Red Dawn of the North

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.

BEARINGS

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.

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SPECIES

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.


STREAMS

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.

WAVES

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.

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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.

BOREALIS

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

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