I first visited Svalbard in 2013, after forming the sudden conviction that I must see go to the Arctic and see the ice. I certainly didn’t have a story in mind, but something was tugging at me to go and have a look. Rubbernecking, maybe: see the ice while it’s still there. Polar bears are all very well, but that wasn’t my focus. I didn’t actually have one, which was relaxing. I was supposed to be on holiday.
The epiphany came when I was temporarily alone on deck – staring out at the peculiar beauty of a slow, semi-frozen satiny black sea full of huge white mosaic pieces of ice. I heard singing. Or rather, the sound of the ice bumping and creaking, I knew that was what it was – but I could also literally hear a strange a-tonal but very beautiful sound coming out of the water itself, as if the ice had a voice and was speaking to me in a tongue I had never heard. I was enchanted as if in a wild fairytale, and very sad to have to turn back when the captain said we might risk being stuck if it moved in and locked around the ship. It had a life, non-human and non-animal, but powerfully present. And I felt it.
From that moment, the Arctic changed for me. I was already disoriented by the midnight sun – and now the shifting singing ice took me into another sense of dislocation. From being something you scraped off your windscreen, it became the whole world, and its form could save or kill you.
The scale of the Arctic is quite shocking – no signs of human existence – and time refuses to conform to ‘civilised’ behaviour. Endless day, endless night, with two very brief transitory seasons of dusk and dawn. And the movement of aeons, not politely hidden below the surface, but nakedly visible in the rucked-up skirts of mountains, showing hundreds of thousands of years in coloured strata so old, so weirdly rippled and folded, that it’s hard to believe the world we stand on once bucked and heaved itself in molten convulsions – but there it is in Svalbard, in your face.
Then the world of ice, sapphire blue, turquoise, cobalt, compressed so hard by time and the weight of snow, then ice, that all the oxygen is pressed out of it, so the older it is, the darker its blue. Only young ice is white. The eye and mind strain to adapt to this ancient unmarked environment – and then you see the melt. The waterfalls streaming out of the glaciers, the calvings that are far too frequent. The bears that are too thin, that swim too far, the whales that are still too rare. The Arctic has seen the genocide of populations of whales and walrus, and there are still some bays that despite being full of fish, are empty of their natural predators, who choose to eat anywhere but the places where for centuries, the sea ran red with blood.
I came back inspired by everything, by the trove of human stories over time, the explorations, heroic disasters, feats of endurance – and furious at how we have treated, and still do treat the natural world. I started finding out more about the mineral wealth locked under the ice for so long, only now, in this century, coming within our greedy reach. That led me to trying to understand the laws – if any – that govern their extraction, which led me to the rights of the Inuit people who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, then their mythology and the biology of the creatures of the Arctic, of course the polar bear, but also the Greenland shark, reputed to live for over three hundred years.
I also quailed at how hard it was to find a single story to tell. I definitely did not want to anthropomorphise a bear, and the human stories – though more slippery – were so compelling. Where there are fortunes to be made – and in this newly melting Arctic there definitely are – human nature is stripped bare. Greed, ambition, desperation, exploitation – we live in a time when treaties are out of date and technology runs ahead of its creators.
Logic forced the story toward the new frontier of business, then following the money led me into the unfamiliar arena of Arctic geopolitics. Here I learned that unlike the Antarctic, a landmass with an international treaty to preserve it for science and peace since 1959, the Arctic is an ocean that has been frozen since the beginning of time – until now. A huge part of it – centred on the North Pole – is considered to be international waters, and is therefore literally, a lawless zone, full of riches…
My research left me in no doubt that the summer sea projections are optimistic, and that it’s melting – and will be gone – much sooner than we can bear to think. And what will happen then? The TransPolar trade route will be the new ocean highway between Asia and Europe, and business loves to argue for fuel savings and cheaper goods. I started to think that the Arctic is suffering an economic version of death by stoning, in which each business, each government, that ignores its responsibility in helping reduce global warming, is throwing its own stone. If everyone shares the guilt, no one is responsible.
Only when I started meeting the senior individuals making the decisions that affect the climate of the whole planet, did I find my story. Corporations may be faceless, but they are made of fallible individual human beings, who mostly want a good outcome, but can rationalise very dubious decisions. Individuals with ambitions and delusions…
I decided to write about two of them. Friends from youth, now in their prime and on opposite ethical sides of the Arctic opportunity. They unite once more in a profitable scheme they believe will protect the Arctic, but hidden agendas disrupt their plans, and the destructive ripple effect goes out from the personal to the political, until the whole can of worms is tipped out in public scandal.
In order to write The Ice I stretched myself both in terms of physical bravery (never huge to start with) and in the scale of my research – far beyond what is in the book, but without it I couldn’t have written it. I’ve been given once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and talked to all sorts of people who work or live in the Arctic. It is the most beautiful and terrifying place I’ve ever been, and also the most fragile. In this book I’ve tried to tell an engrossing story set in its very close and plausible future – and I hope it’s a good read.
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