On the map, Cape Sheridan is a tiny, almost imperceptible dimple on a smoothly curving coastline, barely worthy of a name—a pile of windblown rock, battered by ice and wind.
The following excerpt is taken from Crocodiles and Ice: A Journey Into Deep Wild, by Jon Turk and published by Oolichan Press. As the narrative unfolds, Erik Boomer and I are circumnavigating Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. It is now mid-summer and, about half way through the journey, we are rounding the northeast corner of the Island.
Yet, as we turned our course a few compass degrees from southeast to a little more southerly, in what seemed like barely more than an eye-blink, after 60 days, and 800 miles, I looked out into the Strait and saw a ragged jumble of ice that was more rubbly than anything we’d ever seen—too rubbly to even consider dragging our boats across, as there were no level surfaces anywhere. It was beauty and fear wrapped together into glistening silent whiteness, like a deadly horizontal avalanche frozen into immobility. As a scientist, I could explain how the ice was crammed into this place by a global current, driven by temperature and salinity differences and the spin of the earth. But the feeling was one of instant smallness, as if I were now the mouse, squeaking pitifully into the inscrutable Arctic vastness, as if it could listen and had consciousness, “I’ve done my best, all that I can do. Mentally and physically. I’m just a little human after all. I am honored to be here. To experience this. It would be nice, in a way, if you didn’t kill us.”
We paddled until our open water lead closed out, and then dragged the boats onto shore to decide what to do next. And then, as if someone clicked off the pause button on a cosmic video, the entire icepack began to move. This frozen ocean, that we had walked over and camped on, that had been our own private continent for two months, stable and secure underfoot, had now, in this instant, morphed into a dynamic maelstrom of independent chunks that were moving: mushing, grinding, smashing and smearing together. We stopped and listened to the whooshing, cracking, and tinkling that sounded like rumbling thunder choreographed with breaking wine glasses and melodious lullabies. This was the Nares Strait, which Tyler and I had feared over laptops and lattes in Hood River Oregon on that bright, warm, lazy summer day seemingly so many eons ago. This was the icepack that had crushed the stout oaken ships of the western navies during the great Age of Discovery.
It almost made me seasick, as if an earthquake had occurred and solid rock was undulating in a wave, as if reality itself, which had been solid and predictable for so long, was now, suddenly, in chaos. I blinked in disbelief and asked Boomer, “Did the entire ocean of ice just now jostle free and begin to flow? This second? Or had we been so unobservant five minutes before that we hadn’t noticed this massive and critical change in our world?”
Boomer didn’t answer. He just stared out to sea, hands uncharacteristically hanging loosely by his side, useless appendages that they now appeared to be.
Tipping points occur because systems, of all sizes and compositions, usually don’t change in a linear manner with perturbation. They are so common in everyday life that we have popular sayings to describe this concept: “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”, “pushed to the edge”, “the match in the powder barrel”.
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