Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC

Arctic

It is one of the most extreme and barren environments on earth, but four million humans have learned how to live here thanks to a deep understanding of the landscape and wildlife. Narwhal, beluga whales, auks, seal, and reindeer are just some of the animals that Arctic people depend on for their survival, not to mention Arctic man’s best friend - the indomitable husky.


Photo from Human Planet
As dawn breaks after the long Arctic winter, Inuit hunters prepare their dogs to set out across the ice shelf in Ilulissat, Western Greenland.

Introduction

Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC Arctic

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About Arctic

At the top of our planet lies one of the remotest and most hostile places on Earth: the Arctic - an environment that humans could never hope to survive in without other animals. In winter, the region is frozen and dark for months on end, and even in the summer there are no trees and few edible plants.

And yet, somehow, four million people live here, relying on an intimate knowledge and understanding of their environment for their survival, constantly walking a tightrope between life and death.

Each year the Inuit townspeople of Illulissat in western Greenland gather to welcome the return of the summer sun. After months of darkness it appears at 13 minutes to the 13th hour of the 13th day. Being that far north, the sun only appears for a short while, but it’s appearance is a sign of the changing seasons and an indication that hunting can now begin in earnest.

For the Inuit, hunting is a way of life and an Inuit boy only truly becomes a man when he becomes a hunter. One of the first things he will learn is that the melting of the sea ice heralds the arrival of the narwhal, the horned whale prized by the Inuit for its rich source of energy and vitamins. Ounce for ounce there is almost as much vitamin C in narwhal skin as there is in an orange, and without the narwhal it is doubtful whether the Inuit would have survived in some parts of the Arctic.

Also on the Inuit hunting calendar is the auk migration. During this time the people of northern Greenland use nets to capture migrating birds. But they don’t eat them right away. Instead, they stuff the dead birds into the body of a dead seal and leave them to ferment for a few months until the food is most needed, in the winter. It is then shared with the whole community and nothing is wasted. Up here, community is paramount.

But Arctic peoples don’t just have hunter-prey relationships with animals. Dogs are a vital part of life in some areas of the Arctic Circle and - true to the maxim that a friend in need is a friend indeed – they are definitely man’s best friend up here. After all, who else could safely guide the hunters over the unstable frozen sea ice in springtime, or help pull a sled more than 40 miles on a single winter’s day?

Somewhere in between the wild narwhal and the tame dogs, are the semi–wild reindeer herded by the Sami people of Norway. The Sami depend on them for food, clothing, and shelter and, when the sea ice melts, will even swim them across treacherous waters to lead the herd to better pastures.

Luckily reindeer are perfectly adapted to the cold, with hollow hairs that are excellent insulation against the freezing Arctic temperatures. Humans on the other hand wouldn’t stand a chance without the shelters they have spent generations learning to build. Whether a Nenet ‘chum’ or an Inuit igloo, both shelters can make the difference between life and death when it is -20C outside.

But perhaps it won’t be -20C outside for much longer. Global warming is heating the Arctic faster than anywhere on Earth, and while this may mean less extreme temperatures for the Inuit, it also means that some of the migrations they depend on simply aren’t taking place, and winter ice patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable. It may be a matter of time before the peoples of the Arctic are left out in the cold with nothing to eat.

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