For 28 years, Canadian writer Ed Struzik has skied, dogsledded, snowmobiled, helicoptered, canoed, and ridden icebreakers as part of his writings about the Arctic. Since long before most journalists paid the northern territories much heed, Struzik has covered the change brewing in these empty lands as his beat.
This summer, Struzik’s experience, contacts, and talent came together: his 2007 newspaper series, “The Big Thaw,” about how life is changing in the Arctic, won a $5,000 special merit award from the Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment. Before he had even finished writing the articles, which ran in both the Edmonton Journal and the Toronto Star, John Wiley and Sons had contracted with him for a book, “The Big Thaw,” to be published next year.
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His writing combines first-person adventures with science reporting on what he calls the world’s remaining frontier. His portraits of today’s Arctic go beyond the melting ice into the worlds of ice roads carrying mining trucks, Inuit seal hunters, energy booms, and animal migration.
Struzik’s ventures into the Arctic for the series spanned a year and involved athletic pursuits and even some danger. He navigated a snowmobile over thin ice while seal hunting with a member of the Inuit on western Hudson Bay. He watched polar bears wrestle while talking with residents of Churchill, Manitoba, about the economic implications of warmer temperatures. He lived in marginal conditions with scientists at struggling research stations.
“It’s really the last, great frontier,” Struzik said in a phone interview. “There are no roads.” He makes a slight correction: “There is only one road that connects the Arctic to the south, and that’s in the western Arctic. In the Canadian Arctic, the only way to get into some of these places is to organize a trip of your own. You get a bush plane or a helicopter. You drop yourself in at one spot, canoe or ski, then get picked up.”
There is more than a little personal involvement in his work. Struzik and his wife of 23 years, lawyer and architect Julia Parker, and their son and daughter, just finished a two-week trip down the Nahanni River in the Arctic. Struzik has been officially on leave to write the book from his job as senior writer for the Edmonton Journal and CanWest news. He also has written for magazines such as Canadian Geographic, Explore, and Yale’s online e360 magazine.
‘A Great Adventure … Also Science’
Struzik often organizes trips of his own with scientists, who he says appreciate his making himself useful along the way.
For one early story, Struzik joined with scientists studying the Brintnell Glacier, the only glacier left on the mainland of the Northern Territories. He flew in with a team, then climbed the glacier and skied across the top, planting monitoring devices along the way.
“It was a great adventure. As far as I know, no one had ever crossed this glacier by ski. It was also science,” he said. “It’s very dramatic being on top of a mountain glacier. One day we’d have 12 different weather systems that moved through – 15 degrees C [59 F], sunny, calm, to minus 5 [23 F], blizzard, winds that nearly blow you off. For me it was tremendously exciting.”
That was what he wanted for all of the trips – something more than a series of interviews, sitting around in the Arctic, whether he was interviewing the natives or visiting scientists.
You might wonder how a newspaper beat reporter could have convinced his editor to let him go on all of these adventures. Struzik, who has received several major fellowships over the years, realized that another one would give him the freedom and his editors the confidence in such a big assignment. He applied for and received an Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, which paid him $100,000 to do a research project for one year.
Struzik began his career in journalism by writing a magazine article about Kluane Park in Yukon Territory, where he worked as a naturalist in 1980 and 1981. A scientist he’d met there had urged him to write about his experiences. He liked writing so much that he ended his national parks career. Since then, he’s been writing, and much of his work has taken him north.
He has written that climate change will bring benefits along with more negatives. “It’s almost sacrilegious to say this, but climate change isn’t the end of the world,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a new world. There will be a lot of losers – probably more losers than winners – but there will be winners,” including those finding economic opportunities from a warmer Arctic, newly available energy resources, and more accessible shipping routes.
Energy companies are already calculating the possibilities of tapping into methane gas hydrates, or bands of concentrated methane gas frozen in the permafrost. “That’s scary for a lot of people,” Struzik said. But for the energy companies and those who live near these resources, the prospect of a new economy is a positive part of climate change.
Then there are the big negatives. “It’s going to create a lot of problems for marine life. It’s going to create a lot of traffic in the Northwest Passage, in Arctic waters. And it’s going to be bad for polar bears. I tried to do it from many points of view.”
No doubt about it: Struzik has seen firsthand over and over that life in the Arctic is changing in ways people are only just beginning to realize. “The verdict is: the end of the Arctic as we know it is unfolding,” Struzik said. “The age of the Arctic is now upon us. It matters now, where it didn’t matter before. And we understand why it matters. Number one, most people don’t know it, but it influences the weather that we get, the climate that we have in the southern environment.”
Struzik said, “There will be more people, certainly more activity than we have seen before. We have already seen now the strategic move countries are making to capitalize on it: the Russians planting a flag at the North Pole last summer, the haggling about the boundary between Alaska and the Yukon. There is a dispute now in place. The U.S. and Canada are on one side, and on the other side it’s Denmark and Canada having a debate on who owns what on the western side.”
More accessible oil and gas reserves might just slow the transition toward the end of the fossil fuel era, but Struzik’s reporting shows the potential great value of the methane hydrates, a point he explored in his series and in an interview.
“Scientists are trying to tap into those. If they find a way of commercially tapping into that, you would be continuing a fossil fuel economy for 600 years.” Struzik said that such energy sources could open as yet unexplored aspects of the debate on how to deal with energy shortages.
Struzik’s stories ran in his paper, the Edmonton Journal, and also in the Toronto Star, which has an arrangement with the Atkinson Charitable Foundation that awarded his fellowship. The Star edited his stories and assigned features editor Glen Colbourn to work with Struzik on the series.
As the Atkinson fellowship recipient, Struzik conceived of his project and set up his interviews and trips. He outlined his stories. “But then, as he was getting through the project and we were starting to think about publication,” Colbourn said, “we as editors had our own ideas. We may have ideas that differed from his in some cases.”
Colbourn said that two reporters at the Star, science writer Peter Calami and environmental writer Peter Gorrie, had written about climate science, but they had planned no trips to the Arctic when Struzik’s project began. And so it was easy to incorporate the Atkinson fellow into the Star‘s coverage, he said.
It was the Star editors who encouraged him to write in the first person for many of the stories, “to give the stories some immediacy.” Also, they asked Struzik to craft the final story of the series summarizing the situation in the Arctic and addressing policy issues. In that last story, Struzik reported that Canada is not in a position to defend territory in the Arctic, lacking such things as a transportation network since, until the last decade or so, the ice was too thick for any economic interests to fight over such land.
That story was important, Colbourn said. “Having done so much research, we felt like it was important to show our readers some of the problems or issues that Ed had identified throughout the series. That it was important to show our readers where possible solutions lie.” Struzik understood, he said, and “was terrific” about that and also the times when Colbourn had to trim his stories.
Struzik spent much of this past summer in the Arctic, too, working on new articles, a long piece for a book, an article for the Yale publication, e360, and finishing his book based on his newspaper series, also to be called “The Big Thaw.”
“It really was one of the highlights of my career as a journalist and writer and photographer,” Struzik said of his series. “I got to do a lot of the things I like to do: skiing and climbing and traveling during that time. There were some scary moments.” And he also was able to devote many more column inches to the effects of climate change on his country than he might have been able to do without the Atkinson fellowship.
“The volume of it was a bit overwhelming,” he said. But he says he was pleased that the newspaper editors ran most of his work. “To their credit, they ran the stories, not all of them, but they ran most of them. I still felt that there was a bit of nervousness about going the whole way.” But the readers proved that the project was worthwhile, he said.
“In the end I don’t think it was a problem but along the way there were a few eyebrows raised. There were people concerned that we were maybe hitting this a bit too hard. We had phenomenal response from readers, and this was for me the most gratifying thing.”