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Two wheels, 2,000 miles, to see the Arctic’s changing climate

Lori Byron

Pediatrician Lori Byron on the Dempster Highway, Northwest Territories.

By Alex Amonette

What motivates a pediatrician, who could have taken a ritzy vacation, to get on a bicycle and pedal 2,000 miles to the Arctic Circle to celebrate her recent retirement? This is someone who already has raised and home-schooled her children, worked with poor families for her 32-year career, done a ton of work with 4H, and ran a swim team. Time for a well-deserved break, wouldn’t you’d think!

Nope! Instead, Dr. Lori Byron gave herself a unique gift.

“I wanted to take a long bicycle trip that was low maintenance and not involve a lot of consumption. More importantly, I wanted to see the Artic before it changes too much and see the changes that have already happened. I decided to bike to the furthest northern town in Canada that has a road to it.”

Byron biked from Prince Rupert, British Columbia to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, a small town of 3,000 approximately 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

She prepared by biking 30-60 miles a day for several weeks.

Along the way

In the 35 days it took to bike there this summer, Byron experienced a lot. The weather, for one.

“A lot of rain! The coldest day was 38 degrees, and it was snowing and raining with 50 mph crosswinds. There was lots of mud. On other days, the rain broke. You just keep biking and get wet,” she said, laughing.

How did she cope with that?

“Just riding along, I sang a lot of corny folk songs. I looked at the landscape and wildlife. And watched the road. You have to keep your eyes on the road, especially on gravel, the whole time.”

Byron experienced the joy of being outside and camping for 35 days.

“You get used to it. It did not seem like a hardship. And my little tent and what I carried on my bike, it’s my “house.” It’s all I needed. When you think of all the stuff we all have back home — and we have a ton of stuff — it’s not necessary.”

She met wonderful, friendly people who were sympathetic to her hardships. A couple she met biked from White Horse in the Yukon to Key West, Florida. “We are expected to lose half our North American bird species over the next couple of decades due to climate change,” said Byron. “They biked and told people about that along their route.”

The Canadians she met, she thanked. Their government is addressing climate change. They don’t understand why Americans can’t see that it’s happening. To reduce fossil fuel emissions, British Columbia inaugurated a carbon tax in 2008; its economy is doing very well. Quebec has had a carbon tax since 2007. Alberta is planning a carbon tax in 2017. Canada’s Trudeau government is considering it for the entire country. Why? It reduces fossil fuel emissions – it works!

Changing landscapes, melting permafrost and rivers

Temperatures are warming faster in the Arctic than the rest of the world.

Because the permafrost— ground that is frozen — is beginning to melt due to global warming, trees, houses, roads and towns are all impacted.

Over the centuries, the trees have been limited in how deep to put their roots because of the permafrost. “Now that it is melting deeper. You will see trees sticking out horizontally, instead of vertically, because they can’t have deep roots,” Byron explained. “Mostly we saw these black skinny fir trees. They sort of looked like they were out of a Dr. Seuss book.” They have been dubbed “drunken trees.”

In the towns, people don’t build houses or roads directly on the permafrost because you can’t have any heat on the ground. If you do, your house or road sinks.

“But you do see places where buildings have melted the permafrost. And with the permafrost itself now melting, the buildings are more cattywampus than they used to be,” she said. People have to move because their houses are unsafe.

The Dempster Highway, along which Byron pedaled, has 500 miles of gravel built up with at least 7 feet of gravel underneath.

But already, “climate change is impacting permafrost on the Dempster Highway, there is no doubt about that,” says Paul Murcheson, director of Highways Engineering in the Yukon.

The melting permafrost also releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 26 times more potent on a molecular basis than carbon dioxide, over a 20-year period. And, deadly microbes, such as anthrax, are now being released as the thawing continues.

Seeing the climate change in one’s lifetime

Robert Alexie

Robert Alexie

In a small beautiful log building visitor’s center, at the end of a gravel road, Byron met 86-year-old Robert Alexie, Sr., a Canadian Gwich’in elder, who staffs the center. It’s 400 miles from the nearest concrete road. The Gwich’in People have lived in the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories for as long as 20,000 years.

“We talked about his life. Robert said the springs come about a month earlier now. Snowmelt comes a month earlier. The river ice is breaking up earlier, but the migrating caribou don’t realize it. When these “reindeer” make their annual migrations and crossings, hundreds of them drown,” said Byron. The caribou is to the Gwich’in as the buffalo is to the Plains Indians.

Given time, they could adapt to a changing climate; but instead of changing gradually over thousands of years as it has in the past, the climate is changing rapidly now — too fast for millions of species to adapt.

“The first time a polar bear was seen walking around on tundra, near Ft. McPhearson, 100 miles from the Artic, Robert said it really disturbed him. Polar bears don’t just walk around on the tundra! They live on the ice,” explained Byron.

Now, the Arctic icecap is melting (click here for NASA’s satellite images). Because polar bears are now forced to live on land, they are breeding with grizzly bears. “Their offspring are called Growlers,” said Byron.

When Robert was a child, he had to travel by dogsled for three weeks to get to Dawson City (where the historic Klondike Gold Rush occurred). It’s a distance of 480 miles from Inuvik. One can only do that with snow on the ground.

“There is no snow. Losing snow is significant in his mind. His entire life was one of living off the land and hunting polar animals,” she said.

“He thinks we need to consume and waste less,” said Byron. “He is working with his tribe to fight climate change and protect their way of life. His granddaughter is a full-time climate change activist.”

Giving and dedicating your life

After “retirement,” what does Byron plan to do?

“I am studying for an MS in Energy Science and Climate Change. I plan to devote more time to seeing that carbon pricing happens. Even with what little I have had in my first class on Energy Policy Finance, it looks pretty clear that the Carbon Fee and Dividend is the most effective method of pricing carbon.”

In this policy, a fee is placed on fossil fuels at the source and increases steadily each year. 100% of the net fees are returned to American households on an equal basis.

“A lot of people think when poor people get money, they throw it away. They don’t. They do the same thing everyone else does: they buy better health insurance, better food, healthier food, and make improvements for their families,” explained Byron, who lives in Crow Agency, Montana, and has worked with poor people her whole life.

“My community has ridiculous unemployment rates, 30% – 70% unemployment. For so many people, day-to-day living is so difficult. People who have jobs support family members who don’t.”

The dividend is just the “right thing to do,” said Byron.

Lastly, Byron didn’t just give herself this “climate ride” present. She also raised $2,000 for Citizens’ Climate Education, biking to the vanishing Arctic. Well done, Dr. Byron.

Alex Amonette is a freelance technical and grant writer/editor, lives in cattle and sheep country, and raises vegetables and hay.