought that by the year 2050 we humans will have put a million of those species at immediate risk of extinction, and by 2100 half of all species on Earth will be extinct or seriously threatened. Yes, you read that correctly: half of all species of plants and animals.
It seems we’re rolling the dice against forces and consequences infinitely more powerful than we, and Lady Luck isn’t on our side – not anymore. Today, there are more people on this planet than there ever have been, and the number is growing at an alarming rate. Every child born grows up expecting a better, more comfortable, and more materialistic life than that of his or her parents, but unfortunately the world can’t afford it because these desires almost always involve an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenhouse gas emissions are what the people we met on our surf trip to Arctic Norway were anxious about, despite the fine weather.
Our surf trip had begun in the city of Tromsø, on the west coast of Norway, home of the most northerly Burger King in the world. Even the temptations of such an obvious symbol of civilisation couldn’t keep us in town, though, for way up above us a tight little low pressure was curling across the top of the country and folding into the Barents Sea – and with it, we hoped, swell for the surfing world’s least-known stretch of water.
The Barents Sea squats across the top of Arctic Norway and Russia, but beyond that its boundaries are a little hard to define. To the north are the floating ice sheets of the North Pole and the Arctic Ocean. To the west is the Atlantic and the warmer currents of the Gulf Stream, and to the east the Barents gradually loses its liquid form and turns to an ever shifting, crashing and changing ice pack that works its way across the top of the globe.
You would think it would be impossible to surf the Barents Sea, what with its high latitude keeping most of the water totally ice-bound year-round, but even up here the Gulf Stream comes into play. A branch of this warm, Caribbeanborn current chases the tails of low pressures along the west coast of Norway, over the top and into the Barents, and in the process keeps the waters ice-free for much of the year. This same current also helps to generate a predominant wind from the southwest, which is straight offshore for the Barents coast.
That same current also encourages low pressures to follow it into the Barents, and when this happens (and it does on a regular basis), north swells are created. The results break on a myriad of beaches, points and reefs, all of which remain (so far) completely untouched by surfers.
We were inside the Arctic of my imagination: a frozen desert of largely lifeless, featureless tundra sheeted in snow drifts that glowed ice-blue in a wispy northern light. It was frighteningly barren and beautiful, inspiring, but above all there was the sense of being on another planet altogether. In the temperate zones to the south where most of us live, we have people, features and places surrounding us in all directions of the compass, and time and light govern every move in our lives.
We sleep in the darkness and eat in the brightness, but up here everything we call familiar is in one direction only and time becomes irrelevant. To sleep at three in the afternoon is no different than playing games at three in the morning, for outside the window nothing has changed.
It was after three days that we found a frozen glacial valley at the mouth of which sat a sandy beach full of lively waves peaking up across its length. On one wave I pulled into a tube and found myself surrounded by water with a cold blue glow that left me feeling as if I were captured inside an iceberg. When the swell grew bigger, further Arctic barrels appeared at the foot of desolate headlands and rocky pinnacles, and it could truly be said that, for those undeterred by the cold, we had stumbled across a surfer’s winter wonderland. But remember, we were lucky. We were here during an unusually warm winter period. It’s normally too cold to enjoy these waves.
But was Lady Luck really smiling on us, or were we actually being shown a sign of things to come, a symptom of a sickness that runs terrifyingly deep through the whole planet, not just these northern extremities?
In the 20th century the world warmed on average by 0.6ºC (1.08ºF), with the 1990s being the warmest decade on record. In the entire history of humanity our planet’s temperature has varied by less than 1ºC (1.8ºF). But the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by the end of this century the temperature will have risen worldwide by an average of between 1.4ºC (2.52ºF) and 5.8ºC (10.44ºF).
Never in the entire 3½ billion years since our planet was born have average temperatures risen so dramatically and so quickly. The Arctic and various desert regions of Africa and Asia will see faster and higher temperature rises than anywhere else, one effect of which will be to melt the polar ice caps and send sea levels rising. This process has already begun – the Arctic sea ice has shrunk by 40% in recent decades, and there are fears that by the year 2060 there may be no summer ice at all anywhere in the Arctic.
During the 20th century ocean levels rose worldwide by 10-20cm (4-8in.) and are predicted to rise by up to a further 88cm (35in.) this century. Average temperatures in Greenland are expected to rise by 8ºC (14.4ºF) in just 350 years, which will cause the great island’s entire ice-sheet to melt before the next millennium, sending worldwide sea levels rising.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere, one of the main causes of global warming, have always fluctuated, but since the start of the industrial revolution atmospheric CO2 levels have risen by 30% and are now significantly higher, and still rising, than at any time in the past 500,000 years . Finally, these rises in temperature will destroy 97% of the world’s existing coral reefs and so put an end to most of the world’s current tropical wave gardens. Please believe me when I say that this is no longer a story. This is real. This is happening today.
Standing at the water’s edge, if ever there was a pause for thought, this was it. Finally we had ridden waves at the mouth of a frozen glacial valley that seemed to mark the very end of the Earth, and high up above us, as the dying year’s daylight came to an end, a ghostly beam of light scuttled across the northern horizon, morphed itself into a green spirit cloud, and the skies started to dance with reds and greens.
Progress and science have dissected the aurora borealis, a Latin phrase which translates as “the red dawn of the north,” into something as banal as solar particles colliding with the gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. But in times of innocence and beauty we had other theories for them.
The Danish believed they were a flock of swans flying so far north that they were caught in the ice and that each time they flapped their wings they created flashes of light and colour. Native Americans believed they were the reflections of huge fires far to the north, Vikings that they were reflections of dead maidens, and the Inuit believed that they were dead friends trying to contact their living relatives. All believed the lights could be dangerous, even descending from the heavens to behead people, but, most importantly, to all they were a symbol of everything we do not understand, and all that we consider beautiful.
Take a look at the world around you and drink in all its beauty and diversity, for unless we do something radical, and fast, we may truly be the last generation to see the planet as we have known it.
Thanks to Ocean Surf Publications (www.oceansurfpublications.co.uk), C -Skins Wetsuits (www.c-skins.com), and Low Pressure (www.lowpressure.co.uk) for banishing us to the ends of the Earth. For more information on the mess we have made of our planet see: www.iucn.org / www.zeroextinction.org / www.worldwatch.org / www.panda.org
English surfer and photo-journalist Stuart Butler, likes to explore little-known coastlines searching for new surf spots. His travels have taken him from the coastal deserts of Pakistan to the jungles of Colombia. He is also a guidebook writer and is currently flitting between India and Yemen working on new Lonely Planet titles. His work can be seen on his website: www.oceansurfpublications.co.uk