The big meltdown
Mackenzie Valley first to feel the greenhouse effect

by Jennifer Pritchett
Northern News Services

NNSL (NOV 25/96) - William Nasogaluak is afraid the tiny community of Tuktoyaktuk is washing away.

"I've watched the land and some buildings disappear," said the hamlet councillor and former mayor of the tiny community of less than 1,000 on the Beaufort coast.

"In the '70s, the ocean eventually reached a curling rink that partially washed away. It became an eyesore and had to be torn down," said Nasogaluak.

"Before that, there was a part of Tuk that had a hotel and coffee shop, and now that's gone."

Nasogaluak's fears about erosion are well-documented in a recent study about climate change released by Environment Canada.

The Mackenzie Basin Impact Study reveals that the region is warming faster than any other area on earth -- except Antarctica -- three times the global rate.

The six-year study details the major effects that the Western Arctic, parts of the Yukon and British Columbia are experiencing as a result of fossil-fuel burning.

Oil, coal and gas emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, blocking heat released from the Earth and warming the planet at an unprecedented rate.

As a result, Tuktoyaktuk, Deline, Norman Wells, Fort Resolution and other Northern areas are experiencing effects such as increased forest fires, melting permafrost and large-scale coastal erosion, according to the study.

Rosie Norwegian, an elder in Deline, said her community is aware of how climate change is affecting the area.

"It seems like the weather is getting warmer and warmer," she said. "And the summers are getting hotter and hotter."

Scientist say hot summers have caused an increase in the number of forest fires, destroying thousands of acres of wilderness land.

Norwegian remembers the worst forest fire ever in Deline in June 1995 --the hottest month in Canada's recorded history.

"We're lucky we didn't lose the whole town," she said. "We were all evacuated for almost a week. it was very hot, and we had no rain all summer."

Fires like the one in June 1995 that destroyed thousands of hectares of forest are particularly hard on aboriginals who depend on traditional food, such as wild game.

Kevin Jardine, a climate-change campaigner with Greenpeace, says the rate of change near Norman Wells, for example, is as high as five times the global rate.

Jardine, who took part in the Mackenzie study, said the results prove what scientists have been predicting.

"The Mackenzie study and others are crucial," he said. "They look at what's actually happened. They make the issue more real."

The study will help Greenpeace and other environmental groups lobby the government for legislation that will reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.

Environmentalists from across the world meet this week in Amsterdam to discuss climate change in polar regions.

Jardine said that environmentalists are working with indigenous peoples and governments to reduce the level of fossil-fuel use.

Aboriginals in the Mackenzie Valley, at least, are taking a stand in the protection of the environment.

First Nations have called for a Mackenzie Valley environmental act that would give them more control over development in the area.

Nasogaluak just wants to save his community.

"Our peninsula in Tuk is getting smaller and smaller," he said.

"We've had an erosion program here for 10 years," he said. "Sand-bagging the waterfront is only slowing the wash-away, but isn't stopping it."