Understanding and assessing climate change vulnerabilities in the Arctic through case studies

May 7, 2012, 6:01 pm

This is Section 17.4 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Lead Authors: James J. McCarthy, Marybeth Long Martello; Contributing Authors: Robert Corell, Noelle Eckley Selin, Shari Fox, Grete Hovelsrud-Broda, Svein Disch Mathiesen, Colin Polsky, Henrik Selin, Nicholas J.C.Tyler; Corresponding Authors: Kirsti Strøm Bull, Inger Maria Gaup Eira, Nils Isak Eira, Siri Eriksen, Inger Hanssen-Bauer, Johan Klemet Kalstad, Christian Nellemann, Nils Oskal, Erik S. Reinert, Douglas Siegel-Causey, Paal Vegar Storeheier, Johan Mathis Turi


Comparative vulnerability assessments at continental scales[1] can reveal regional differences in the vulnerability of human–environment systems.The differences reflect, for example, geographically uneven rates of climate change projected in regional climate scenarios and broad regional distinctions in the capacity of individuals and institutions to cope with and adapt to change.

The Third Scientific Assessment of the IPCC ascertained the following as likely projections for the Arctic using the IPCC scenarios for climate change[2]:

The Arctic is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and major ecological, sociological, and economic impacts are expected.

Habitat loss [will occur] for some species, and apex consumers – with their low-reproductive outputs – are vulnerable to changes in the long polar marine food chains.

Adaptation to climate change in natural polar ecosystems is likely to occur through migration and changing species assemblages but the details of these effects are unknown.

Loss of sea-ice in the Arctic will provide increased opportunities for new sea routes, fishing and new settlements, but also for wider dispersal of pollutants.

Although most indigenous peoples are highly resilient, the combined impacts of climate change and globalization create new and unexpected challenges. Because their livelihood and economy increasingly are tied to distant markets, they will be affected not only by climate change in the Arctic but also by other changes elsewhere. Local adjustments in harvest strategies and in allocation of labor and capital will be necessary. Perhaps the greatest threat of all is to maintenance of self-esteem, social cohesion, and cultural identity of communities.

This chapter builds upon more general climate change vulnerability analyses by placing climate in the context of other factors that can enhance or diminish vulnerability of arctic systems to future climate change. In order to ensure that such an analysis realistically characterizes the perspectives of the people who will be making decisions to apply coping and adaptive strategies to increase resilience, and hence minimize vulnerability, a vulnerability analysis must focus on a particular place.The dynamic character of vulnerability requires that the human–environment system be represented on a scale that is meaningful to individual decision-makers.

Sections and provide examples for which a vulnerability assessment would be tractable, revealing, and ultimately useful to residents of the Arctic who will be making decisions in relation to future change. The first example (see section is drawn from a case study on the Sachs Harbour community, NWT, Canada. This case study is one of several such cases presented in Chapters 3, 11, and 12 for which a vulnerability analysis would be illuminating. The study of Sachs Harbour, however, is particularly well suited because its design and development fully engaged the residents of this community, while detailing the ways in which local people and other stakeholders view, experience, and respond to climate change. The community has a mixed economy, with strong historical dependence on fish and wildlife, and lies in a region of the Arctic that experiences high rates of climate change. However, at this time it is not possible to go beyond the work that has already been conducted with respect to recent and likely future climate change. Without a new phase of research that fully involves the Inuvialuit people of Sachs Harbour, their resilience in accommodating interactive future impacts of changes in climate and other stressors cannot be assessed. A primary purpose of the description in section is to signal the importance of the next phase in such an assessment in this community.

The second example (see section focuses on the coastal communities of Greenland.These communities are attractive potential sites for vulnerability analysis because of their historical documentation of their strong dependence on marine living resource use, including fishing, sealing, and whaling for subsistence and income, and in particular their growing knowledge of the amounts of pollutants in the local marine food webs. In addition the governance of Greenland is evolving, and its institutions will continue to play important roles in shaping coping and adaptive capacities for Greenlanders. Research on this human–environment system is at a very early stage. In order to proceed, residents knowledgeable about the roles of past and likely future climate in local livelihood activities must be engaged.

Furthermore, assessing climate change in the context of multiple stresses and resilience in both Sachs Harbour and coastal Greenland will require scenarios, i.e., a range of plausible futures.These scenarios should reflect the combined effects of likely future changes in climate, in other environmental factors that could affect livelihoods (e.g., natural resources), and in human and societal conditions that influence resilience and coping strategies.

A third example (see section 17.4.2) focuses on reindeer populations and reindeer herding in Finnmark, Norway. Reindeer herding by Sámi takes place well inland in winter and on the coast and nearby islands in summer. This practice involves management of grazing grounds in both locations and migration of the herds between them in spring and autumn.The long history of these practices during periods of past climate change and the increasing role of governmental regulation raises interesting questions about the vulnerability of this system. Sámi reindeer herding represents a tightly coupled human–environment system in which indigenous peoples interact closely with an ecosystem upon which they depend for their way of life.

Two additional factors support the inclusion of the Finnmark case study. A vulnerability assessment has recently been conducted for Norway[3]. It aptly demonstrates that the arctic region of Norway will be more vulnerable to climate change than more southern regions, and the importance of selecting the appropriate scale of analysis in vulnerability assessments. Secondly, work to date with the Sámi reindeer herding community in Finnmark offers an excellent example of the co-generation of knowledge involving academic scientists and indigenous peoples. A research effort is now underway to ascertain the resilience of this system to future change in climate and other factors, and the preliminary findings from this study are discussed below.

These three communities and livelihoods are not intended to be representative of the Arctic as a whole.They have been selected because they present examples of tightly coupled human–environment systems in which indigenous peoples interact closely with local ecosystems and rely upon these ecosystems to support their ways of life.Yet, they also span different geographic settings, environmental conditions, governance systems, and socio-ecological dynamics. For example, neither Sámi reindeer herders nor reindeer herding itself are “typical” of anything beyond themselves.The system of which they form a part possesses unique ecological, sociological, and ethnological features.Therefore, the system represents a useful site in which to examine the plasticity and adaptability of a generalized methodological framework for vulnerability studies.

In each of these cases there lies potential to test concepts and methodologies described in this chapter and to present information about stresses, sensitivity, and resilience within the coupled human–environment system. Other examples could have been developed by building upon material presented in Chapters 3 and 12. For example, the Dene Nation, NWT, Canada, and the Yamal Nenets of Northwest Siberia.The Dene case study (Chapter 3) is of interest because of the success of the Dene in forming the Denendeh Environmental Working Group. The Dene culture emphasizes interconnectedness among all aspects of the environment, and this working group is observing, documenting, and communicating information related to climate change. However, there is not much information available to judge what factors in addition to climate change are contributing to the vulnerability and resilience of the Dene at this time, and the detailed content of their working group reports are not yet publicly available.The Yamal Nenets case study (Chapter 12) is of interest because it focuses, like the Finnmark study, on a reindeer herding livelihood with a history of adaptive management during times of change. The Yamal Nenet situation differs from that of the Finnmark herders in that the Yamal Nenets are experiencing stresses relating to oil and gas extraction, and might in the future experience stresses related to Northern Sea Route coastal development made possible by climate change. Krupnik[4] and Krupnik and Jolly[5] suggest that these other stresses may be straining the resilience of a livelihood that has sustained Nenet people for centuries. Although a comparative analysis of the Yamal and the Finnmark cases would certainly be instructive it is premature given the preliminary character of research on each of these at this time.


Chapter 17: Climate Change in the Context of Multiple Stressors and Resilience
17.1. Introduction
17.2. Conceptual approaches to vulnerability assessments
    17.2.1. A framework for analyzing vulnerability
    17.2.2. Focusing on interactive changes and stresses in the Arctic
    17.2.3. Identifying coping and adaptation strategies
17.3. Methods and models for vulnerability analysis
17.4. Understanding and assessing vulnerabilities through case studies
    17.4.1. Candidate vulnerability case studies
    17.4.2. A more advanced vulnerability case study
17.5. Insights gained and implications for future vulnerability assessments



  1. ^IPCC, 2001b. Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability:The Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Scientific Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Anisimov, O. and B. Fitzharris, 2001. Polar Regions (Arctic and Antarctic). In: J.J. McCarthy, O.F. Canziani, N.A. Leary, D.J. Dokken, K.S.White (eds.). Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, pp 801–842. Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^O’Brien, K.L., L. Sygna and J.E. Haugen, 2004.Vulnerable or resilient? Multi-scale assessments of the impacts of climate change in Norway. Climatic Change, 64 (1–2): pp. 193–225.
  4. ^Krupnik, I., 2000. Native perspectives on climate and sea ice changes. In: H. Huntington (ed.). Impact of changes in sea ice and other environmental parameters in the Arctic, pp. 25–39. Bethesda, MD: Marine Mammal Commission.
  5. ^Jolly, D., F. Berkes, J. Castleden,T. Nichols and the community of Sachs Harbour, 2002.We can't predict the weather like we used to: Inuvialuit observations of climate change, Sachs Harbor,Western Canadian Arctic. In: I. Krupnik and D. Jolly (eds).The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change, pp. 92–125. Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, Fairbanks, Alaska.






Committee, I. (2012). Understanding and assessing climate change vulnerabilities in the Arctic through case studies. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/156770


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