Sunday, April 6, 2008

What the Inuit have to say about climate change in the Arctic

NASA-data have shown that the Arctic sea-ice area in March 2008 is roughly the same as in March 2007. Some climate skeptics have used this fact – combined with the fact that the 1998-temperature record has not yet been beaten, despite global warming – as a sign that global warming does not continue. This conclusion is far from the facts (if you look at all the facts, not just at a sub-selection of the facts, which fit your own hypothesis).

Even more important than the sea-ice area, is the sea ice volume. Twenty years ago, Arctic sea ice consisted for 60% of ice older than two years (thick ice). Now only 30%. The ice volume is declining for at least twenty years. And even from March 2007 to March 2008 the volume has been declining, despite the fact that the surface areas in these two years are pretty much the same. That means that the 2008-ice is really thinner than the one in 2007. With a little bit of Arctic summer in 2008, quite some area of the present spring-ice will quickly melt away.

It is predicted that the global 2008-temperature will be slightly smaller than the 2007-temperature, but this is due to the cooling La Nina-effect in the Pacific Ocean. When La Nina will finish its cooling effect, chances are high the 1998-temperature-record will be beaten pretty soon.

Furthermore it strikes me that many global-warming-skeptics ignore data that are not so easily expressed in numbers and statistics. The Inuit, the local inhabitants of the Arctic – and once called Eskimo’s – have a very long tradition in dealing with the ever changing sea-ice, the ever changing biological environment and the ever changing weather in this extreme part of the earth. For their survival they have always been dependent on observing very carefully what happens to the sea-ice, to the snowfall, to the wind and to the behavior of animals as polar bears, seals and birds.

Before getting to what the Inuit have to tell about the state of the Arctic, let me go back a little while in Arctic history. The tradition of ignoring Inuit-knowledge about their own environment goes back a long way. Barry Lopez writes in his book Arctic Dreams (1986): “The impersonality of statistics masks both the complexity and the ethics inherent in any wildlife situation. Biologists are anxious about the ‘tyranny of statistics’ and the ‘ascendency of the [computer] modeler,’ about industry’s desire for a ‘standardized animal’, one that always behaves in predictable ways…A belief in the authority of statistics and the dismissal of Eskimo narratives as only ‘anecdotal’ is a dichotomy one encounters frequently in arctic environmental assessment reports.”

Also often ignored is the contribution the Inuit made in Arctic exploration. In the great book on Arctic exploration Arctic Grail – The quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 (1988) Pierre Berton analyses why so many British Arctic explorations in the 19th century failed: “The Eskimos wore loose parkas of fur or sealskin, but the British Navy stuck to more confining wool, flannel, and broadcloth uniforms, with no protective hoods. The Eskimos kept their feet warm in sealskin mukluks; even Parry rejected Navy leather. The Eskimo sleds were light and flexible, the Navy’s heavy and cumbersome – and hauled by men, not dogs. No naval man ever learned the difficult technique of dog driving or the art of building a snow house on the trail…Most puzzling of all, and most damning, is that in an age of science Europeans were unable to understand how the Eskimos escaped the great Arctic scourge that struck almost every white expeditions to the North. The seeds of scurvy were already in Parry’s men, in spite of the lemon juice and marmalade, but no one connected the Eskimo’s diet with the state of their health. Thought the effects of vitamins were unknown, the explorers sensed that scurvy was linked to diet and that fresh meat and vegetables helped ward it off. Nobody caught on to the truth that raw meat and blubber are effective antiscorbutics.”

And also: “Without the Eskimos to care for them, hunt for them, and guide them through that chill, inhospitable realm, scores more would have died of starvation, scurvy, exhaustion, or exposure. Without the Eskimos, the journeys to seek out the Pole and the Passage would not have been possible. Yet their contribution has been noted only obliquely. It was the British Navy’s loss that it learned so little from the natives. Had it paid attention, the tragedies that followed might have been averted. Here was a nation obsessed by science, whose explorers were charged with collecting everything from skins of Arctic tern to the shells that lay on the beaches. Here were men of intelligence with a mania for figures, charts and statistics, recording everything from the water temperatures to the magnetic forces that surround the Pole. Yet few thought it necessary to inquire the reasons why another set of fellow humans could survive, year after year, winter after winter, in an environment that taxed and often broke the white man’s spirit.”

Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, learned extensively from the Inuit knowledge about how to survive in such harsh environment, one of the reasons for his success. He was the first to navigate the long sought Northwest Passage (1903-1906), and also the first to reach the South Pole, beating British Robert Scott, who stuck to traditional British methods of exploring Polar Regions.

So far about history. Let’s get back to today.

At present there are about 155.000 Inuit living in the Arctic, in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Northeast-Russia. What do they have to say about the present-day Arctic? Shari Gearheard is a climate researcher at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), and studies exactly that question. For over a decade, she has worked with Inuit communities in Nunavut, Canada, on Inuit knowledge of climate and environmental change.

In February 2008 she wrote in Natural History: “The Arctic climate has always fluctuated, according to studies of ice cores that date back some 400.000 years, from which past temperature and atmospheric conditions can be deduced. But the overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that the recent changes are almost certainly attributable to global warming. Inuit, too, recognize the Arctic’s inherent variability—which they’ve observed keenly and adapted to over the centuries—and they say that something is indeed very different today. Changes in snow and sea-ice conditions, shifts in the seasonal calendar, unusual animal behavior—all exceed the familiar range of variability, they say. As a result of their intensive use of the environment, Inuit and other Arctic residents pick up on many subtle changes and intricate connections that scientific instruments cannot detect, and that scientists are just beginning to appreciate and understand.”

“Years ago, it was often difficult to get scientists to take traditional knowledge seriously. But increasingly, climate scientists and other researchers have been incorporating indigenous knowledge and observations into their research. A notable example is the prominent role of Arctic indigenous communities in the International Polar Year of 2007 to 2008, in which thousands of scientists are engaged in more than 200 research projects in the Arctic and Antarctic. Indigenous communities are contributing to studies on biological diversity, birds, caribou and reindeer, and human health, among other topics.”

“Remote sensing via satellites provides an overview of sea-ice extent and some data on its characteristics going back to the 1970s. Inuit knowledge goes back further, to the early 1900s, and provides insight into finer-scale changes, including sea ice texture and stability, and into changes in the environmental processes that drive sea ice, such as currents, snowfall, and winds. Such work is driven by the belief that linking multiple methods, scales, and ways of knowing increases confidence in individual observations, broadens the information base, and helps explain the various changes.”

“After almost thirteen years, my work in Nunavut tells a story repeated by many communities around the North: the Arctic is changing, and changing fast, on a number of fronts. Among the most striking changes, observed by locals from Alaska to Finland, is that the weather is increasingly unpredictable. Since weather determines the day’s activities for most hunters, it is a critical part of everyday life, and closely watched. Skilled Inuit forecasters observe cloud patterns and wind conditions to predict weather through the next day.”

“The increased risk of running into bad weather has pushed Inuit hunters and travelers to change their travel habits. Some pack extra supplies, just in case. As for the traditional forecasters, many have lost confidence in their prediction skills and have stopped advising hunting parties about when and where to travel. That has wrought an emotional change for some, who miss having an advisory role in their families and communities.”

“Inuit have been observing many other environmental changes, too. During the past decade, for instance, Inuit in Nunavut have noted strengthening winds, which can pack snow much harder than usual. The hard snow can prevent people from building igloos for temporary or emergency shelter, leaving them vulnerable to that unpredictable bad weather. Some Baker Lake residents told me they blamed the extra-hard snow for the deaths of several travelers out on the land.”

“Weather and wind changes, in turn, have affected sea ice—and not just its thickness. In Nunavut, all but one of the twenty-six communities lie on the coast. Their inhabitants rely intensively on sea ice for hunting and traveling, so their understanding of it is quite complex. How does the sea ice feel when you walk on it? How does it respond to being kicked or struck with a harpoon? How does it taste at different times of the year: too salty? Not as salty as it should?”

“As with the Qaanaarmiut in Greenland, many Nunavummiut, or people from Nunavut, report that the ice is thinner in places, forms later, and breaks up earlier— observations that mirror findings from numerous scientific studies. Clyde River Inuit note that familiar cracks in the sea ice are not appearing even as new ones open in unusual locations; they say the sea ice seems to be softer, not as solid as it used to be; and they say the currents have shifted in certain areas, combining with wind changes to affect ice movements. In response, Inuit in northern Quebec and parts of Nunavut are reviving the traditional practice of dogsledding. Dog teams are more reliable than snowmobiles in the changing environment, because they can help navigate dangerous sea-ice conditions and can find their way home during storms—not to mention that they don’t run out of gas or need new spark plugs.”

One thing is to hear researchers talk about the Inuit, the other is to let them talk. In the same article by Shari Gearheard, there is an interview with an Inuit-man. He tells: “I am sixty-five years old and I have been living in Clyde River, Nunavut, almost my entire life. When I was young, we hunted by dog team for seal, fish, fox, rabbit, and sometimes caribou in the winter, and we hunted narwhal and fished for halibut in the summer. I hunt by Ski-Doo these days, and I enjoy going out on the land when it’s not too windy.”

“In the past, we would watch the dogs to learn about the wind. If it was windy and the dogs started walking around instead of lying curled in one spot, we’d know it was going to calm down. I don’t have dogs anymore, but I use ravens today. Like dogs, they try to get into a sheltered spot if it’s going to get windy. When you’re always outside, you notice little things like that. In the old days, even as children, we had to go outside first thing in the morning to look at the weather, to learn. It’s still the same for me today, even though I sometimes look through a window. But it’s more difficult to predict the weather now, especially the wind. It seems to get windy suddenly these days. And there are many other changes, too.”

“For example, the sea ice isn’t the same anymore. It seems like it’s forming only from water, meaning it’s much less salty now. You can even see through the sea ice. In the past it wasn’t clear, it was whitish. It also breaks up sooner in the spring than it used to, and the winters don’t feel as cold. Narwhals seem to come sooner than before. When the sea ice was here longer, they didn’t come as early; they would pass us by, swimming north.”

“The snow has changed, too. It used to be really white but now it seems yellowish, as if it has some fine sand or dirt on it. The sky used to be clear blue on a nice day but now it seems reddish. It’s just a guess, but I think it’s redder for the same reason the snow is yellower: there is a smoky or dirty substance in the air. That might explain why the nights seem darker, too—the snow is dirty, not as reflective of light, and the sky is hazy.”

“I know that before our time the world was very warm, even around here. When the
glaciers started to recede people found woolly mammoth tusks, so we know things were different long ago. Many years from now, it might be like those old days. Inuit used to say that one day the Arctic would melt, that things would reverse and there would be snow down south, but none up here. We see weird weather in many places on the television these days, and it is warmer here, so maybe that’s what is happening.”

“If the changes continue, I will learn to live with them. The seals and other animals that depend on the sea ice will move to the shores; the animals will adapt. I’ve heard that because they depend on sea ice, polar bears will go extinct, but I don’t believe it. They are very adaptable. As the sea ice changes, polar bears might get skinnier and some might die, but I don’t think they will go extinct. The only way to react to the changes we are seeing is to be positive. The people and animals will adapt. At the same time, it is very important to get the information out there about what is changing, so others can understand what is happening.”

Not just Shari Gearheard has written about Inuit-knowledge. Many others have.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the book The Arctic (2007): “An Inuit hunter named John Keogak, who lives on Banks Island, in the Inuvik Region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, told me that he and his fellow-hunters had started to notice that the climate was changing in the mid-1980’s. Then a few years ago, people on the island began to see robins, a bird for which the Inuit in this region have no word.”

And Canadian researcher Dan Leitch (CFL-project coordinator from the University of Manitoba) tells: “In Labrador, we saw 11 polar bears in one fjord. Locals tell us that even 20 years ago, polar bears were almost never seen there. They blame the lack of sea ice for pushing them on land. If you talk to any local in the North, there is no doubt that climate change is happening. They tell stories of hunters falling through the ice because it is thinner, there is less of it, and it is much more unpredictable. They also talk of animals that have shown up in recent years that local languages have no word for, because they are usually only found in warmer climate.”

All these Inuit-observations are of course very valuable. Knowledge from people that have been living for many centuries in the extreme Arctic conditions. Knowledge that can complement our modern measurements. Knowledge that tells about thinning ice, softer ice, later winter-freezing, earlier summer-melting, more unpredictable weather, unusual animal behavior and changing snow conditions.

Not just changes that fall within normal variability of the ever changing Arctic, but changes that fall outside of the normal variability. Reason enough to study, both with experiments and with models – but also with local knowledge of the Inuit – what’s exactly happening in the Arctic.

Shari Gearheard. A change in weather.
Shari Gearheard at NSIDC:
Dan Leitch in Canaries in the Arctic:

Barry Lopez. Arctic Dreams. (1986)
Pierre Berton. The Arctic Grail - The quest for the Northwest Passage and the north pole, 1818-1909. (1988)
Elizabeth Kolbert (ed.). The Arctic. (2007) [A collection of great writing about the Arctic, with stories from John Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, Jules Verne, Fridtjof Nansen and Robert Peary)]