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In late July, the Canadian High Arctic is teeming with life. Northern fulmars, kittiwakes and ravens talk noisily; beluga swim lazily in their summer feeding grounds. And polar bears patrol the shoreline.

It is hard to set foot in this place without being immediately aware of its history. Here are narwhals, the whale whose spiral tooth gave “proof” to the existence of the unicorn. On the barren shoreline are the simple graves of seamen who searched for 300 years for a passage to the Orient and happened upon the New World along the way. And here, too, are traces of prior inhabitation – of the Thule, whom Inuit legend holds could run as fast as caribou and slept with their legs in the air, of the Dene people, Vikings and Irish monks.

This year, in recognition of the fact that the region is about to be transformed by global warming into a place of unique commercial and strategic importance, the High Arctic is also bustling with scientists and geologists, tourists and adventurers, politicians and astronauts.

Beauty and romance, it seems, are rapidly giving way to the global demand for resources. The warming climate, combined with the high value of commodities, is making the region accessible and economically viable for exploitation. A race is on to tap the anticipated bounty of oil and gas, diamonds and uranium, and to take advantage of an expected boom in fish stocks moving north to their new, ice-free feeding grounds in the Arctic.

In the past 50 years alone, the Arctic ice-cap has shrunk by half, and the loss of ice is accelerating. Spring comes sooner, sparse winter ice breaks up more quickly and the summers are uncommonly warm. Last year, Resolute Bay had three or four days of 17C weather; this year it has already had a month. Inuit elders say they are witnessing things they have never seen before – including their children playing in T-shirts.

“We are worried. We are not happy,” says Ludy, Resolute Bay’s Inuit elder, and a man who doesn’t venture outside much these days because the sun burns sores into his skin. “Things are changing too fast.”

For the brief summer months, scientists and geologists flock to the region but with 2007-2008 designated International Polar Year, there are more than usual. Scientists are loath to offer opinions – at best they offer cautious interpretations of data but at the weather station, the rumour is that warming could give this region Florida-style summers in 40 years.

For Canada, the issue of how the map of an ice-free Arctic will be drawn is acutely sensitive. It has always taken its frozen north for granted. While six countries have parts of their mainland inside the High Arctic, three of these (along with Denmark, through its control of Greenland, and the US with Alaska) also claim additional land within the Circle: Russia, Canada and Norway. With the potential for an ice-free Northwest Passage in two decades, the Canadian government in Ottawa has recently woken up to the need to become more muscular in protecting its northern fringe.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is expected to pay a flag-waving visit to the region this year, has promised six new patrol ships for the region. In Ottawa, people are warning that Canada faces “absolute and outright challenges to national sovereignty”. There are proposals for deep-water ports, probably in Iqaluit, located in the southeast of Baffin Island, and one towards the western end of the passage, possibly at Cambridge Bay where it could be used to bring minerals out from the mines north of Yellowknife. The Canadian military is also looking to re-establish a base at Resolute Bay.

The politicians are agitated over several simmering territorial disputes. Denmark claims Hay Island that lies between Baffin and Greenland, and the US disputes Canada’s claim to the passage itself as territorial waters. Russia claims dominion over a submerged peninsula of the continental shelf stretching hundreds of kilometres towards the Pole that may hold vast reserves of oil and gas.

Russia is also far better equipped, with at least two nuclear-powered icebreakers – Canada has none – and in July it sent a submarine to scoop samples from the sea bed and leave a Russian flag under the Pole. Washington, too, appears woefully unprepared and has yet to ratify a treaty that would give it an official voice on issues in international waters.

In this part of the Arctic, totems of old disputes remain visible. The northern islands are dotted with Distant Early Warning Line radar stations from the Cold War that stand like strange hill-top monoliths. At Resolute, the white pods that once contained equipment to detect submarines off Devon Island lie abandoned near the runway. (After years of Soviet incursions, it is believed the Russians have the best maps of the region.)

The quest for a Northwest Passage has deep roots in history. To the British from Elizabeth I to Victoria, it was an obsession as well as a shortcut. Nowadays, even with ships using the Panama Canal, an open passage would reduce the distance from Europe to Asia from 12,000 to 7,900 miles. But as explorers from Frobisher to the doomed Franklin expedition of 1848 discovered, the region is unforgiving, the winters savage.

“It’s like a desert,” says weather-worn Twin Otter pilot Paul Jones. “But I guess there is beauty in the desert.”

The Inuit, who have their own complex relationship with Ottawa, are increasingly vocal about claiming their share of the minerals, gems and energy resources the region may produce. “We want to control our future for ourselves,” says Thomasie Alikatuktuk, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), the agency that represents Inuit land claims.

While zinc and iron ore mines on Little Cornwallis and at Pond Inlet recently closed, several new ones are set to open. There are zinc and iron ore deposits on Baffin Island and uranium at Baker and Cigar Lake on the west side of Hudson Bay. Canada is already the third largest producer of rough diamonds by value in the world with mines at Diavik, Jericho and Ekati producing a total of $1.6bn (€1.16bn) in stones last year.

De Beers is set to open a new mine at Snap Lake in the Northwest Territories later this year and has detected kimberlite – a rock formation that often signals the presence of diamonds – on Somerset and Cornwallis. On Devon Island, De Beers geologists share their interest, topography and geology with NASA scientists running trial programmes at the Haughton crater, a meteorite strike that NASA says has strong geological and some climatic similarities to Mars.

Bob Long at the Baffin Business Development Centre in Iqaluit estimates the budget for geological exploration has tripled from $100m (€73m) to $300m (€219m) in a year. But the jackpot will be the oil and gas deposits in the Arctic, estimated at one quarter the global reserves. For now, they are too expensive to reach. “As other reserves are depleted, and with longer ice-free seasons, the viability of these reserves will change,” says Long.

Development of the High Arctic, however, will have to take account of the personalities it tends to attract. “You have to be a character just to get here,” says Paul Jones. Wayne Davidson, veteran of Resolute Bay and captain of the weather station through the winter months, carries a sword on his way to work lest he meets a wolverine (which should not be this far north) or polar bears (which should be and often are).

Russell, who says he is from Edmonton, spends his days in the airport trying to hitch a ride to Ellesmere to collect water samples but he could be looking for birds eggs, specifically the super-rare Ross’s Gull. No air charter is willing to drop him there: on a previous expedition he pressed his emergency locator after running out of oatmeal; on another, he said he rolled on it in his tent. Both triggered expensive Canadian Air Force rescue efforts.

Aziz “Ossie” Kharaj, a local business chieftain from Tanzania, runs a guesthouse, supplies hunting parties and holds valuable Canadian government contracts to clear snow and supply fuel.

Then there’s the Polar Continental Shelf Project, a Canadian government agency that works from a research station known as the Base. They tend to keep themselves away from the rest of the island population, whom they apparently regard as degenerates.

The local air services control regional transport with exorbitant pricing and inefficiency. At this vertiginous latitude, and perhaps in an effort to counter-act the exquisite desolation and wildness of the nature around them, bureaucracy thrives – and everyone can hear change coming. “You can hear the rumble of money,” says veteran pilot Steve King.

The High Arctic is changing. The tree-line is moving north; there are robins in northern Quebec; brucellosis, often a sign of environmental stress in animals and a condition that triggers spontaneous miscarriage, is showing up in seals, narwhals and beluga. Two years ago, an unusual freezing rain across the region formed a layer of ice that caribou and muskox could not penetrate, causing mass-starvation. On Cumberland Sound this year the ice was so unstable the Inuit were essentially unable to hunt at all.

Walrus are losing the ice floes from which they hunt; polar bears regularly drown before they reach the winter sea-ice to hunt seal. Pilots cannot find the thick, multi-year ice pans they need to land; those walking to the Pole must now cross open water where ice used to be. This year no one made it. “It was only minus 14C at the Pole in April. It should be much colder,” says polar adventurer Sarah McNair-Landy.

Joe Attagutaluk, secretary of the QIA, says his people have been through a culture shock. In one generation, their traditional life as hunter-gatherers, moving in small bands across the ice, has been lost. “I was born in an igloo,” he says. “It’s not as warm as living in a house but it’s more peaceful.” With little or no work, and many communities tormented with addiction and teenage suicide, the Inuit are in a struggle to maintain their cultural identity. “It’s getting too easy for the younger generation,” says Joe. “There’s nothing for them to do.”

Southerners are treated with wary courtesy. In recent years, campaigners such as Sir Paul McCartney have come to protest the seal cull. The EU is considering a total ban on the import of seal skin. To the Inuit, this is an insult: we, they say, are the cause of the imbalance between nature and man, and now we are more concerned with the well-being of animals than with theirs.

Furthermore, the spring seal cull is conducted by Newfoundlanders who leave the skinned carcass on the ice – against Inuit tradition. Yet the cull may come to a natural end: with no ice to bask on, seals will no longer develop their valuable full-winter coats.

The US threat to place polar bears on the endangered list is likely to affect the Inuit too. Resolute is awarded 35 bear-hunting tags a year by the Canadian government. Hunters pay $20,000 (€13,720) for an adult bear, plus $20,000 for the hunt itself and $10,000 in expenses – all key revenue. But US hunters will not come if they cannot take the skins home. Organisers hope Spanish and Austrian hunters will make up the difference. It’s a sensitive subject. Suspecting Monocle may be affiliated to Greenpeace, Ludy just walks away. “You people care more about animals than people,” he protests.

Whatever the future climate holds, the Inuit believe they should be given a say over development; Ottawa says their views will be taken into account. In Iqaluit, we meet a leader who prefers to remain anonymous to deliver this prophetic warning: “The explorers who were helped by us so-called savages survived. The ones who were not aided by us – like Franklin – did not succeed.”

What they say:

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Canada needs to assert its claim to the Arctic region in the face of climate change and increased international interest in the area: “Either we use it or we lose it. Make no mistake about it, this national government intends to use it,” he said in July.

Anatoly Opekunov of the Russian Research Institute for Ocean Geology & Mineral Resources: “Experts say that after 2016 oil production will drop tremendously. Every country, including Russia and the US, is thinking about this.”

Dr Pete Ewin, a conservationist with the WWF, says mounting tension over the region is the result of depleting global energy and mineral stocks. “We are pushing into the frontiers of both knowledge and resources. It is easier to go into the extremes than to change your lifestyle.”

Environmentalist and former Inuit Circumpolar Council president Sheila Watt-Cloutier says the issue is not just about polar bears, it’s about communities trying to survive. “The hunter falling through thinning ice is connected to the cars we drive, the disposable world we’ve become, and the policies that we make.”

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