27.09.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

Global Change in the Arctic and Co-production of Knowledge

© Peter Bates Fishing at the ice's edge in the summer

The Arctic region is warming at roughly twice the global average rate. This year’s record breaking reduction in summer sea ice extent is one of the clearest indicators of this trend, and provides further proof that many of these changes are outpacing climate model predictions. These changes trigger rapid and dramatic environmental and social transformations with ramifications for the entire planet. But to understand the far-reaching impacts of climate change and the complexities of adaptation, a truly interdisciplinary approach is required, involving indigenous knowledge holders and natural and social scientists.

Arctic sea ice cover grows each winter as the sun sets for several months, and shrinks each summer as the sun rises higher in the northern sky. Each year, the Arctic sea ice reaches its minimum extent in September. This year, the sea ice extent reached a record low on 26 August and continued to melt until mid-September, falling below 4 million km², making this year’s the greatest sea ice melt-back on record. Artic sea ice extent is monitored by the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a global system for observations lead by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Information about Arctic Ice combining satellite data and national observation efforts is reported in near real time through this system. Since about 2002, the satellite data record has indicated that the downward trends in summer ice cover have accelerated, with the implication that a seasonally ice-free Arctic ocean may be realized sooner than projected by our most advanced climate models.

This is only one of the many aspects of global change in the region. Expanding industrial development and large-scale shipping are also generating new risks. In the face of these accelerating physical, biological and social transformations, there is a need to monitor change, assess impacts and mobilize responses so as to adequately inform adaptation policies and practice. At present, however, monitoring mechanisms are of limited scope. Scientific data focus on bio-physical factors and broad spatial scales, but lack the perspective, societal components and human dimension that Arctic communities require to guide adaptation. Individuals and communities are already responding to change, but these efforts remain poorly documented and understood. There are gaps in our knowledge base and response systems that can benefit from other knowledge systems.

Indigenous knowledge offers valuable insights

Over the past decade, there 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 to the land claim processes in northern North America in the 1970s and 1980s. Local communities have been noticing profound changes in the Arctic sea ice environment for several decades. Indigenous peoples are particularly well placed to observe environmental changes caused by this phenomenon. Attentiveness to fluctuations and alterations in the natural milieu is an integral part of their ways of life, and remains of crucial cultural importance even in areas where lifestyles have been modified by colonialism and globalization. Knowledge of specific localities may stretch back over many generations. When shared amongst elders and youth, this knowledge provides the basis for important comparisons between what is observed today, and what occurred in the past. Indigenous knowledge thus offers valuable insights into local changes in ecological processes and could be a vital resource in assessment and monitoring of the Arctic’s physical, ecological and social environments. While the environmental transformations engendered by climate change are expected to be unprecedented, existing in-depth indigenous knowledge on strategies for coping with change may also provide a crucial foundation for new adaptation measures and sustainable development in the face of climate change.

Changes in the Arctic affect us all

It is not only people living in the Arctic that will be impacted by the profound changes in the Arctic environment. Melting ice in the Arctic will have implications for the rest of the world in terms of its impact on global sea level, atmospheric and oceanic circulation. Complementary and joint interdisciplinary work bringing together indigenous knowledge holders and natural and social scientists is needed to understand and address these challenges.

An international experts workshop will contribute to this effort, bring together a select group of natural and social scientists, and indigenous peoples, from across the circumpolar region to enhance collaborative indigenous-scientific work on global change impacts, monitoring and adaptation, and thus advance thinking on the emerging paradigm of knowledge co-production. This new paradigm is attracting a great deal of interest in the framework of international debates not only relating to climate change, but also biodiversity conservation and sustainable use.

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