The Turning Point

Post By Taras Danylak. Reading time 12 minutes (2,086 words)

John was walking along the shore, staring at the vastness of the James Ross Strait. Its ice cover had melted completely this summer, exposing the cold, dark blue waters of the Arctic ocean to the ever present sun. John stopped by the water and scooped a bit with his right hand. The expected sharp sting of pain was not there. The water felt cool. It was getting warmer each day. The Sun's rays were usually reflected back into the atmosphere by the blanket of ice. Now, they were fully embraced by waves and sucked down into the dark blue depth.

The permafrost was thawing with a vengeance now. Some parts of the interior of the King William Island were impassable. The expedition's ATVs sunk deep into the mud. One truck use for rescue was too heavy to use at this time of the year. ATV's would have to wait until the frost would make the ground frozen again. But then it would be much tougher to pull the vehicles out, with wheels frozen in-place under the permafrost.

A seagull swooshed down from the sky and plummeted, head first, directly into the calm ocean waves. Must be looking for fish, John thought, waiting to see where the bird would emerge. It did not. John looked at the place where the bird dove and saw a white spec bopping up and down with the waves. It was the seagull. Dead, John realized. That was strange.

John's thoughts went back to three days ago, when he saw a polar bear swimming erratically in the water. It looked like it was drowning and trying to stay afloat with all its might. It was a strange sight. A giant white beast at the mercy of a dark blue monster coming closer and closer to swallowing its prey.

The polar bear never made it out. Eventually, it gave up and was pulled down by the current into the depths of the ocean, away from the shore. John had come out with a team of scientists on a boat that day to try and find the drowned animal, but they weren't able to find it. The current must have take the body further down, to be deposited on an unknown shore, rotting like thousands of its dead brothers and sisters. The Arctic was gasping for breath and all of its children were suffocating with it. This was one of the reasons why John and his team from Canadian and American universities assembled together and traveled to the Arctic. The true North, strong and free was slowly being poisoned.

John! John, we need you here.

The distant voice came from behind where John was standing. He turned around and saw Gregory Zimm calling out to him from atop his ATV.

What's happening Greg? asked John.

We've got results from the tundra. The soil is saturated with methane gas. We haven't seen such levels, Greg paused trying to remember when methane levels were this high, since 2005 and even then it was an anomaly, they found shale gas in that field, remember?

Greg's face a bit off colour. His pale skin was punctured by two glowing, red auras on either side of his nose. John waited for Greg to catch his breath, trying to recall the anomalous shale gas field.

Yes, I remember, he said. The field in Russia, near Dyangylakh island. As far as I can recall, that field produced gas for a the next year after that. So maybe this sample is also from atop a shale gas field, eh?

That's the thing, this area has been combed over by the energy companies at least five times and the only thing they had found was lots of permafrost and lots of methane stored in the permafrost, nothing recoverable, no shale and no gas fields, answered Greg. The weird thing is, the samples are from all over the island and they are all pretty much on the same level. All between 200,000 and 400,000 ppm. That's a potentially explosive amount.

Holy shit Greg! That's way above safety regulation levels, are any of the samples from our camp?

Yes, the first ones we took. They measured at 150k in the beginning and currently they are sitting at 250,000 ppm. The methane is increasing. My guess is, its the permafrost melting and the releasing the gas, said Greg.

Did Michael order an evacuation? Asked John.

Yes. That's why I'm here with the ATV. We've got to leave this place before something bad happens. Our lab trailer here is staying put. It sunk 3 inches on the west side today, no time to pull it out. Hop on.

John got onto the back of the ATV and Greg sped back to camp following the shoreline. The interior of the island was getting muddier by the hour, permafrost getting softer with the sun beating down on it like the smith's hammer upon the hot steel.

They were at the camp site within 10 minutes. Everyone was seen to be packing things up and moving instruments onto the boats. A ship was anchored just of the coast, waiting to take escaping scientists on board. They were lucky the ship was here. It was bringing them extra supplies for the next three months and was scheduled to leave tomorrow morning. Now, they were packing everything back onto the ship, trying to escape the advancing methane gas.

A few people had started to complain of headaches and dizziness. John knew that these were the first signs of methane poisoning. Soon disorientation would set it and if not removed from this area the person was certain to be asphyxiated. Those with headaches and dizziness symptoms were moved to ship straight away. The captain sent back a few gas masks and John saw his American colleagues wearing them already.

Greg got off the ATV and walked toward the sleeping quarters trailer. John followed him knowing that most of the packing had bee done and all that was left for him to do was pack his personal suitcase and get back onto the ship.

Greg, John. How are you guys feeling? A tall man, wearing a blue jacket and a green gas mask approached them from the lab trailer. His voice sounded muffled and John didn't recognize it first. The walk gave the man away though. Confident, with long strides, it was the walk of a man who was accustomed to being in charge. Dr. Sean Macey of University of Alaska was their team leader. He had been running this expedition for the past four years and throughout his long career studying the Arctic earned a nickname Dr. North.

We're doing fine Dr. Macey, answered John for both of them. At least I am, sorry, you feeling OK Greg? asked John, feeling guilty for assuming that Greg was feeling fine also. Greg nodded in reply.

Good, good, the muffled voice sounded relieved. We're almost done here. Get your things and report to Dr. Price over at the boat station. We need to get out of here before any serious damage is done.

No problem, replied Greg.

Yea, we'll be out in a jiffy, confirmed John. Both he and Greg hurried over the trailer to pack their things. Dr. Macey turned back to the lab trailer, pausing for a second before continuing his assignment.

They gathered their things quickly. Since they've been living in cramped quarters during this expedition, all members had their personal belongings stuffed in their suitcases. There were no shelves or closets to unpack their clothes into, even though each of them had a separate compartment to pass the long hours in some solitude. As they gathered their personal things, they had to keep the door propped open in order to let some fresh air circulate inside the trailer. Greg left it open, saying that he didn't want methane gas to accumulate. An ocean breeze was always felt at their camp site and now it was keeping both of them from being poisoned inside their quarters.

Gregg, John! It was Dr. Macey again. We're about done here, waiting for you to get you butts in gear and get out to the boat station.

We're coming out, said John, as he emerged from the trailer with his suitcase in hand and a backpack on his back. Greg followed him closely. Are we going to leave the methane sensors here, to monitor the progress?

Yes, they've already been set up, we've been monitoring them from the ship since this morning, answered Dr. Macey. After we all get on board, I want to have a meeting to discuss our current predicament. The levels of methane in the soil have been rising steadily for the past month, but in the last few days they've shot up drastically. I want to know why.

They walked toward the boat station. John could see a few of his colleagues and the crew from the ship loading the last of the boxes and suitcases onto the two remaining boats. Far off in the distance, he could see another two boats already on their way back to the ship.

Have we been monitoring methane levels in the air? asked John.

No, we've only started doing it this morning. We've had no reason to before, said Dr. Macey. The past week we've also seen temperatures soar all over the island, and we've had reports from other Arctic stations, most importantly from Greenland, that temperatures have gone up two to four degrees Celsius in the past few days alone. I know there's a correlation there, but we need to analyze the data to prove it.

John walked thoughtfully, weighing up all the facts. For the past week, he had been out in the interior of the island collecting soil samples. His ATV got stuck in the thawing permafrost and he had to walk back to camp the last twenty miles. While walking, he had to unzip his jacket and take off his hat to cool himself off. Pools of water were forming rapidly in places where large chunks of ice lay previously. The only two things missing in that picture were budding trees and soft, green grass. A strange sight for the middle of winter.

When Greg wen to get him this morning, he was trying to have a relaxing day by the sea, enjoying the cool air by the water. After all, walking 20 miles in what seemed like summer heat wave was not easy anymore. His ripe, old age of forty five was beginning to show its ugly face.

The weather had changed, he knew that. For the past ten years he knew that. He knew it when the climate models were proven wrong the first time. Back then, in 2012, the sea ice cover was recorded at the lowest area ever. The models did not predict that happening until 2040s at the earliest. Then, the first ice free summer in the Arctic came 3 years later. Again this event broke all of the model predictions. The Earth was warming at an ever increasing rate. The vicious feedback loop of more sea ice being lost and exposing more dark water and absorbing more of sun's energy brought on more severe weather fluctuations. In the Arctic it led to a complete thawing of the permafrost. The methane released because of the thaw was the final shove needed to push the Earth's climate over the proverbial cliff. John knew all this. No figures were needed to prove this theory. This theory became a fact for John back in 2012.

We'll start heading back to Gjoa Haven today, Dr. Macey's voice brought John back to the campsite.

Yes, of course, said John. He loaded his suitcase and backpack on to the waiting boat. Greg was already on it, waiting for everyone else to get in. John got inside and set down on the bench at the head of the boat. As the boat sped back to the waiting ship, John turned around for the last look at the King William island. It moved steadily away from him, the shoreline disappearing first, then the trailers, then just a thin strip of land remained visible in the distance. Dark blue water surrounded and engulfed the island.