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A moment in time

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25 Jul 2013

Students on Ice Arctic Expedition 2013, Pangnirtung Fjord

This is a new landscape dotted by weathered and rounded granite erratics left behind by the glaciers that retreated 5000-6000 years ago. The steep cliffs formed 10 kilometres below the surface about three billion years ago and were pushed up through the shifting of tectonic plates. 

They have been here in this place gathering black lichen through the millennia, since a time when humans were first mastering agriculture and animal husbandry in the great river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
 
It’s hard to think of Pangnirtung Fjord as new. Glaciers have done their work here multiple times. Since the Pleistocene the ice has come and gone. Now it is going again. 
 
At the end of the fjord is Auyuittuq National Park. Its name means “the place that never melts” but for several decades Inuit have been watching the glaciers recede. A hike down the valley to the Arctic Circle -- a part of the Students on Ice expedition programme -- reveals areas of ancient granite free of the black lichen that forms on exposed rock. The light areas show where the ice has melted.
 
For Kieran Shepherd, our resident paleontologist, the time that the glaciers have been retreating -- and time that the fjord has been here -- are inconsequential. Kieran thinks in longer time periods, in millions and billions of years.
 
Homo sapiens sapiens will change and evolve, Kieran says. Like the Neanderthals, we too will pass away. But the Earth will remain.
 
It’s an unsettling thought. The climate has changed before. Species have died out and new ones evolved. It has been hot before, very hot. Now it’s getting hotter again. The only difference is that most of this change is not a natural process happening over thousands of years. We are pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that change is accelerating at a rate could lead us to the end of our reign on Earth.
 
While I understand and agree with Kieran’s view, there is something inside of me that rebels at the thought that we are just a blip on the evolutionary radar. Thinking in millions of years is a challenge when what we know as “civilization” really refers only to the 10,000 years since the end of the last glacial period. Nearly everything has developed during this period -- agriculture, complex societies, music, art, literature, philosophy. And our conception of history. 
 
Despite it being but a speck of time, this period matters because it has produced us with all of our failings and warts. We need to understand both conceptions of history -- the long evolutionary view and the shorter, intimate human view. Both are necessary if we are to truly appreciate what a miracle, and what a fluke, humanity is.
 
The long view tells us that our time here is brief. The short view should remind us that we have the intelligence and ability to figure out how to extend our future.
 

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