by William Tham Wai Liang

At a Glance:

This short personal essay is based on my experiences traveling in Canada as an undergraduate, and how I began to understand the effects of climate change on northern regions of the country. In this essay, I discuss the rapidly changing climate in the Yukon Territory and the rise and fall of Fort McMurray, an oil boomtown, as told through my travel experiences in search of the aurora borealis, or northern lights.


I went in search of the Northern Lights twice.

One winter I found myself in Whitehorse, the quiet capital of the Yukon, sitting in a hostel where Japanese migrants played the guitar and sang Christmas songs to the amusement of the wanderers and adventurers who made the Yukon their new home. Everywhere I heard talk about it being a mild winter, nothing like the frigid ones that had set the backdrop for the writings of Jack London and Robert Service. A few streets down, the Yukon River was still gushing as the deepest winter edged forward, frigid currents sweeping under fragile ice encrusting the banks. In the afternoons brilliant sunshine lit up the town, at times so warm that I found myself sweating under the many jackets that I had piled on.

I was grateful for the warmth that kept the biting cold at bay, but it was symptomatic of the changing weather that has been happening over the past few years. Vancouver welcomed the Winter Olympics with a snowfall so paltry that fresh snow had to be airlifted or manufactured as cherry blossoms erupted [1]. Up in the Rockies the streets were largely clear, dusted with the slightest trace of winter snow, while the frozen rivers melted and gushed downstream [2]. In the far north, bushfires broke out as the weather warmed, threatening to melt permafrost that has remained perpetually frozen for millennia and ignite the released methane [3].

At night I struggled to find warmth in a cabin occupied by tourists from Europe and Hong Kong, drinking hot chocolate and struggling to stay awake. The cold clawed at my face each time I went outdoors, but after a few days I quickly became acclimated to the fluctuating temperatures each night. By the end of the trip, minus ten degrees Celsius felt almost warm, almost comfortable, after a few nights at minus twenty degrees. But still the chill that seeped into the bones of my gloved hands remained when I tried to sleep under layers of blankets.

I saw nothing that first night and every night thereafter.

Successfully sighting the northern lights is known to be unpredictable—contingent on a variety of atmospheric and cosmic factors—and for me they stayed hidden by clouds and light pollution. But though I could not glimpse the northern lights during this trip, they still shone brightly and will be a constant of the north, despite the escalating climate change. The entire geography of the north is vanishing, with sea ice retreating faster than all models predicted, and along with it ecologies and civilizations, bringing the potential of calamitous environmental disasters and geopolitical wars [4].


My second attempt to see the northern lights found me in Fort McMurray, the former oil capital of Canada.

Up in the far reaches of Alberta, where even the roads run out close to the border of the Northwest Territories, the city of Fort McMurray boomed [5]. The drifters and job-seekers of the province gravitated to the north, hungry for high-paying jobs. A fortune was waiting to be made in the oil industry—with oil hitting more than $100 per barrel the costly extraction process from tar sands was finally profitable. High prices meant that the expense incurred in extracting oil could finally be covered, and the province lost no time capitalising on its massive reserves. Vast stretches of land were overrun by machinery and toxic tailing ponds, with companies generously pumping millions of dollars into infrastructure that had to support over 50,000 migrants. On the public bus that wound past shopping malls and suburbs that had emerged out of what had once been backwoods only a decade before, the insatiable search for energy edged further and further north.

Suncor led the pack, dominating a town where direct flights to Las Vegas and expensive drugs were viable forms of entertainment. In the summers they flew dozens of interns into the area, each one of them paid an amount that roughly converts to RM100 per hour, with free accommodation in luxurious apartments thrown in [6]. I stayed overnight in a brand new suburb with a friend who was working there for several months. I mentioned how I wanted to see the northern lights and was assured that they appeared every other night.

Again, I saw nothing, but in truth I was more reluctantly fascinated by the area’s boomtown atmosphere.

Not much remains of it today. After oil prices crashed, extracting oil from tar sands became unprofitable [7]. Thousands lost their jobs and wandered back south, investments and hopes wiped out. The following year, in the early months of spring, a devastating fire broke out [8]. It was unusual but symptomatic of how climate change caused unpredictable effects. The unexpected could now happen with depressing regularity. In a matter of days almost nothing remained of Fort McMurray.

On my way back, in the darkness, rows of tankers and refineries stretched along the highway. A direct pipeline of greed from north to south. An interconnected, self-destructive world was building itself. I looked towards the night sky, vaguely wondering if anything would appear. But all I saw were the glow of orange streetlamps.


[1] Goldenberg, S. (2010). Canada’s mild climate leaves Winter Olympics short of snow. The Guardian, 10 February 2010.

[2] Personal observation. Jasper, Alberta (2014).

[3] Yukon Permafrost Knowledge Network. Website. Accessed 20 October 2016.

[4] Struzik, Ed. The Big Thaw: travels in the Melting North. John Wiley and Sons, Mississauga, ON. 2009.

[5] Nikiforuk, A. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Douglas and Macintyre and the David Suzuki Foundation. 2009.

[6] Personal observation. Fort McMurray, Alberta (2014).

[7] Markusoff, J. The death of the Alberta dream. Maclean’s. 6 January 2016.

[8] Mooney, C. (2016). Fort McMurray fire a carbon catastrophe. The Star, 20 May 2016.

About the Author:

William Tham Wai Liang is the current creative nonfiction editor of the Vancouver-based Ricepaper magazine, and graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Biochemistry. He has co-authored several articles that have appeared in Health and the Journal of Global Antimicrobial Resistance, and his first novel, Kings of Petaling Street, will be published in London in 2017. To find out more about the author please visit his Scientific Malaysian profile at

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