The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet - Heidi Cullen (2010)
Part II. The Weather of the Future
Chapter 8. The Arctic, Part One: Inuit Nunaat, Canada
Shari Gearheard had just returned from the 2009 Nunavut Quest dogsled race when I finally managed to catch up with her.
“I’ve now completed the Master Ninja course in sea ice travel and I’m 2 inches shorter for it,” Gearheard said, laughing. Master Ninja is her description of an amazing six-week trip that took her 1,500 miles around Baffin Island. Her husband drove their dog team in the 400-mile race from Arctic Bay to Pond Inlet; and Gearheard, as part of the support crew, drove ahead on a snowmobile. This mix of tradition and technology—a dogsled and a snowmobile—defines life in the Arctic today. And it’s safe to say that over those six weeks Gearheard saw, and felt, just about every kind of sea ice. “It gets pretty bumpy out there sometimes,” she says. Like a lot of things in the Arctic, the sea ice is far more complex than it seems to be at first glance; this is why Gearheard finds it best to study the Arctic up close and in person.
If there were only two types of people in this world, summer and winter, Gearheard would definitely qualify as a winter person. “It started in childhood,” she explains. “I loved winter and I loved the snow. When I was little, I used to get in trouble from my mom because one of my favorite things to do was to go by the side of our house where these big snowdrifts would form and I would just dig a big snow cave into the drift and go to sleep. She always worried that I would get trapped or something.” Gearheard, now in her thirties, is a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I suspect everyone else is a winter person, too. Gearheard telecommutes to NSIDC from Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic, where she and her husband, Jake, live full time.
In Inuktitut, one of the local Inuit dialects spoken in Nunavut, Inuit means the people and Nunavut means our land. Nunavut is the largest and perhaps best-known of the four Inuit territories that make up the Canadian Arctic. Collectively, they are called the Inuit Nunaat. The other three territories are Nunavik in the northern portion of Quebec, Nunatsiavut along the coastal region of Labrador, and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories. Gearheard’s research is focused on collaborating with Inuit communities to document their knowledge of the environment and environmental change, and to link that knowledge with science. Part of her work includes understanding the impact of climate change on communities and how the Inuit are responding. You might say the dog team is part of her research, but it has also become part of her life.
“I’ve always loved sled dogs,” she says. “When we moved here, good friends who have a dog team would take us out with them. And sometimes they would let us drive their dogs. We absolutely loved it.” Gearheard and her husband thought about getting a team, but were intimidated by the amount of work involved. “Everything is made by hand,” she explains: “the harnesses, the leads, the dog whip, along with learning all the commands. It’s a major commitment.” But one day, those same friends showed up and presented them with Siqaliq, a beautiful Inuit sled dog with an exceedingly large belly. “They said, ‘Here you go; your team is going to be born in about two weeks. So you’d better get working,’ ” Gearheard says, laughing. And with that, she and her husband got to work.
They fixed up a dog pen and house for the puppies. Another elder in the community gave them two more dogs; they purchased two from a local hunter; and soon their dog team was on its way. “Puppies grow so fast. So all of a sudden we had ten hungry dogs to feed,” she adds. And needless to say, there’s no Pet Smart in Nunavut. “Our dogs eat seal meat, so we’ve become novice seal hunters,” Gearheard explains. “It’s our life now. All of our free time is spent with our dogs.” The dog team now has twenty stunning Inuit sled dogs, called gimmiit in Inuktitut; this is the same breed used by early Inuit to cross the Bering Strait 1,000 years ago. Actually, there are twenty sled dogs and one seal hunting, sea ice Master Ninja. Not bad for a kid from, as the Inuit say, down south.
For more than 5,000 years, the Inuit have occupied the vast territory stretching from the shores of the Chukchi Peninsula of Russia, east across Alaska and Canada, to the southeastern coast of Greenland. People from down south have come and gone over time, mostly to take things like whale, white fox, copper, or oil back home with them. In the meantime, the Inuit have taken this cold place, which sometimes seems barren and endlessly dark, and made a home out of all the ice and snow.
Inuit history is preserved and passed down through an oral tradition, the telling of stories. On the basis of this tradition, the Inuit believe that about 5,000 years ago, what they call the Sivullirmiut, or first people, began to move east from Alaska.1 (Archaeologists use the terms Pre-Dorset and Dorset to describe these ancient Inuit people.) In less than 1,000 years, these early people traveled across the ice from the north coast of Alaska, across Canada, all the way to southern Greenland. Their camps were located in places where the hunting was good; and the bones they left behind suggest that the Sivullirmiut hunted seals, walrus, caribou, and ducks. Depending on the season, they collected clams, mussels, fish, seaweed, bird eggs, and berries. The Sivullirmiut also used delicate needles, made of bird bones, to make boots and clothes from the skins of seal, caribou, and polar bears. They made lamps from soapstone and used these for heat and light; perhaps they even cooked meat in soapstone pots. Unlike the Inuit of today, these early people didn’t have dogsleds or large boats. Without dogsleds they were unable to cover long distances, and without large boats to hunt whales, their communities remained small.
By about a.d. 1000, the Thule people developed the large open skin boat known as the umiaq, as well as the harpoon that allowed them to begin hunting whales (or at least they are credited with having done so). The Thule people also used dogs and dogsleds for long-distance travel across the ice. Inuit tradition represents thousands of years of cultural developments through which the Inuit have come to master the very tough Arctic climate. Where many of us might see only vast sheets of ice, the Inuit saw endless possibilities. Lacking trees, they built igloos for winter housing out of snow, and they burned whale and seal blubber both for fuel and for lamps. They stretched sealskins over frameworks to build kayaks as well as umiaqs big enough to take out into unprotected water to hunt whales. The Inuit are the most flexible and sophisticated hunters in Arctic history and have adapted to shifts in climate with very little difficulty. This is why Gearheard and others are so interested to see how the Inuit, an ancient people who have built their lives around ice and snow, are responding to climate change.
Shifts in climate are not unfamiliar to the Inuit. It was during the Medieval Warm Period, from about a.d. 800 to 1300, that the Thule pushed east into northwestern Greenland from Canada. They were probably following the bowhead whale as the sea ice that had permanently closed off the channels between the northern Canadian islands during colder times finally began to melt in the summer. After the Medieval Warm Period came the Little Ice Age, and by the 1400s this brief return to colder conditions was well established. The Little Ice Age proved to be of little significance to the Inuit. The extra ice simply presented them with the opportunity to hunt ringed seals. In the meantime, at the Norse settlements in Greenland, settlers were still trying to grow hay and graze livestock.2 Their inability to adapt to a changing climate ultimately proved fatal. Those early Viking colonies on Greenland have long since disappeared, suggesting that those of us from down south may have a thing or two to learn about resilience and adaptability from the Inuit.
Despite its harshness, the climate was never really a problem for the Inuit. It was the disease and alcohol brought by southern whalers and fur traders that almost took them out. Encounters between the Inuit and Europeans began in the late 1500s, when the first explorers sailed into the frigid waters of Davis Strait, Hudson Strait, and Hudson Bay. Although these first encounters were few and far between, they mark the eventual transition into what the Inuit call the period of contact—the period of taking. But the Europeans also brought a few things with them. Starting in the 1700s, the whalers and missionaries began to make their way north, and by 1850 they had become an almost permanent presence in the Arctic. The year-round settlement brought diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis, which killed so many Inuit. The religion brought by the missionaries also left an impact on the Inuit. During his stay in the Frobisher Bay area in 1861–1862, the American explorer Charles Francis Hall wrote about the health of the Inuit and issued his own forecast:
The days of the Inuit are numbered. There are very few of them left now. Fifty years may find them all passed away, without leaving one to tell that such a people ever lived.3
Needless to say, this forecast proved incorrect. But after a few centuries of contact, the Europeans had not only pushed the whale to the brink of extinction but also pushed the Inuit. As whales became harder to find, they were no longer profitable for commercial whalers; and for the Inuit, an important traditional source of food was endangered. Luckily, the market for whale oil and ambergris used in lamps and perfume was being replaced by a market for kerosene and synthetics. And as a result, some whaling captains and crews turned to trapping the arctic fox.
Today, through a process that began on April 1, 1999, with the establishment of Nunavut, the Canadian Arctic is officially recognized as the home of the Inuit in Canada. And since the establishment of Nunatsiavut in 2005, all four of the traditional Inuit territories have been covered by land claim agreements that establish regional autonomy within Canada. The Inuit may finally be in control of the Arctic; but as it turns out, the Arctic climate is being influenced from points farther south.
With only 152,000 people across the Arctic and limited industrial activity, there is little the Inuit can do to slow or stop global warming, because they contribute so little to total global greenhouse gas emissions.4 But nonetheless, they are feeling its impact. The Inuit may have been able to withstand the smaller climate changes of the past, but what’s happening in the present is a different story altogether.
Until recently, little was known about Inuit perspectives on climate change. In the mid-1990s, after speaking with elders and surveying the scientific literature, Gearheard found only a few references to Inuit knowledge of climate change. Also, she had begun to notice that although some researchers documented the impact of climate change on subsistence hunting practices, they didn’t try to find out how community members felt about it. So Gearheard spent the next several years traveling back and forth between her home in the south and the Inuit communities of Igloolik, Baker Lake, and Clyde River in Nunavut. Through her conversations with hunters and elders—first using a translator and eventually starting to communicate on her own, speaking Inuktitut—she began to learn about Inuit knowledge and observations of weather, climate, and climate change. During one of her conversations, an elder in Igloolik, Zacharias Aqqiaruq, described the weather as uggianaqtuq. This Inuktitut word was later explained to Gearheard by a worker at the local research center:
For example, I’m very close with my sister. Say I wasn’t feeling myself one day and I went to go visit her. As soon as I walk in the room, or say something, she would know right away that something is wrong. She would ask me, “Is there something wrong with you?” She would say I was uggianaqtuq. I was not myself.
—T. Iyerak, Igloolik, 20005
Later, Gearheard would hear other opinions about the definition of uggianaqtuq. For example, it was said to be a reference to people fighting, tension, extreme heat, or something unseasonable or untimely. The root of the word may refer to a dog taking something in its mouth and shaking it. Another suggestion is that the word refers to something being eaten by lice. Though there are many suggested meanings for the word—unexpected, unfamiliar, fighting, tension, unseasonable, untimely, being ripped apart—interestingly, they all connect in some way to the changes Inuit have been experiencing in their environment in recent years. This was something Gearheard would hear again and again. The weather had become a stranger; it was no longer itself.
In 2004, after having worked with Inuit communities for a decade, Gearheard and her husband, Jake, made the decision to move north to Baffin Island and experience these changes and work with the Inuit firsthand. They live in Clyde River—Kangiqtugaapik in Inuktitut—a small Inuit community of about 850 people, and they are among the very few non-Inuit inhabitants who live there. In fact, they were the only non-Inuit team in the Nunavut Quest dogsled race. Clyde River is about 280 miles north of the Arctic Circle and is surrounded by some of the most dramatic fjords and cliffs in the world. The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line in latitude separating hard-core winter people from the rest of us. It is where the sun remains above the horizon at the summer solstice and remains below the horizon at the winter solstice. The Latin word solstice roughly translates into sun stand still. For Clyde River, that means the sun drops below the horizon around the middle of November and does not reappear again until the end of January. In December there is only about one hour of twilight each day. But come spring, Clyde River receives twenty-four hours of sunlight from the end of May until the end of August. It must be an amazing place in July, when the average high temperature is about 47°F and the sun never sets. But December, when darkness sets in and the average high is about -6°F, would be a different story.
Gearheard and her husband provide an interesting study in contrast. “There are some social issues in the community that are really tough,” Gearheard explains. And it is these issues that her husband works on with other community members at Ilisaqsivik Society, a wellness and family resource center started by the community itself more than ten years ago. Issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, and suicide are not uncommon in Inuit life. “Ilisaqsivik focuses on developing people’s strengths and providing a lot of counseling and healing programs,” Gearheard explains.
Compared with the longer timescales associated with climate change, these issues confront Inuit communities on a daily basis, and Gearheard is careful to keep her perspective. “Compared to something like, ‘I can’t feed my kids today,’ climate change doesn’t feel very immediate,” says Gearheard. “Although I think people here care about climate change a lot, they definitely separate what is natural climate variability and what is not. I have often heard an elder say, ‘We always had years when the sea ice was late or the sea ice broke up early, but it didn’t happen eight years in a row.’”
What [I] have noticed . . . in the last five to eight years, [is that] when it should be freezing up . . . it becomes overcast, snow starts falling for a long period of time . . . that affects freeze-up . . . whenever it’s overcast the temperature rises a bit, freeze-up doesn’t occur as quickly.
—N. Arnatsiaq, Igloolik, 20046
The climate isn’t the only thing changing in the Arctic. Within a single lifetime, the Inuit have gone from living off the land to a wage economy. They are attempting to balance two very different lifestyles: one of sled dogs and subsistence hunting, the other of ski-doos and soda pop. Almost all of us can relate to this clash of tradition and modern convenience.
“The food here is insanely expensive,” says Gearheard. “A loaf of bread can cost $8; a small box of Tide costs $35.” Much of the healthier food is more reasonably priced because it’s subsidized. But soda pop, for example, is not subsidized. “A can of pop can be $5,” Gearheard says, “especially when you get into summer and supplies are dwindling. The supply ship only comes once a year.” As a result, Gearheard and her husband, along with many families in Clyde River and throughout the Arctic, have come to rely on a commercial air freight service called Food Mail that is based in Quebec.7 “They basically do your shopping for you. You send a list by e-mail or fax and they shop it all up and get it together and package it,” Gearheard says. Food Mail has a contract with the Canadian government, which subsidizes the service. “So you send in your list on Monday and it comes on Thursday,” explains Gearheard. “You can get all kinds of fresh vegetables, essentially everything you can get down south.”
“In the past, prior to settlement, people didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t a question of whether you wanted to hunt,” says Tristan Pearce, a graduate student finishing his PhD at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “It was a question of whether you wanted to eat.” But now the Inuit are faced with choosing between their traditional lifestyle and modern conveniences and the result is often a blend of the two. “Now it’s a question of do you want to eat country foods like seal, musk-ox and whale or do you want to go to the store and buy processed foods.”
Pearce works in the town of Ulukhaktok, formerly Holman, in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. Ulukhaktok is a coastal community of approximately 430 people located on the west coast of Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories. It evolved as a permanent settlement starting in 1939, with the establishment of a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trading post and a Roman Catholic mission near the location of the current settlement. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the regional population continued to live in isolated hunting and trapping camps and came to Ulukhaktok several times a year to trade furs and socialize. The federal government shipped three housing units to Ulukhaktok in 1960 and another four in 1961. In the years to follow, some families moved to Ulukhaktok permanently, but others live there seasonally. Snowmobiles, satellite television, Christian churches, and a wage economy all brought profound social change to this group, traditionally known as the Copper Inuit. The Copper Inuit speak Inuinnaqtun, and Western Inuit from the Mackenzie Delta region who also live in Ulukhaktok speak Inuvialuktun. But now English is the dominant language for younger people.
Despite this modernization, the Inuit are the ultimate survivors, technologically sophisticated, extremely adaptable, and yet traditional at their core. Thanks to research by Gearheard, Pearce, and others, traditional Inuit knowledge of climate and weather is gaining more attention and much-deserved respect from within the broader scientific community.
For a long time, traditional knowledge of weather and climate was classified as anecdotal by western science, anecdotal being a code word for unscientific. Yet as we learn more about traditional knowledge of climate, and collaborate with indigenous peoples, scientists have gained a deeper understanding of the interconnections within our climate system. It turns out that old-fashioned firsthand observations have a very important place in the high-tech world of modern science.
A perfect example of how traditional knowledge works its way into Western science involves potato farmers in the Andes and El Niño. Climate scientists and anthropologists had long heard stories about traditional forecasts developed by Indian farmers in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia, dating back to the late sixteenth century. The anecdote went like this. Potato farmers would meet in small groups at each winter solstice in late June (the southern hemisphere winter) to discuss the planting date for the potato crop. Then, in total darkness, during the longest and coldest nights of the year, they would climb to a mountaintop in order to see the Pleiades, a star cluster in the constellation Taurus. The Pleiades are visible low in the sky to the northeast just before dawn. In years when the Pleiades looked big and bright, the farmers would plant potatoes at the usual time. But in years when the Pleiades looked small and dim, they would expect the rains to arrive late and be sparse, and so they would postpone planting by several weeks. The farmers were using the appearance of the Pleiades to forecast the timing and quantity of precipitation during the rainy season, several months later, beginning in October and extending through March.
Mark Cane, a professor at Columbia University, and John Chiang who at the time was his graduate student and is now a professor at Berkeley, were able to find the physics underlying this traditional forecast by using modern satellite data. Cane and Chiang knew there was a strong link between El Niño and precipitation in South America. Rainfall over the Andes is lower during El Niño years. This relationship is obvious for the three months of the year with the highest rainfall: December, January, and February. More important, rainfall in October is also diminished by El Niño, and this suggests that the rainy season starts later during El Niño years. But how could El Niño alter not just the weather but also the apparent brightness of the Pleiades in June, four months before the rainy season begins?
This was where modern technology became very useful. Using satellites capable of measuring cloud cover from space, Chiang showed that there was an increase in high clouds during El Niño years. Specifically, high clouds just to the northeast of the Andean highlands increased during late June, interfering with observers’ view of the Pleiades. In other words, the brightness of the Pleiades in late June indeed correlates with rainfall during the growing season for potatoes the following October through March.8 This climate forecast is one of many that have come to the attention of scientists, and it reinforces the importance and significance of traditional knowledge.
In the Arctic, traditional forecasts always come back to snow and ice. And unlike the Andean farmers, who were focused on potato yields, the Inuit are interested in elements that affect hunting. For example, they look at the time it takes for sea ice to reach a certain thickness, at wind strength, and at the relative timing of sea ice breakup and animal migrations. “Ice is extremely important because it is essentially the highway over which the Inuit travel to hunt,” says Pearce. Freeze-up generally occurs between the end of October and mid-November, and breakup usually occurs in late June or early July.9
Inuit travel by snow machine towing large sleds called alliaks in Inuinnaqtun or by dog team over the sea ice, river ice, and lake ice to reach a number of hunting areas, both on the land and on the ice. The coldest months of the year, December through March, are considered by community members to be the safest for travel, owing to the thickness and stability of the ice. During the win- ter, hunters in Ulukhaktok use the sea ice to hunt seals and polar bears, trap foxes, get to musk ox harvesting areas, and travel to neighboring communities. Traveling on the sea ice is inherently dangerous because of rough ice, cracks, open water leads, and storms, but hunters manage these risks by taking precautions and applying their knowledge of local ice conditions.
In the last several years, however, changes in the climate have altered and in some cases increased the magnitude and frequency of hazards that hunters have to deal with. In particular, some areas of sea ice, over which harvesters are accustomed to travel, are no longer stable, and in some instances the ice has not formed, because of strong winds and milder temperatures. Even experienced harvesters have encountered hazards in what are thought to be safe travel areas. Hunters are now often taking risks to travel on the sea ice even when it is melting or thin to reach hunting areas.10 Recently, several hunters have been stranded, injured, or forced to take alternative travel routes, or have had to deal with lost or damaged equipment (such as snow machines breaking through the ice) as a result of unexpected changes in weather and sea ice conditions.11 These are many of the same the types of issues Gearheard and her husband had to confront during their 400-mile dogsled race. I wonder if her mom still worries.
“Typically, before going out on the land or sea ice, hunters consult with other hunters and elders about sea ice and weather conditions. They observe the height and form of clouds, the brightness and movement of stars, and the direction and strength of wind, to attempt to forecast the weather in order to decide if it is safe to travel,” explains Pearce. Hunters also often consult satellite imagery of the sea ice and weather forecasts available on the Internet, merging traditional and new weather forecasting techniques. As for navigation, compasses are of little use in the Arctic because of its proximity to the magnetic north pole, and hunters often rely on traditional techniques such as observing snowdrifts, memorizing landforms, and using celestial navigation (stars) to guide them to their destination.
“For example, when hunters travel on the sea ice, they look at the direction and form of snowdrifts that are created by the wind. Snowdrifts indicate the prevailing wind, which hunters use to identify the direction they are traveling. When it is dark out or there is a blizzard, hunters can use snowdrifts to guide their dog team or snow machine in the direction they want to go, either crossing the snowdrifts or traveling alongside them, a traditional cruise control,” Pearce says.
When I was younger I remember that the ice freezes at the end of September, or the first week of October . . . now it freezes [in] late October, even [the] first week of November.
—H. Ittusardjuat, Igloolik, 200412
Long ago the cold gradually set in and the ice gets thicker. Now [there are] long spells of strong winds and the ocean can’t freeze up.
—H. Ittusardjuat, Igloolik, 200413
“I think that the clouds and the winds are two of the most common things that people use. And people talk a lot about how those have changed,” Gearheard explains. “What’s really interesting about the traditional forecasting is there’s no general set of rules that people use,” she adds. “What I’ve learned is that it’s very individual. People might use the same indicators, but the way they use them or read them is a little bit different for each person. The cloud formations, what kind of cloud they are, what direction they’re moving. And they also observe the different levels like lower clouds and upper clouds and how the clouds are formed in relation to what wind is blowing at the time.” In the Arctic, where the weather is a matter of life and death, each forecast is very personal.
This traditional knowledge is passed down through the generations and combined with repeated personal experience and observations. Each generation learns how to evaluate risks, what preparations to make before going out on the ice to hunt, and what to do in an emergency. Yet although the Inuit use traditional techniques to forecast the weather, a lot of people will also turn on the television or radio to check the weather forecast before they head out on the ice. “Most hunters use a blend of both traditional and new weather forecasting and navigational techniques, with the traditional techniques still holding precedence when push comes to shove,” says Pearce.
As this blend of the old and the new takes over, the younger generation loses its connection to traditional knowledge. Pearce attributes the decline partially to the southern educational system that has made its way into the Arctic. Hunting and traditional knowledge are not things teachers from the south bring with them. The less time the members of the younger generation spend hunting, the greater their dependence on wage employment, and the more they become separated from their elders. But the disconnect is also a matter of lack of “necessity.” After all, who needs to learn how to predict the weather if television does it for you?
Consequently, certain skills necessary for safe and successful harvesting are not being learned; these include traditional forms of navigation, knowledge of wildlife migration patterns, and the ability to make snow shelters. Also, weaker social networks compromise the ability to cope with changing climatic conditions. Although new technology and institutions can help fill the gap, these sometimes serve to further erode traditional knowledge.
It is more dangerous [for the younger generation] because they don’t know the conditions, what to avoid.
—Kautaq Joseph, Arctic Bay14
I think we have lost the skills so much. I mean, what would have not been dangerous for a man 50 years ago is now dangerous . . . because we have lost so many skills.
—James Ungalak, Igloolik15
We go to areas where we wouldn’t normally go because we are assured [by the GPS] we will know where we are. . . . We [also] take more chances.
—Nick Arnatsiaq, Igloolik16
The dog teams know the thin ice and the thicker ice so [people] know that they can walk through thin ice. Snowmobile doesn’t say, “Alert! This is thin ice.” So it’s more dangerous [by snowmobile] than by dog team.
—Herve Paniaq, Igloolik, 200417
If you don’t know the traditional knowledge, you won’t last very long: you will freeze to death if you don’t know how to survive.
—David Kalluk, Arctic Bay18
“Something that I find interesting,” Pearce says, “is that when I ask young hunters if they have traveled on the sea ice on their own or as the leader of a group, it’s seldom that someone un- der thirty-four says yes. It’s more common for someone to say that they have been out with their grandpa or other relative but not on their own.
“The sea ice has always been dangerous, but climate change has exacerbated some risks, and hazards associated with travel on the sea ice are becoming more common, such as thin and unstable ice in areas where it is expected to be thick. We’re seeing very experienced hunters go through the ice.”
But the problem is not just that the younger and the older generations are not communicating; it’s that some traditional ways of forecasting are beginning to fail.
The foundation of the wind has changed, it’s gone. The wind will now come from any direction, any time of day. Before you could predict [the wind] but not anymore: [the wind] will be from the south and then the same day the wind shifts direction.
—David Aqiaruq, Igloolik, 200619
The weather nowadays is unpredictable. You can check the five- day forecast but that doesn’t mean that’s the weather you’re going to get.
—G. Lundie, Churchill, 200620
“Inuit do recognize that there is knowledge erosion, but for weather forecasting the problem is not that they don’t know how to do it anymore; many people do,” Gearheard explains. “It’s that their forecasting techniques no longer fit the weather that’s happening now. And because forecasting the weather is literally a matter of life and death, they don’t want to teach it because it might put someone in harm’s way.”
Perhaps because of what Gearheard, Pearce, and others have seen personally, many scientists believe that cultural preservation, along with housing and infrastructure improvements, is an important way to help the Inuit simultaneously tackle the issues of climate change and cultural erosion.
The Inuit still hunt narwhals, ringed seals, walrus, beluga whales, arctic char, caribou, polar bears, and a variety of migratory birds.21 But they see changes in wildlife, too. Ringed seals, for instance, are believed to be particularly susceptible to climate change. They depend on the sea ice for pupping and snow cover in spring to build their birth lairs.22 All these conditions will be affected by climate change. Climate change is also likely to increase harvesting pressure on seals; easily accessible year-round near most Nunavut communities, seals become “fallback” prey when hunters cannot reach hunting grounds for other species. Caribou are also believed to be susceptible to climate change.
For the Inuit, climate change means greater risk and greater uncertainty. Their own observations have indicated changes in temperature and precipitation, permafrost, coastal erosion, and ice instability.23 For coastal communities such as Shishmaref in Alaska, perhaps the prime example of climate change in the Arctic, sea ice serves as a buffer against battering waves during severe Arctic storms. Inuit knowledge is already evolving in response to climate change. The increasing unpredictability of the weather and sea ice is becoming part of the collective social memory.
My aunt, Mable Tooli, said [to me]: “The Earth is faster now.” She was not meaning that the time is moving fast these days or that events are going faster. But she was talking about how all this weather is changing. Back in the old days they could predict the weather by observing the stars, the sky, and other events. The old people think that back then they could predict the weather pattern for a few days in advance. Not anymore! And my aunt was saying that because the weather patterns are [changing] so fast now, those predictions cannot be made anymore. The weather patterns are changing so quickly she could think the Earth is moving faster now.
—Caleb Pungowiyi, 200024
Scientists will tell you that climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet. They have been tracking the big picture across the Arctic using every high-tech tool available to them, including satellites and radar. Average temperature has risen almost twice as fast across the Arctic as in the rest of the world during the past few decades. And it’s not just the temperature that is moving fast. There is also a widespread melting of glaciers—and a thawing of permafrost, ground that was until now permanently frozen. Permafrost has warmed almost 3.5°F in recent decades. The warming is affecting villages’ water supply, sewage systems, and infrastructure, as pipes sit aboveground and are vulnerable to any shifts associated with permafrost. The tree line, another boundary distinguishing the Arctic from points south, is creeping north. And snow cover has decreased about 10 percent during the past thirty years. Winter temperature in Alaska and western Canada has increased about 5°F to 7°F during the past fifty years. Winter is becoming shorter and warmer, and that is not good news if you’re a winter person.
There also is the sea ice. The physics of much of this fast change goes back to the ice. First, as Arctic snow and ice melt, darker land and ocean surfaces open up. They absorb a lot more of the sun’s energy, and therefore the temperature spikes up faster. This is a process called Arctic amplification. The temperature is amplified by the loss of ice. And so it follows that one of the coldest places on the planet is warming up fastest.
Scientists have been carefully tracking the extent of sea ice using satellites since 1978. The extent of Arctic sea ice has a natural cycle: it grows and shrinks with the seasons. Twenty-five years ago, the seasonal range usually peaked in March at about 6 million square miles and shrank to about 3 million square miles at the end of the summer melt season in September.
As the climate grows warmer, the summer melt season lengthens and intensifies, resulting in less sea ice at summer’s end. With nearly twenty-four hours of sunlight hitting areas of open water, the ocean heats up more and the open area grows larger. Summer eats into autumn and winter, and sea ice formation, critical for insulating the warmer ocean from the cooler atmosphere, is delayed. Less sea ice at the end of summer pushes more heat into the atmosphere in autumn. The seasons are out of sync. It is only once the sea ice forms that heat exchange is finally capped. With continued summer ice loss and more ocean heat gain, Arctic amplification will eventually eat its way into winter.
Aside from Arctic amplification, there are other reasons the Arctic is seeing such rapid change. One reason has to do with the fact that the air in the Arctic holds less moisture (because it’s so cold). Because of this lack of moisture, a greater fraction of the energy that comes from increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases can go directly into warming the atmosphere. In places that are more humid, such as the tropics, the energy is split between warming the air and evaporating the moisture. In other words, in the Arctic, CO2 has one less job to do. It can focus strictly on warming things up.
There’s been a lot of talk within the scientific community about when the Arctic might become ice-free in summer. Since the start of the modern satellite era in late 1978, the extent of Arctic ice has shown a downward trend across all months, with the largest decrease occurring in September. The decline in September is about 12 percent per decade. And starting in about 2002, the pace of melt seems to have picked up. The extreme seasonal minima of 2007 and 2008 reinforce this tendency. Since 2002, scientists have watched in what can best be described as shock as the September decline has continued. According to analyses by the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, where Gearheard works, the September minimum was set in 2007, but 2008 entered the record books as the second-lowest of the satellite era, and probably the second-lowest of at least a century.
Scientists also track the overall thickness of the ice, because this has significant implications for what the Arctic will look like in the future. Ice thickness also has its own rhythm. Back in the 1980s, when the system was still stable and running like clockwork, about 40 percent of the ice in April would consist of young, fairly thin ice that had formed the previous autumn and winter. The other 60 percent consisted of thicker ice that had survived one or more melt seasons. Generally, the older the ice, the more melt seasons it has survived, and the thicker it is. This distribution would change with the seasons. Most of the young, thin ice melted to form open water areas while some of the older ice thinned in summer, and only a bit of it actually melted. The ice that survived the summer thickened again the next autumn and winter. Over the course of each year, ice growth exceeded melt. That doesn’t happen anymore.
In recent years, old ice has been harder to come by. The thickness distribution has shifted in favor of the young, thin ice. Because the ice is thinner at the start of the melt season, open water areas develop earlier than before and become more extensive through the summer. As a result, the amplification that boosts the melting is even stronger. The past few years have seen the distribution shift to even thinner spring ice, resulting in even larger open water areas absorbing solar radiation, and an even stronger feedback. The Inuit are seeing it, too.
“People here in Clyde River will say that they’ve lost three to four weeks of sea ice already,” says Gearheard. “The sea ice is so important in terms of hunting and travel. But people so far have been able to cope with it. But it’s things like the weather changing and losing their ability to forecast that is really hitting home. That is a significant impact,” Gearheard adds.
“You can already see some of the ways the Inuit are adapting,” says Pearce. “For example, we’re already seeing people invest in larger boats with larger motors because the open water season has lengthened. Some people see a real opportunity to having a boat because they can travel to fall and spring hunting grounds despite the absence of sea ice.”
Inuit have no choice but to adapt. And Gearheard and Pearce feel strongly that involving Inuit communities in the research process will help them develop the necessary adaptation strategies. With that in mind, Gearheard and some other community members in Clyde River developed the Igliniit project. The project is part of the Inuit Sea Ice Use and Occupancy Project. An International Polar Year project, Igliniit brings together Inuit knowledge with engineering and cutting-edge technology. In Inuktitut, igliniit refers to the trails that are routinely traveled by hunters and other members of the community.
The location, use, condition, and changes in these igliniit over time and space can help both community members and other researchers learn a great deal about the Arctic. Engineers and Inuit hunters have come together to design a new, integrated GPS system that can be mounted on snowmobiles. The GPS automatically logs the location of the snow machine every thirty seconds, providing geo-referenced waypoints that can later be mapped to produce the travelers’ routes on a map. In addition to tracking routes, the Igliniit system logs weather conditions (temperature, humidity, pressure, etc.) and the observations of hunters (animals, sea ice features, hazards, place-names, etc.) through a customized computer screen that is in Inuktitut and has a user-friendly icon interface.
The hunters carry digital cameras that allow them to take pictures of conditions as well as make videos. The data and images can then be downloaded and turned into maps. These maps show the routes of individual snowmobiles, along with the geo-referenced observations of the hunters and weather conditions. When you overlay maps of different hunters over time and space, you end up with a valuable picture of meteorological data and Inuit land, ice, and resource use. At the moment, the Igliniit system is being tested on snowmobiles and dog teams, but Gearheard hopes it will eventually be made available to boats and all-terrain vehicles.
Gearheard and her team hope the Igliniit system will provide useful information for communities like Clyde River. Hunters can print out their own maps to keep a record of their travel routes and hunting spots. And collectively, the community can use the maps to see where its members have had the most hunting success, changes in animal populations, changes in snow conditions, connections between weather conditions and travel conditions, and locations of hazards.
“In traditional Inuit society people share food,” explains Pearce. “It can be community to community as well as household to household. For example, when Ulukhaktok has limited access to caribou, a nearby community in Nunavut will help them out and send caribou. Or if Sachs Harbor has geese or Tuktoyaktuk has beluga whale and Ulukhaktok doesn’t, they will send geese and muktuk (whale meat). Whereas Ulukhaktok might have a really good char run that year, so they will send char.”
These maps might also help preserve traditional values. In addition, community leaders can use the maps for matters related to planning or negotiating land use. The weather information is also extremely valuable, as weather data are spotty in the Arctic, restricted to a limited number of weather stations. Last, Igliniit has the potential to serve a role in search and rescue operations. Igliniit maps can be used to keep up-to-date records of sea ice, land, and water hazards logged by hunters, and these maps can be easily shared with other hunters. Gearheard’s team is currently looking into the possibility of incorporating live tracking or personal locator beacons (PLBs) into the Igliniit system, so that anyone carrying an Igliniit unit can send out a warning signal in order to be tracked quickly.
“You can look at climate change in isolation, but I think it would be a real disappointment,” says Pearce. That is exactly why he, Gearheard, and others are working to connect climate change to other issues facing Arctic communities. By connecting climate change to issues like education, sustainable development, and alleviating poverty, you can reduce vulnerability across the board. When you find ways to strengthen Inuit communities today, you can also strengthen Inuit communities in the future.
“I’m always hearing the words ‘in the future’ or ‘future projections,’ ” says Pearce. “But when I am in the Arctic, I am constantly struck by the fact that the future has arrived, and Inuit are living it. It’s happening now.” Under the scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for “business as usual” greenhouse gas emissions, simulations from the current generation of coupled global climate models indicate that the Arctic will warm between 7°F and 13°F over the next 100 years. And the Arctic Ocean could become seasonally ice-free, or nearly so, sometime after 2040.
Whereas most climate model simulations show the September loss of sea ice increasing in the coming decades, this acceleration seems to have already begun. In other words, when you compare the present with future projections from climate models, we are already on the fast track of climate change. The Earth, as the Inuit say, is faster now.
I asked Gearheard what she imagined the Inuit might be doing fifty years from now if all the summer sea ice disappears. “I guess when I think about the future, I just think about the people that I know right now and try to imagine what they would be doing. And I can’t imagine that the people I know would just stop hunting or stop going out on the land. Every person that I know who is active in that way would still be doing it. They might be hunting something different. They might be hunting somewhere else. They might be selling their ski-doo and buying a boat. But no matter what happens, they would still be Inuit and they would still be out there hunting.”
This raises a question: what happens to the Inuit if the snow and ice go away? “That’s a really big question,” says Gearheard. But she sees the connection to snow and ice and tradition even in very young children in Clyde River. “If you ask them to draw a picture of their family, you’ll very often get a picture of their family on a dogsled traveling over the ice. Even if they don’t have one,” Gearheard says. “The snow, the ice, it’s all wrapped up in there.”
“The truth is,” says Pearce, “in the Arctic, people have a strong connection with their environment. This is their home; this is where their life is. They are going to adapt to new conditions regardless if any action is taken against climate change. They are not going anywhere. They make that very clear. If you ask an Inuit in Ulukhaktok what their future aspirations are, they will tell you that they plan on staying in the Arctic. End of story.” Sea ice or no sea ice. I guess that also applies to the rest of us.