Weather & Climate

Nunavut climate change case study

This is Section 3.4.5 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment; one of nine Arctic climate change case studies using indigenous knowledge.
Case Study Author: Nunavut: Shari Fox


In 1995, Shari Fox began a research project with the communities of Iqaluit and Igloolik to help document and communicate Inuit observations and perspectives of climate and environmental change. In 2000, the communities of Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake) and Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River) joined the project. A long-term, multiphase approach has driven the research and the integration of multiple techniques such as interviews, focus groups, videography, and mapping were used to collect, analyze, and communicate information[1]. Close collaboration with individuals and communities has been central to the project. The case study presented here draws on two examples from the project to show how Inuit in Nunavut are observing and experiencing climate and environmental changes and their associated impacts and hazards. Comprehensive findings and discussion are presented by Fox[2].

Inuit have a traditional juggling game. The weather is sort of like that now. The weather is being juggled; it is changing so quickly and drastically.
—N. Attungala, Baker Lake, 2001

The people of Nunavut have reported many observations of environmental change[3]. Two examples that appear to be related to climate change are increased weather variability across the region and changing water levels in the Baker Lake area.

Increased weather variability (

Participants in all four communities in this project have noted an increase in weather variability and unpredictability since the early 1990s, an observation shared by many other communities in several parts of the Arctic[4] (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) Report, sections 3.4.1 and 3.4.8). The weather has become unpredictable, with more extremes, and elders can no longer predict it using their traditional skills.

The weather has changed. For instance, elders will predict that it might be windy, but then it doesn’t become windy. And then it often seems like its going to be very calm and then it suddenly becomes windy. So their predictions are never correct anymore, the predictions according to what they see haven’t been true.
—P. Kunuliusie, Clyde River, 2000

The weather when I was young and vulnerable to the weather, according to my parents, was more predictable, in that we were able to tell where the wind was going to be that day by looking at the cloud formations… Now, in the 1990s and prior to that, the weather patterns seem to have changed a great deal. Contrary to our beliefs and ability to predict [by] looking at the sky, especially the cloud formations, looking at the stars, everything seems to be contrary to our training from the hunting days with our fathers. The winds could pick up pretty fast now. Very unpredictable. [The winds] could change directions, from south [to] southeast in no time. Whereas before, before 1960s when I was growing up to be a hunter, we were able to predict. —L. Nutaraluk, Iqaluit, 2000

Right now the weather is unpredictable. In the older days, the elders used to predict the weather and they were always right, but right now, when they try to predict the weather, it’s always something different. —Z. Aqqiaruq, Igloolik, 2000

When I lived out on the land I would always know when the weather would be bad from the clouds but nowadays when you look at the clouds and they say there is going to be bad weather that evening it doesn’t always happen. You could wake up and it would be nice and through the whole evening it would still be nice. The indicators that we would use before don’t always happen. —J. Nukik, Baker Lake, 2001

Sudden storms and unpredictable winds make for hazardous travel conditions. No longer confident in their weather predictions, experienced hunters in Clyde River pack for several extra days when heading out on the land, expecting to be caught in unpredictable weather. In Baker Lake, erratic weather has proved especially dangerous in winter. According to residents, changing wind patterns have changed the snow structure around Baker Lake and, in combination with unpredictable weather, dangerous situations have occurred in recent years. For example, changing wind patterns in the area have packed the snow extremely hard. As a result, hunters and travel parties are unable to build igloos, still commonly relied upon as temporary and emergency shelters. A number of accidents and deaths on the land in the last few years have been blamed on sudden storms and those involved not being able to find good snow with which to build shelters (N. Attungala, Baker Lake, 2001).

There used to be different layers of snow back then. The wind would not blow as hard, not make the snow as hard as it is now…But nowadays, the snow gets really hard and it’s really hard to tell [the layers] and it’s really hard to make shelters with that kind of snow because it’s usually way too hard right to the ground.
—T. Qaqimat, Baker Lake, 2001

For many elders, increased weather variability and unpredictability also have an emotional and personal impact. For much of their lives they have been able to advise the people around them confidently about when and where to travel, providing weather predictions. As their skills no longer work, some elders are now less confident and feel sadness that their advisory roles have changed.

Some of the ways people are coping with more variable weather have already been mentioned – for example, packing extra supplies on trips. Longer-term strategies are more difficult to design. Inuit are careful to note that the weather is always changing, it has always changed – the weather is always different. However, according to many people, the recent climate and environmental changes are outside the expected variability. In turn, while there have always been accidents on the land, some people are concerned that recent environmental changes are to blame for recent accidents and this requires further investigation so that precautions can be taken.

Changing water levels in Baker Lake (

Baker Lake is the only inland Inuit community in Nunavut. Many of the groups that settled here brought a heritage closely tied to survival from lakes and rivers[5]. For example, Harvaqtuurmiut depended on caribou and specialized in hunting at autumn river-crossings. Ukkuhiksalingmiut, from the Back River area, relied mainly on fish. Groups such as the Qairngnirmiut have always hunted and fished in the Baker Lake region. After settling in the community in the 1950s, these groups and others often returned to their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, but also used their skills in local waters.

Hunters explain that in the 1940s and 1950s they traveled without difficulty by boat and outboard motor through the lakes and rivers around Baker Lake. In the 1960s, residents began to observe that water levels were gradually dropping. Since the 1990s, water levels have dropped dramatically, with extremely low levels observed since 1998. Between 1998 and 2002, travel routes on rivers were blocked by shallow water and hunters were unable to get to the caribou hunting grounds and their usual camping areas. Large amounts of equipment made portaging difficult or impossible through these newly shallow areas and many hunting parties had to turn back. Accessible only by boat, these summer caribou hunting grounds can no longer be reached.

The shallow water has also affected fish. There are fewer fish in areas where they are traditionally expected, and when present are often small or skinny. Lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) are darker than usual. Fish also smell different, "like earth", and no longer have white fat layers between the meat. While Inuit note that there are other possibilities for changes in fish (e.g., pollution), there are connections between the observed changes and recent water levels.

There is a lot less water, around all these islands [in Baker Lake]. The shore is getting closer to Sadluq Island, they are almost joined together. There used to be a lot of water. We could go through with our outboard motors and boats, but now there is getting to be less and less water all over... At the mouth of Prince River there used to be a lot of fish and you used to be able to get char [Salvelinus alpinus]. There’s been a lot less fish because there’s not as much water anymore. And we used to be able to get a lot of fish all the time at Qikiqtaujaq and all the other places where you can get fish. The fish were more plentiful and they used to be bigger. Now you hardly get char anymore at Prince River or any of these fishing places because the water level has gone down. —L. Arngna’naaq, Baker Lake, 2001

The lakes and the rivers are getting less water and a lot of them are getting more shallow and some places don’t have any water left. They’re not as healthy anymore. Things are not as healthy because there is not as much water and there were a lot places that probably in the ‘50s there was a lot of good water around [and] you could travel all over the place. [There used to be] a lot of water in the lakes and rivers and anything that had water was a lot cleaner, but now some of the waters have things that cause illnesses and that has really affected the food in the water and also things that eat things that are in the water. That is quite dangerous, the level of the water going down, because of the effect on the things in the water and the things that use them. Like we eat fish or anything that gets things out of the water because the water is not as healthy as it used to be and there is less water. —N. Attungala, Baker Lake, 2001

In the community, these observations are shared between hunting parties, families, and at meetings of hunters and trappers. Different individuals and groups make assessments about lake and river conditions based on their own knowledge and the knowledge and information shared by others. People understand lake and river changes by linking experiences on the water to observations of other factors such as precipitation, temperature, history of the water body, condition of animals and fish populations, and vegetation. In the case of recent low water levels around Baker Lake, residents identify the situation as unprecedented, both in terms of water levels and the condition of the fish populations. While unsure as to the cause, residents suspect lower water levels are related to changes in the climate over the last decade, particularly warmer, drier summers that last longer than normal. Others explain that the land is "growing", which may be another way of looking at permafrost thaw. Scientists have studied how thawing permafrost can cause water levels to drop since the soil is able to hold more water[6].

Like many of the environmental changes being experienced in the Arctic, low water levels and subsequent impacts are a relatively recent phenomenon (or have not been experienced in a long time). Coping strategies are focused primarily on the day-to-day. Hunters adjust their travel routes and hunting grounds, looking for caribou in other areas. Residents change fishing areas looking for more abundant and healthier fish populations. While these strategies allow residents to continue day-to-day life, it is unclear what will happen if the water condition persists or worsens. In the community, long-term plans are yet to be developed, but are of interest.

Discussion (

Unpredictable weather and lower water levels are two examples from a number of environmental changes observed by Inuit in Nunavut in recent years. In some cases, these changes are clearly linked to climate and in others they are not. Sometimes the observations with the least obvious linkages are the ones that spark the most interest for scientists and offer the most opportunity for advancing knowledge of climate change. For example, although unpredictable weather could be a matter of knowledge erosion (i.e., elders no longer live on the land and thus have lost prediction skills), something recognized by Inuit themselves, the fact that indigenous observers seem to consistently cite recent variable weather patterns across Nunavut and other parts of the Arctic has raised some scientific eyebrows that the phenomenon could be linked in some way to climate change[7]. However, it is probably neither knowledge erosion nor climate change exclusively. As with many environmental changes in Nunavut, multiple factors including climate and cultural factors, interact to create the impacts felt by Inuit. For Nunavut, these factors and their interactions are just beginning to be uncovered. Also, many of the climate and environmental changes observed by Inuit refer to the last decade and so ties to long-term climate change are still to be made – although many useful indicators have been identified. What is clear is that Inuit will play a future role in such investigations and that their observations will help guide, inform, and challenge scientific efforts to understand arctic climate and environmental change.

3.1. Introduction
3.2. Indigenous knowledge
3.3. Indigenous observations of climate change
3.4. Case studies
3.4.1. Northwest Alaska: the Qikiktagrugmiut
3.4.2. The Aleutian and Pribilof Islands region, Alaska
3.4.3. Arctic Athabaskan Council: Yukon First Nations
3.4.4. Denendeh: the Dene Nation’s Denendeh Environmental Working Group
3.4.5. Nunavut
3.4.6. Qaanaaq, Greenland
3.4.7. Sapmi: the communities of Purnumukka, Ochejohka, and Nuorgam
3.4.8. Climate change and the Saami
3.4.9. Kola: the Saami community of Lovozero
3.5. Indigenous perspectives and resilience
3.6. Further research needs
3.7. Conclusions


  1. ^ Fox, S., 2002. These are things that are really happening: Inuit perspectives on the evidence and impacts of climate change in Nunavut. In: I. Krupnik and D. Jolly (eds.). The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change, pp. 12–53. Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S., Fairbanks, Alaska.
  2. ^ Fox, S., 2004. When the Weather is Uggianaqtuq: Linking Inuit and Scientific Observations of Recent Environmental Change in Nunavut, Canada. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Colorado.
  3. ^ Fox, S., 2002. These are things that are really happening: Inuit perspectives on the evidence and impacts of climate change in Nunavut. In: I. Krupnik and D. Jolly (eds.). The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change, pp. 12–53. Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S., Fairbanks, Alaska.
    –Thorpe, N., S. Eyegetok, N. Hakongak and the Kitikmeot Elders, 2002. Nowadays it is not the same: Inuit qaujimajatuqangit, climate, and caribou in the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut, Canada. In: I. Krupnik and D. Jolly (eds.). The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change, pp. 198–239.
  4. ^Riedlinger, D., S. Fox and N. Thorpe, 2001. Inuit and Inuvialuit knowledge of climate change in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. In: J. Oakes and R. Riewe (eds.). Native voices in research: Northern and native studies, pp. 21–48.Winnipeg: University of Manitoba. Resilience Alliance, 2003.The Resilience Alliance.
    –Whiting, A., 2002. Documenting Qikiktagrugmiut knowledge of environmental change. Native Village of Kotzebue, Alaska.
  5. ^ Webster, D., 1999. Harvaqtuurmiut heritage: the heritage of the Inuit of the Lower Kazan River. Artisan Press.
  6. ^ Rouse, W.R., M.S.V. Douglas, R.E. Hecky, A.E. Hershey, G.K. Kling, L. Lesack, P. Marsh, M. McDonald, B.J. Nicholson, N.T. Roulet and J.P. Smol, 1997. Effects of climate changes on the freshwaters of Arctic and Subarctic North America. Hydrological Processes, 11:873–902.
  7. ^ Fox, S., M. Pocernich and J.A. Miller, in prep. Climate and weather variability in the Eastern Canadian Arctic: linking Inuit observations and meteorological data.







Committee, I. (2012). Nunavut climate change case study. Retrieved from


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