06.08.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

Weathering uncertainty in the Arctic

©UNESCO/D.Nakashima Inuit on Ice, Arctic

One of the most novel developments since the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) appeared in 2007 has been the growing collaboration between indigenous peoples and scientists in assessing the impact of climate change on the environment. Nowhere is this change taking place more rapidly than in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising at a rate twice the global average. The following excerpt from Weathering Uncertainty, a UNESCO-UNU publication launched at the Rio+20 Conference, focuses specifically on Arctic peoples. It highlights their remarkable observation skills but also their distress at a phenomenon which is threatening their millennial way of life.

For over two decades, Arctic indigenous men and women have been reporting increasingly erratic weather conditions that confound their efforts at weather prediction. Mabel Toolie of St Lawrence Island expressed this unsettling circumstance by saying that ‘the Earth is faster now’. Yup’ik from the Bering Sea coast of southwestern Alaska give voice to their dismay by declaring that ‘the weather is becoming an incessant liar’. No matter how it may be expressed, the phenomenon of increasingly variable and unpredictable weather resonates from one Arctic community to the next across the circumpolar North.

These changes have been particularly evident to Inuit hunters of Clyde River in Nunavut (Canada) since the 1990s. Experienced traditional weather forecasters remark that they feel they have ‘lost their skills’. Some hunters now pack additional gear when heading out on the land, recognizing that the weather may suddenly and unpredictably change. Reports by hunters of a specific turning point in weather predictability since the 1990s coincide with recent meteorological analyses.

One change inscribed in the landscape relates to what the Inuit refer to as uqalurait, snowdrifts that form parallel to the wind and that serve as a navigational aid for hunters. In the past, uqalurait pointed in a consistent direction dictated by the dominant wind. When visibility was poor, hunters could plot a reliable course in relation to the orientation of the uqalurait in order to arrive at their destination. Today, however, the dominant wind is reported to have shifted and wind direction is more variable. Hunters now only rely on uqalurait for navigation if they have been on the land on a regular basis and have kept track of shifts in wind and in the orientation of uqalurait. Young or inexperienced hunters risk getting lost because they may not be aware of this recent variability and may assume that the uqalurait are as reliable as in the past.

Indigenous observing systems

One of the most innovative developments since the last IPCC report in 2007 has been a multiplication of collaborative research efforts involving indigenous peoples and natural and social scientists. These emerging partnerships build upon a long history of joint research and management that, in the Arctic, date back several decades to the land claim processes in northern North America in the 1970s and 1980s.

One example of continuous observation of ecological change is provided by the Nenets in Northwest Russia, who report increases in the height of willow and alder shrubs in the tundra zone. The reports from the Nenets are independently confirmed by groups of herders on both sides of the Polar Urals, travelling along traditional migration routes used for decades. They are also linked to discernible changes in reindeer management in response to gains in shrub height. Specifically, herders now in their fifties observe that shrub thickets, which were mostly less than 1 m tall in the 1970s, in many cases now top the antlers of their reindeer (>2 m). This obliges them to keep their animals out of the tall, dense thickets to avoid losing sight of them during the rapid summer migration. In other words, indigenous observers have their own good reasons to develop and maintain observations of their environment, which may not be quantitative but are no less accurate and detailed.

Krupnik and Weyapuk (2010) report over 120 Inupiaq terms for sea ice and associated vocabulary from Wales, Alaska, including almost 75 terms for types of sea ice and ice conditions. Each term is used to designate a meaningful and distinct phenomenon, and thus illustrates the refinement and subtlety with which Inupiat perceive and interact with their local ice environment.

Sea ice vocabularies of similar magnitude and sophistication are reported from Inuit communities across the circumpolar North. These elaborate vocabularies also constitute particularly fine-grained and high-resolution conceptual frameworks for observing ice environments and noting subtle transitions and trends. Many sea ice terms are bundled with information about hazardous conditions and potential sources of danger.

Safety and survival on the sea ice is in part managed through the group’s ability to share critical information rapidly and efficiently. Being site-specific, local languages serve as vehicles for sharing knowledge and experiences about a dynamic and potentially risky environment that is now subject to rapid and unpredictable climate change.

In a project within the International Polar Year called Igliniit, Inuit hunters recorded their observations of wildlife, sea ice, weather or other environmental phenomena as they travelled across the land. These observations were systematized, made spatially accurate and registered on the spot through the development of a mini-computer equipped with a global positioning system that hunters affixed to their snowmobiles. Another project involved the establishment of daily ice and weather observations by indigenous monitors in Alaska, Canada and Russian Chukotka, thus providing an uninterrupted record of indigenous observations covering four consecutive ice seasons.

Collaborative initiatives such as these, which bring together indigenous and scientific knowledge, make an important contribution to climate change monitoring and adaptation. They provide meticulous and systematic local observations that are informed by indigenous experience and understanding. These observations are all the more precious in that they are enriched with information related to subsistence livelihoods and community concerns and needs.

Douglas Nakashima
Extract of the article 'Weathering uncertainty in the Arctic', published in A World of Science Vol 10 n°3 (pdf)

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