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Science
ARID EDEN
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Two programmes examining life in extreme environments.

Wednesdays 26 June and 3 July 2002, 9.00-9.30pm

Programme 1: Nanuk's Kingdom

Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut
Iqaluit, capital of Canada's newest territory, Nunavut, is an outpost on the edge of the Arctic, surrounded by frozen ocean.

The wonders of a polar desert unfold to reveal astonishing adaptations of the animals and plants that have made one of the harshest ecosystems on Earth their home.

Journalist and broadcaster Sue Armstrong travelled to the Arctic, to Somerset Island's remote Cresswell Bay. It's an oasis in a bleak, barren landscape where life is adapted to cope with 100km/hour winds, long periods of -50C as well as half the year in darkness. You might ask, well who would want to live there? The answer is an astounding number of plants and animals that have developed various tricks to deal with the elements and thrive in this extraordinary wilderness.

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Sue Armstrong describes her experience in the Arctic:

As I sheltered from the wind beside a huge whale vertebra and gazed out across the ice-bound ocean sparkling with sunlight, I thought to myself this was the remotest place I'd ever been, and possibly one of the remotest places in all the world, and I was thrilled. This was Whaler Point in the Canadian High Arctic, where the Hudson Bay Company - whose territory once covered one twelfth of the earth's surface - had set up one of its fur-trading stations some hundred years ago. Nothing else had ever taken hold on that frozen outpost just below the North Pole, and the presence of the abandoned, clapboard house in the curve of the bay accentuated the feeling of loneliness and isolation. It spoke of crazy courage and the unequal struggle to survive in that land of ice and emptiness.
Sue Armstrong in the Arctic
Sue Armstrong in the Arctic

Beside the old house stood a couple of oil barrels at the end of a rough airstrip. I and my two pilots had stopped to refuel the little plane that had plucked me off nearby Somerset island where I'd been camping with a handful of ornithologists studying shorebirds that nest in the Arctic. Apart from the incessant wind, the faint cries from the skeins of geese that crossed the sky and the occasional shrill piping of a phalarope, all was silence up there on the roof of the world. And awesome emptiness. There was nothing to break the view. No trees or bushes or even boulders on Somerset Island, just boggy brown land with occasional pockets of snow glinting under the never-setting sun, then ice-bound ocean out to the edge of the world. It was mid June, and I lost all sense of time, waking at 2am with the sun blinding me through the canvas of my little orange igloo and having to convince myself it was the middle of the night.

I'd reached this spot via Ottawa, sweltering in summer heat 2000 miles to the south, and then Iqaluit, capital of Canada's newest territory, Nunavut. A wide scatter of islands round the north pole, Nunavut is home to the Inuit who used to be known to outsiders as eskimos - a name given to them by their Cree Indian neighbours meaning 'eaters of raw meat', and now considered derogatory. Iqaluit, on the lip of Frobisher Bay and gateway to the High Arctic, is a scruffy sprawl of clapboard houses and prefabs that mark the crossroads between past and present - between the igloo and email generations. Young people with punk hairstyles, baggy jeans and back-to-front baseball caps zipped around the gravel roads on thick-tyred moon buggies sounding like angry wasps, or stood in bored huddles smoking fags outside the few fast-food joints. Older women sat on the shingle outside their huts scraping and softening caribou skins for winter clothing, while in the far distance the tiny ant-like figures of men and dogs could be seen moving across the frozen bay in the hunt for seals.

My visit to the Arctic was the beginning of an extraordinary year which took me to the Namib Desert, the Galapagos Islands, Madagascar's Dry Spiney Forest and the Brazilian Amazon, in search of material for radio programmes on deserts and evolution. But while my work as a journalist provides the justification and the licence to enter for brief periods the lives and worlds of other people, it is not the motivation for travelling - and it rarely pays all the bills! Whether by nature or nurture (I was born into a colonial medical family in the last days of Empire, and lived in nine homes in five countries before I was 14), I have what the Afrikaners call 'trek fever' - a huge itch to know what's over the horizon, who lives there and how. Travelling for me is like the approach of spring - a delicious feeling of anticipation in the blood, of new sights, smells, sounds, and sensations against the skin. 2001 was my Year of Lonely Places - and truly transforming experiences.

"Wilderness," says environmentalist and author, Roderick Frazier Nash, "is the best environment in which to learn that humans are members in, and not masters of, the community of life." Indeed it's the sense of being at the mercy of a supremely indifferent natural world rather than in control that is a large part of the thrill of lonely places. It cuts you down to size, sharpens all your senses and gives you a necessary respect for the things that make their home in the corners of the world where humans are least inclined to venture. The Arctic, of course, has the polar bear, which is the largest land predator on earth and a fearsome creature to encounter in the wild because there is nowhere to hide. But it also has a wealth of less dramatic creatures and plants adapted to living with snow and ice and very little sunshine. One strategy is to slow growth processes down to a snail's pace, and there are moths that spend up to ten years as pupae, and flowers which form buds in the autumn that open the following spring. Another strategy for plants is to save energy by staying small. Somerset Island sported willow trees only a few centimetres high that hugged the thawed earth and sprouted familiar, fluffy pussy willows.

Originally published in the Sunday Herald

Programme 2: Sea of Sand
Sue Armstrong visits the Namib desert.
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