Vancouver Sun by Maia Hoebrechts 13 December 2019
Could you survive a night in the vast frozen Arctic using just a candle and snow? George Angohiatok, a skilled Inuit guide and hunter in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, uses signs in the sky and ice to lead him to the right kind of snow, which he builds into a shelter solid enough to heat with the candle. His explanation brought home to me that no amount of book learning or field experience can offer a southern researcher the knowledge held by a descendant of thousands of years of northern living.
Canada’s climate is changing, and scientists overwhelmingly agree that human activities contribute significantly. As the United Nations COP 25 Climate Change Conference in Madrid wraps up this week, and leading up to the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), we must listen closely to knowledge from northern communities.
The northern region is experiencing more dramatic effects than the South. Sea ice is disappearing, permafrost is thawing, coasts are eroding, and temperatures are rising. In the recent Canada’s Changing Climate Report, we learned that between 1948 and 2016, the best estimate of average annual temperature increase is 1.7C for Canada as a whole and 2.3C for northern regions. This is already over Paris Agreement targets for limiting global temperature change to 2C.
I’ve worked with a northern and southern research team to understand the impacts that changes to sea ice are having in three Nunavut communities: Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, and Gjoa Haven. We conducted workshops, interviews, public meetings, and site visits to understand how community activities and livelihoods have been affected.
Having closely observed their environment for thousands of years, the Inuit are experts in understanding northern weather and climate. The communities’ perceptions align with what scientists are measuring, but their information is more detailed and includes rich links to culture and everyday life. They’ve noticed that sea ice freeze-up occurs later in the year and break-up happens earlier. This compromises on-ice transportation and hunting.
We learned that ice is becoming thinner and less predictable, causing safety issues and affecting travel routes. Elders told us skies are greyer than in the past, which they lamented as less beautiful and can bring more precipitation. Southern species are moving north: there are small trees growing near Kugluktuk where there never were before and salmon have been caught in Cambridge Bay, which was met with curiosity and cautious excitement. Everyone agreed it is getting warmer.
Last week I was in Halifax attending the annual ArcticNet Scientific Meeting, the largest gathering in Canada focused on northern research. This summit brings together northern and southern experts from universities, government, industry and communities. The voices I sought are those who can tell me the most about our climate: the northern community members — experts on the forefront of dramatic change.
Why should we, who live in the south of Canada, pay attention to these voices from the North? First and foremost, as Sheila Watt-Cloutier so elegantly argues, the Inuit right to be cold — that is, to maintain a culture and way of life intertwined with the ice and snow — is a fundamental right. This drives a moral imperative for all of us to care about these changes and the people they are directly impacting.
Second, changes in the Arctic not only affect the North, they affect the entire planet. Warming of permafrost has the potential to release vast amounts of powerful greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere, melting of glaciers and continental ice sheets will affect global sea levels, and we’re already witnessing changes to weather systems. Arctic air is coming south instead of circulating around the pole like it’s supposed to.
Third, and most importantly, we should listen because northern communities are leading our understanding of climate change impacts. In their ongoing ability to live, adapt and thrive in the northern regions of this country, the Inuit exemplify resilience and wisdom. We will all need to gain such expertise if we are to respond to the challenges that our changing climate will present.
Dr. Maia Hoeberechts is the Associate Director of Learning & Community Engagement at Ocean Networks Canada, University of Victoria.