The way the world ends: my adventures in the Arctic

My first thought about the Arctic was that it looked like the Arctic.  Flying into Tromsø, a town of more than 70,000 people, I had expected the place to look urbanised, industrialised, like Oslo or Stockholm or another Scandinavian city.  But as the plane dipped low over the terrain, the stark beauty of the Norwegian tundra took me by surprise.  Massive mountains buckled the landscape; the sky was cornflower blue and vast miles of snow were luminous in the sunlight.  The sight made my heart clench.

I’d been living in Norway for six months by this time, and had arranged to meet a friend in Tromsø, 350km north of the Arctic Circle, for a brief holiday.  By the time Liz arrived from London late in the afternoon, low grey clouds had crept over the horizon, and the sunlight gave way to bitter cold.  The weather didn’t bode well for the first part of our adventure: a northern lights chase set to start at 11pm that night.  A soft, soaking rain began as we dragged our bags up the hill towards our hostel, sliding half a step backwards for every one forward on the icy ground.

Norwegian houses are like something out of a fairy-tale; wooden-panelled with white trim, painted in traditional dark reds and burnt yellows, occasionally a soft blue.  They lined the main street, converted into shops and cafes, their toasty interiors beckoning us in the freezing temperatures.  It was a shopkeeper who first made me realise something was wrong, chatting to us as we purchased ingredients for dinner.  “It’s not normal, this weather,” she said in Norwegian, gesturing to the rain.  “It should be cold this time of year. Everything should be frozen.”  Outside, I noticed for the first time how many puddles there were.

That night, our guide took us all the way to Finland trying to beat the cloud front and see the aurora, but the weather outpaced us in the end.  We left our overcoats on the whole trip, huddling together for warmth, the tyres skidding in the rain as sheets of water gathered on top of the ice on the road.

When we went dog-sledding the following morning, snow which should have been packed hard collapsed under our feet, and we plunged in up to our knees.  The dogs laboured in the wet conditions, and while we wore snow jumpsuits and our knuckles went numb clutching the sled, the owner said the dogs found it too hot, found it hard to run.

Our guide for the fjord tour seemed the most concerned; while Norwegians are known to bear things stoically, with little fuss, this lady was Spanish and unafraid to express herself.  “This weather is very, very unusual,” she said numerous times throughout the trip.  She told us how for the past few years, whales and dolphins had begun to gather in the surrounding fjords around the turn of the calendar year, chasing prey which had migrated to the newly-warm water.  She pointed out patches of dirt and red-brown grass showing through ground which should have been blanketed in snow.  It didn’t snow at all that day, just rained with patches of sunlight.  When a rainbow stretched across the road in front of us, it was the first time I’d thought of it as an ominous symbol.

We saw the northern lights that night.  In pitch darkness, a beach on one side and a snow-capped mountain on the other, they pulsed across the night sky, fading and returning, like clouds lit by a pale green moon.  In Finland, people once believed the aurora was a mystical arctic fox, his bushy tail flicking and throwing light across the darkness.  Alaskan Inuit believed the lights were the spirits of the animals they had hunted: luminous whales, seals and fish swimming in the heavens.

On that beach that night, faced by such transcendent beauty, I thought about those animals.  The delicate balance of nature, and the interconnectedness of everything. 

When I think about the foreseeable effects of climate change on our planet – the biodiversity loss, the rising sea levels, the mass human displacement – I don’t know why people aren’t screaming.  I don’t know why they’re not taking to the streets in panic and rage, fighting for everything they hold dear.  But as I trudged through icy puddles in Tromsø’s main street the next day, and observed the steady drip-drip of melted snow off the eaves of the wooden houses, I realised that this is it.  There will be no meteorite; there will be no fire and brimstone.  This is the way the world ends: with the snow melting to puddles, the creep of rising water levels, and the steady drip-drip of disaster. The arctic fox flicks its tail.  Not with a bang but a whimper.