Saturday, February 2, 2008

Man ... it's cold out there!

If you are a resident of northern or western Canada you will be well-aware of the current deep-freeze we’re experiencing. Air temperatures have been close to the minus 40C mark, with wind-chill temperatures approaching minus 60C. The implications of this will be obvious to any Canadian; minor frost-bite walking into the wind on the way to work, heating fuel being converted to CO2 as fast as I can earn money to buy the stuff, weight gain and a general malaise as a result of being confined indoors in front of the TV, and other minor annoyances.

Fortunately, we live in a warm, well-built house. Should the boiler or electric power fail, we have a wood-stove as back-up, a gas-lamp and candles for light and a Coleman stove for cooking. However, the boiler keeps chugging away, carrying my wages up the chimney and, because each community in Nunavut has a small, simple and self-contained generating system without any long-distance power-lines or complicated grids, the electricity is more reliable here than in the south, despite the extreme environmental conditions.

Still, one does get a sense, amid the arctic deep-freeze, of our vulnerability to a major calamity. It’s probably something that few people give any thought to, but perhaps we should.

To put it simply, if the supply of fossil fuel were disrupted by a major war or a world-wide economic or environmental disaster, the Canadian arctic would be pushed back into the stone-age in but a few short months. Essentially, it would become un-inhabitable, even (perhaps especially) for the Inuit, who are now no better-equipped than the “Europeans” to survive being deprived of the basic elements of life. Like it or not, oil is the lynch-pin without which the whole house-of-cards comes crashing down around our ears in very short order. At the very least, ninety-nine percent of the people presently living here would have to abandon the arctic in favour of warmer climes, and the few survivalists left behind, if any, would be living a short life under the same severe conditions as their ancestors, without the required skills and moral fortitude.

Though I would be the first to applaud the advances that have been made in science and industry that have given us the easy, safe and long lives we currently enjoy, as I get older I’m becoming more and more of a skeptic.

Is global warming a reality? Only if you believe that scientists know what the future holds, and scientists are no better at predicting the future than any three-year old. Do we have enough oil? Who knows – oil is as much about politics as it is about money. Admitting to a shortage will panic the public, admitting to an over-abundance will drive the price down. Will there be another world-war, or another Great Depression? Will an asteroid hit the earth, wiping out the dinosaurs (us!)?

At any rate, it does no good to dwell on these issues, we must simply get on with our lives, seemingly unaware, while the future comes hurtling toward us. That’s life, I guess.

Still, one wonders if the real calamity on the road to man’s future might well be not the burning of fossil fuel but the running out thereof. There is nothing in the pipe to replace oil. Nuclear power is still non grata to a large segment of the public, large-scale hydo-power creates its own environmental devastation, wind is too unreliable and solar is too expensive. Airplanes and ships can’t run on anything but fossil fuel and therefore global commerce and travel would grind to a halt without oil.

We have both wind and solar power at our cabin, but you cannot create heat with such small-scale generation. We still need oil and propane to warm our bodies and cook our food.

Prior to the Second World War, the few white traders, trappers and Hudson's Bay people in the arctic heated their homes with coal. I imagine they would not have tolerated or survived living the stone-age existence of the Inuit. From that basic fossil fuel we have “progressed” to oil furnaces, diesel trucks to deliver our water, diesel generators to provide our power, jet fuel for our aircraft, gasoline for our snowmobiles, boats and ATV’s. We simply can’t live without the stuff! It is oil that forms the basis of many of the medicines we take. Without oil there is no plastic and without plastic almost all of our consumer goods disappear. Without oil there is no way to make the Doritos or the aluminum cans for our Coca-Cola – and no Coca-Cola either.

It is not in the nature of human beings to voluntarily go backward. We have never done that in the tens of thousands of years of our evolution. We will not easily give up what we have gained. All the global-warming rhetoric aside, we will continue to burn fossil fuel at a faster and faster rate, we will not give more than a passing thought to the environmental damage being caused as a result, and we will not conserve. Instead, we will charge ahead into the future without much thought to our own self-destructive tendencies, until a point is reached where we have no choice but to go backward.

It isn’t going to happen next Tuesday, but it will happen one day.

So … who’s gonna win the Super Bowl?



Cam-Bay said...

I find it ironic that Canada, the producer of the Slow Poke Reactor has never put one in the north. Instead we sell them to the third world.
Just think, resupply every twenty years by plane.
Maybe not for every community but at least for the larger ones.



Larry said...

You're right. There are small, safe nuclear reactors out there, the Slow Poke being an excellent example. I think we will eventually accept this technology.

With all the money spent on diesel fuel and "experimenting" with wind-technology that has proven itself to be as impractical as ever, we could have had a pilot nuclear project up and running in (near?) a Nunavut community years ago.

jennifer of nunablog said...

I also find it strange that the wind is not used as an energy resource up here but I don't know enough about wind turbine technology to say that there isn't a good reason for that - why is it impractical? I see using the sun as impractical because it only appears half the year, but it's damn windy up here.

A very small part of me is looking forward to the end of oil. As horrible as it will be for people, we will get exactly what we deserve. When it does happen, Ian and I will hopefully be sitting fairly comfortably in our off-grid home (which could not have been built without oil) eating preserves and trying desperately not to shout at everyone "I told you so". Hey, I'd rather be wrong on this one, but I'm a global warming, end-of-oil, end-of-life-as-we-know-it believer.

Larry said...


At this point in history wind is only practical on a small scale. Your future cabin, like the one I have on the Coppermine River, can store a small amount of electrical power in batteries. This is not possible (yet) for an entire town. The wind is intermittent, so some means of storage is necessary.

Also, wind is unreliable. A town couldn't take a chance that the wind might stop completely for a week. So a diesel plant would still be required, ready to go when required.

Also, large-scale wind power plants are very expensive to build, difficult to maintain, and will not work at all in some locations. Wind-power is far from cheap.

There have been wind generators in Cambridge Bay for three decades. I don't think they are working at all now, and never worked properly from the get-go. We had two here in Kugluktuk - one fell down (shoddy installation) the other runs only occasionally and at peak capacity produces only enough power for ten of our 200 houses. All that for a price tag that would have built those ten badly-needed houses.

I'm guessing that, at present, the capital cost of a diesel plant is less than a a wind farm. The operating cost might favour wind by a small margin.

Unfortunately, the politicians who hold the purse strings, are not well-known for their vision. It's the here-and-now that they care about.


Larry said...


Just to further stir the pot (you know how much I enjoy that!), let me add that I think you might under-estimate how pervasive is our need for oil. Being off-the-grid and consuming no oil at all doesn't mean you'll be in the least immune to the negative effects.

I can see that if you were a strict survivalist, growing your own food and "living off the land", your need for oil would be limited. But that would be a pretty lousy existence in my view. No telephones, no radio or TV, no internet, no computer - all the parts for these require oil; no travel except by horse or on foot (electric cars perhaps - IF you can generate the power to recharge but what about when you have to replace those batteries? The manufacture and transportation of batteries requires oil.

I could go on and on, but I'm not sure I'd want to live as my great-great grandparents did. They had the advantage of not knowing any better, but I think present-day humans would find it difficult or impossibe to regress to a world without medical care, life-saving drugs, higher education (unless the university was within walking distance of your home, etc.)

Personally, I like all my toys, and most run on and are made with/by oil derivatives.

There is a strongly-held belief among many scientists that children being born today may be the last generation to experience cheap air travel. In the near-future, only the super-rich will be able to afford to fly in the few airplanes that will be left when oil gets scarce.

It is possible that this is as good as it gets. We may well be at the peak in terms of a standard-of-living that is all the result of oil and dependant on oil for its continuity.


jennifer of nunablog said...

No COMPUTER!!!! No INTERNET?? SSSHHHH....don't tell Ian, he'll freak. Hee hee.

Good points, Larry. Life will be very difficult. I don't want to give up my toys either, but at least I'm not in complete denial about the end of oil. So many people just keep chugging it back as if it were an endless resource. I wonder if in another million years, if the earth is still supporting life, a second "oil civilization" will emerge, tapping our decomp juices.

Did I hear/read that there were mini-nuclear reactors being "test driven" by an arctic community?

Larry said...

The Russians may be doing it in their arctic, but I believe that many years ago our north was declared a "nuclear-free zone" by the government of Canada.

Unless the Inuit want to go back to heating with a rock and a piece of blubber and hauling things around on two sticks, I think that policy will eventually have to change!

At the present I think the north has only two choices if we want to get off the oil addiction: large-scale hydro, or nuclear. Neither of those options is politically-acceptable right now, but when the lights start going out there will be a change-of-heart.

Clare said...

Hey Larry,

Love the picture of the Fort Hearne. Keep up the excellent thought provoking writing.

Larry said...

Thanks, Clare.

The Fort Hearne would look a lot better riding at anchor in front of Arctic Bay, though!

I must admit that writing my blog is a lot more difficult now that I'm forced to choose "safe" topics.

Usukyuak said...

Slow Poke?
I thought the oil companies shut
that down ages ago.

Amazing to hear that it is alive still.


Jerry said...

Larry..I really enjoy reading your blog especially flying around in your ultra lite. I'm a wanna be exployer/adventurist,man vs nature lover of the search for the Northwest Passage kinda guy.My dream is to spend some time in the great outdoors. Keep writing about your travels and exploits. I write a blog called Trips