Renewable resource use and climate change in the arctic

This is Section 12.2.4 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Lead Author: Mark Nuttall; Contributing Authors: Fikret Berkes, Bruce Forbes, Gary Kofinas,Tatiana Vlassova, George Wenzel

Climate change impacts: some key facts (12.2.4.1)

Renewable resources will continue to be central to the sustainable development strategies of numerous arctic communities. However, renewable resources and the harvesting of renewable resources by indigenous peoples in the Arctic could be affected by global climate change and increased levels of ultraviolet radiation caused by ozone depletion. Climate change scenarios suggest that climate change will have impacts on marine and terrestrial animal populations, affecting population size and structure, reproduction rates, and migration routes[1]. Arctic residents, particularly indigenous peoples who depend on renewable resources for their livelihoods and cultural survival, will feel these climate change impacts first and most intensely.

However, because of the interdependence between arctic economies and global markets, indigenous peoples are multiply exposed – to climate change, to changes caused by the global processes affecting markets, technologies, and public policies, and to local and regional political and economic situations. It is important to contextualize climate change impacts with reference to other changes experienced by arctic residents. Being able to access traditional food resources and ensuring food security will be a major challenge in an Arctic affected increasingly by climate change and global processes.

This assessment shows that the results of scientific research and evidence from indigenous peoples (see Chapter 3) have increasingly documented climatic changes that are more pronounced in the Arctic than in any other region of the world. Yet although this indicates that the physical environment, as well as the flora and fauna, has been undergoing noticeable change, the impacts felt throughout the Arctic will be unique and will vary from region to region. Different climatic trends have been observed in different parts of the Arctic – while average temperatures in the North American western Arctic and Siberia have been increasing over the last 30 years (e.g., annual temperatures in the Canadian western Arctic have climbed by 1.5 °C and those over the central Arctic have warmed by 0.5 °C), temperatures in Canada’s Hudson Bay and in Greenland, particularly in the Davis Strait area, have decreased[2], suggesting that climate change involves regional cooling as well as global warming.

If the scientific projections and scenarios are realized, climate change could have potentially devastating impacts on the Arctic and on the peoples who live there, particularly those indigenous peoples whose livelihoods and cultures are inextricably linked to the arctic environment and its wildlife. Some scenarios suggest that the most direct changes will be noticeable in a reduction in the extent of sea ice and permafrost, less ice in lakes and rivers, pronounced reductions in seasonal snow, and the disappearance of the existing glacier mass, leading to a corresponding shift in landscape processes[3].

Scientific research shows that over the last 100 years there has already been a significant reduction in the extent and thickness of arctic sea ice. Since 1979 alone, the extent of sea ice throughout the Arctic has decreased by 0.35%, and record reductions were observed in the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea in 1998[4]. Sea ice is highly dependent on the temperature gradient between ocean and atmosphere and on near-surface oceanic heat flow and will react swiftly to changes in atmospheric conditions[5]. Atmosphere–ocean climate models project a reduction in sea ice of around 60% in the next 50 to 100 years under a scenario in which atmospheric CO2 concentrations double. Models also project that permafrost will thaw more quickly in spring, but take longer to refreeze in autumn, and that the active layer boundaries will gradually move poleward, with most of the ice-rich discontinuous permafrost disappearing by the end of the 21st century.

Climate variability appears to have caused relatively rapid shifts in the organization of arctic marine ecosystems. In the Bering Sea ecosystem and the Barents Sea ecosystem climate-driven variability is significant[6]. There are difficulties, however, in establishing which of these changes result from natural environmental fluctuations and which result from human activities. In the eastern Bering Sea upper trophic levels have undergone significant changes in the past 100 to 150 years, largely due to commercial exploitation of mammals, fish, and invertebrates. Climatic changes may have contributed in part to the changes in animal populations. Higher ocean temperatures and lower salinities, changes in seasonal sea-ice extent, rising sea levels, and many other (as yet undefined) effects are certain to have significant impacts on marine species, with implications for arctic coastal communities dependent on hunting and fishing[7].

Most arctic species of marine mammal and fish depend on the presence of sea ice and many indigenous coastal communities depend on the harvesting of these species. The ice edge is unique among the world’s ecosystems in that it moves thousands of kilometers each year, north in spring and south in autumn. Walrus, numerous species of seal, and cetaceans such as beluga and narwhal all follow the ice edge as it moves, taking advantage of the ready access to food and (for walrus and seals) the availability of ice to haul out on for sunning, mating, and raising pups in late winter and spring (an important time for Inuit hunting communities).

The almost complete elimination of multi-year ice projected for the Arctic Ocean is likely to be immensely disruptive to ice-dependent microorganisms, which will lack a permanent habitat. Preliminary results from research in the Beaufort Sea suggest that ice algae and other microorganisms may have already been profoundly affected by warming over the last 20 years. Research indicates that most of the larger marine algae have died out, and been replaced by a much less productive community of microorganisms more usually associated with freshwater ecosystems (see Chapters 8 and 9).

Walrus, seals, and whales are likely to undergo shifts in range and abundance in response to the projected changes in multi-year sea ice, while the migration routes of caribou will alter. These changes could impact upon the hunting, trapping, and fishing economies of many small, remote arctic settlements. Although warming may increase biological production in some wildlife species, the distribution of many species crucial to the livelihoods and well-being of indigenous peoples could change. Important wetlands may disappear, or drainage patterns and tundra landscapes will be altered significantly, which could affect ducks and other waterfowl. Changes in terrestrial vegetation will have consequences for reindeer herding, subsistence lifestyles, and agriculture (see Chapters 7, 11 and 14).

Terrestrial animals such as caribou and reindeer are important for indigenous communities throughout the Arctic and would be affected by climate change directly through changes in thermal stress in animals, and indirectly by difficulties gaining access to food and water. Arctic communities located on coastlines may be affected by rising sea levels, increased coastal erosion, and severe storms. The fortunes of subsistence fisheries will depend on marine fish stocks and their climate-related variations[8]. As the amount of sea ice decreases, seals, walrus, polar bears, and other ice-dependent species will suffer drastically.

Recent observations have demonstrated that there has been a distinct warming trend in lowland permafrost of 2 to 4 °C over the last 100 years[9], leading to disturbances of animal and human activities due to thawing, thermokarst formation, and severe erosion. Further warming is likely to continue this trend and increase the likelihood of natural hazards for people (particularly affecting hunting and herding), buildings, communication links, and pipelines. The documentation of widespread thawing of discontinuous permafrost in Alaska illustrates some of these hazards and the implications for habitat change and the physical infrastructure of communities. In western Alaska several communities in low-lying areas, including Shishmaref, Kivalina, and Little Diomede, are affected by recent climate changes and face severe problems as a result of erosion and thawing of the discontinuous permafrost[10].

Unstable sea ice could make ice-edge hunting more difficult and dangerous. Temperature and precipitation changes could affect migration patterns of terrestrial mammals like caribou and alter breeding and molting areas for birds. Salmon, herring, walrus, seals, whales, caribou, moose, and various species of waterfowl are expected to undergo shifts in range and abundance[11]. Changes in snow cover could affect the growth and distribution of plants essential for survival of caribou and reindeer. Changes in snow cover could also make accessing hunting, fishing, and herding areas more difficult by dogsled, snow-machine, or other vehicles, making local adjustments in hunting practices and harvesting strategies necessary.

Indigenous observations of climate change (12.2.4.2)

In many parts of the Arctic, indigenous peoples are reporting that they are already experiencing the effects of climate change. In Canada’s Nunavut Territory, Inuit hunters have noticed the thinning of sea ice and the appearance of birds not usually found in their region; Iñupiat hunters in Alaska report that ice cellars are too warm to keep food frozen; Inuvialuit in the western Canadian Arctic report thunderstorms and lightning (a rare occurrence in the region); Gwich’in Athapaskan people in Alaska have witnessed dramatic changes in weather, vegetation, and animal distribution patterns over the last 50 years or so; Saami reindeer herders in Norway have observed that prevailing winds relied on for navigation have shifted and that snow cannot be relied on for traveling over on trails that people have always used and considered safe (see Chapter 3).

Indigenous peoples in Alaska, for example, have already reported that there has been little snow in autumn and early winter, but substantial snowfall in late winter and early spring (Chapter 3). According to local hunters, the lack of snow makes it difficult for polar bears and ringed seals to make dens for giving birth or, in the case of male polar bears, to seek protection from the weather. The lack of ringed seal dens may affect the numbers and condition of polar bears, which prey on ringed seals and often seek out the dens. People in northern coastal Alaska are concerned that hungry polar bears may be more likely to approach villages and encounter people.

Inuit observations of climate change have been recently documented for the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut[12]. People have spoken of a changed climate in the 1990s compared with previous decades: increasing temperatures with earlier spring melts and later freeze-ups in autumn have meant periods of longer summer-like conditions, while weather has become variable and unpredictable. This change and variability has had many impacts on caribou. Migration routes and the location of calving grounds have shifted and food sources have sometimes become inaccessible. Inuit have recently noticed more frequent short-term changes in temperature, especially in freeze–thaw cycles, which, because these cycles help form an icy layer on the top of snow or tundra, prevent caribou accessing vegetation[13].

Consequences of climate change for the livelihoods of indigenous peoples: caribou hunting and reindeer herding (12.2.4.3)

The case studies in section 12.3 provide detailed analyses of the current and potential consequences of climate change for the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. The case study on caribou hunting in Arctic North America (section 12.3.5), for example, shows how the location of modern-day human settlements relative to caribou migration routes has consequences for the success of community caribou hunting. Communities like Old Crow in Yukon Territory, located in the center of the range of large migratory herds, have opportunities to intercept caribou during autumn and spring migrations, whereas communities situated on the margin of a herd’s range may have access to animals only during winter or briefly during the summer calving and post-calving periods. The range of a large herd can contract at low population levels and expand at high population levels, and the implications for local communities situated at a distance from a herd’s range can mean a decline in successful hunting and even the abandonment of caribou hunting for several decades. Shifting migration routes because of climate change will have consequences for hunting success.

All caribou and reindeer herds depend on the availability of abundant tundra vegetation such as lichen for forage, especially during the calving season. Climate-induced changes to arctic tundra may cause major vegetation zones to shift significantly northward, as well as having an effect on freeze–thaw cycles. The timing and occurrence of ice crusts due to refreezing of molten snow layers, which might be affected by changes in climate, will be a major factor for the sustenance of caribou and reindeer herds[14]. This will have significant implications for reindeer populations in relation to their ability to find food and raise calves. Future variations in weather and climate could mean a potential decline in caribou and reindeer populations and have an adverse effect on hunting and herding practices. This could threaten human nutrition for indigenous households and threaten a whole way of life for arctic communities.

Russian historical records from the 1800s and early 1900s provide startling documented evidence of devastating losses of reindeer stocks of Siberian indigenous herders due to occasional and dramatic weather events and environmental changes[15]. Such changes also had severe social impacts, pushing wealthy pastoralists below the poverty line. Declines and increases in caribou and reindeer populations are cyclical. Reindeer populations display consistent instability, indicating that herds and grazing systems are strongly influenced by climatic variation (Chapter 17). Severe weather conditions in spring, or a late snow melt, can have significant effects on reindeer populations, resulting in the death of young or weak animals during winter periods of starvation[16]. Research suggests that climate change may already be contributing to the decline of caribou and reindeer herds. For example, the caribou disappeared from northern East Greenland in 1900 through migration to West Greenland in search of an adequate food supply as a result of climatic changes; this, in turn, caused the arctic wolf to disappear by 1934 owing to the loss of its main source of food [17].

The disappearance of some caribou on Canada’s Banks Island may be linked to climate change according to recent research (see Riedlinger and Berkes [18]; and the case study in section 12.3.1) and also the observations of Inuvialuit, as discussed by Nagy M.[19]:

In the ’70s I guess, that’s when they really started noticing it, muskox taking over. But [regarding] caribou, sometimes [...] in the fall, we get freeze-up on the whole island. Then, before the snow is really deep, we get our mild weather and rain. Then it’s cold enough for the rain to freeze on top the snow and that’s when the caribou try to leave the island, even go out into the ocean. ’Cause they were eating mostly ice.

We were still here when one year it happened. When dogs started seeing the caribou, they’d be running. Nothing wrong with them but they just stop and start kicking. They have too much water in their stomach, their heads are spinning. So a lot of big bulls died off by spring [...]. There was even one year, that worst year that time, the cows didn’t have any calves, they didn’t. That hit them just before the rutting season.

I don’t think [the muskox] really pushed the caribou away. Like right now the caribou are just dying, now. […] in the fall time, [...] when the weather is not good, the ones that are born, they just freeze when the weather is not good.

Using the results of Wilkinson et al.[20], Gunn et al.[21] dismissed forage competition between muskox and caribou and linked the disappearance of caribou on Banks Island to changing climate conditions associated with earlier spring snow disappearance, warmer winters that are snowier (hence more difficult for accessing forage), and with higher incidence of freezing rain.

Although annual die-offs of 60 to 300 caribou occurred during the winters of 1987–1988, 1988–1989, and 1990–1991 when freezing rains occurred[22], Larter and Nagy[23] concluded that the drop in number of Banks Island caribou in 1994 and in 1998 happened despite high calf production, high overwinter survival rates of calves, and less severe winter snow conditions. Thus, severe winter weather might not be the major cause of caribou decline. According to Nagy M.[24], some Inuvialuit think that caribou do not like the strong smell of muskox and prefer to be away from them. Accordingly, some Inuvialuit say that caribou have moved out of the island to avoid muskox. Lent[25] noted that reindeer herders in Alaska believed that "caribou and reindeer will avoid muskox, moving away when muskox enter their vicinity" but added "there is no quantitative evidence to support this contention, nor has a controlled study been undertaken". Hence expressing some of the distrust wildlife scientists might have towards local knowledge.

As Chapter 17 discusses in more detail, recent modeling studies indicate that the mean annual temperature over northern Fennoscandia is likely to increase by 0.3 to 0.5 °C per decade during the next 20 to 30 years, with the annual amount of precipitation increasing by 1 to 4% per decade. Such changes are likely to affect snow conditions and foraging conditions for reindeer. In Finland there is increasing concern about the effect of a changing climate on the winter snowpack and on the distribution of lichens, the main winter food for reindeer. Climate change is expected to mean that fast-growing vascular plants may out-compete slower growing lichens, which will affect the eating habits of reindeer. In Finland, Saami reindeer herders are aware of when reindeer numbers fall due to adverse weather and attempt to preserve their herds by adjusting the number of animals they slaughter[26].

Concerns over irreversible impacts (12.2.4.4)

Indigenous peoples live with fluctuations in weather and climatic conditions. Experiencing year-to-year changes in weather, ice and snow patterns, animal behavior and movement, and in hunting conditions is part of life in the Arctic. Yet the trends currently being observed give concern over major, irreversible impacts on indigenous communities and livelihoods. For example, since the late 1970s Alaska Natives in communities along the coast of the northern Bering and Chukchi Seas have noticed substantial changes in the ocean and the animals that live there, particularly in the patterns of wind, temperature, ice, and currents (see also Chapter 3).

A significant collection of indigenous environmental observations was recorded during a study of environmental changes in Canada’s Hudson Bay region. The results are published in Voices from the Bay by the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee and the Municipality of Sanikiluaq, a small Inuit community on the Belcher Islands in the midst of Hudson Bay. Completed in 1996 and published in 1997, the study brought together 78 Inuit and Cree hunters and elders from 28 communities on the shores of Hudson and James Bays in a series of workshops held over three years to describe, record, and verify ecological changes in the region, including but not limited to climate change[27]. Observations include wholesale changes in location, number, and duration of polynyas – open water areas in winter – in eastern Hudson Bay, and changing routes of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and snow geese (Anser caerulescens), but the study indicates that alterations in weather and climate are by no means uniform within the region. Voices from the Bay and other observations by indigenous peoples (see Chapter 3) illustrate an important and inescapable fact: that much of the impact of climate change on northern indigenous peoples will be channeled through ecological changes to which they will have to respond, cope, and adapt.

As indigenous peoples perceive and experience it, the Arctic is becoming an environment at risk[28] in the sense that sea ice is now unstable where hunters previously knew it to be safe, more dramatic weather-related events such as floods are occurring, vegetation cover is changing, and particular animals are no longer found in traditional hunting areas during specific seasons. The weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable and local landscapes, seascapes, and icescapes are becoming unfamiliar.

Hunters and herders in some places are already altering their hunting patterns to accommodate changes to ice, tundra vegetation, and the distribution of marine and terrestrial harvested species[29]. As the case study from Sachs Harbour shows (see section 12.3.1), physical environmental change is immediately observable in terms of reduced sea-ice cover and lack of old (or multi-year) ice around the community in summer, and the thawing of permafrost. These changes challenge Inuvialuit knowledge and understanding of the environment, and make prediction, travel safety, and resource access more difficult. The Inuvialuit, like most indigenous groups who live off the land, rely on their ability to predict environmental phenomena such as snow and ice conditions, the weather, and the timing of wildlife migrations. For the Inuvialuit, as is increasingly reported throughout the Arctic by many other peoples, seasons have become less consistent, and weather events have become less predictable in the last few years[30].

 

Chapter 12. Hunting, herding, fishing, and gathering: indigenous peoples and renewable resource use in the Arctic
12.1 Introduction
12.2 Present uses of living marine and terrestrial resources
    12.2.1 Indigenous peoples, animals, and climate in the Arctic
    12.2.2 Mixed economies
    12.2.3 Renewable resource use, resource development, and global processes
    12.2.4 Renewable resource use and climate change
    12.2.5 Responding to climate change
12.3 Understanding climate change impacts through case studies
    12.3.1 Canadian Western Arctic: the Inuvialuit of Sachs Harbour
    12.3.2 Canadian Inuit in Nunavut
    12.3.3 The Yamal Nenets of northwest Siberia
    12.3.4 Indigenous peoples of the Russian North
    12.3.5 Indigenous caribou systems of North America

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Glossary

Citation

Committee, I. (2012). Renewable resource use and climate change in the arctic. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155708

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