***Winner of the 2019 Best of the Northwest Science Writing Award from the Northwest Science Writers Association.***
Inuit in Canada and Greenland want to protect an ecological wonder—a massive Arctic polynya—at the center of their world.
The little auks are hard to spot among the rocky rubble that lines the shore of northwest Greenland. The black-and-white birds—diminutive relatives of the puffin—flicker and bob around the noisy colonies, looking for a mate with which they will lay a single egg. But when a gyrfalcon swoops low over a bouldery slope, the birds take flight en masse, darkening the skies with their numbers. Some 33 million pairs accounting for more than 80 percent of the world’s breeding population come here each spring.
The little auks also come to feast. They spend the nightless days diving between icebergs for tiny crustaceans called copepods to feed their chicks. While most of the northern oceans remain frozen in early summer, this wedge of sea between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island usually boasts a vast polynya—an opening in the sea ice—that teems with life. European whalers called it the North Water. But the Inuit who live here have long called it the Pikialasorsuaq [peek-yayla-sor-swakh], or the Great Upwelling.