Conclusions on Indigenous Perspectives on the Changing Arctic

August 2, 2012, 2:44 pm
Source: IASC
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This is Section 3.7 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
Lead Authors: Henry Huntington, Shari Fox; Contributing Authors: Fikret Berkes, Igor Krupnik; Case Study Authors are identified on specific case studies; Consulting Authors: Anne Henshaw,Terry Fenge, Scot Nickels, Simon Wilson

The case studies and the summary of indigenous observations presented in this chapter were drawn from a variety of studies, conducted in many arctic communities and cultures, and translated from a number of languages. From this diversity of sources, some common themes emerge.While the specifics of these themes and how they are dealt with will depend on circumstances particular to each community, indigenous peoples around the Arctic nonetheless have some shared experiences with climate change.

One topic that stands out across all regions is increased weather variability and unpredictability. Experienced hunters and elders from around the Arctic express concern that they cannot predict the weather like they used to: the weather changes more quickly and in unexpected ways. Arctic residents recognize that the climate is inherently variable. However, many indigenous observers identify the unpredictable and unseasonable weather of the last decade or so as unprecedented. It is true that many factors, such as less frequent time on the land and a tendency to remember the past in rosier terms than are justified, could contribute to changing perceptions of weather predictability even in the absence of actual changes in weather patterns. Nonetheless, similar observations have been made independently by many people in all areas around the Arctic. Such widespread observations of and concern over increased weather variability point, at a minimum, to an important and interesting area for further research, particularly in collaboration with meteorologists and climatologists. Fox et al.[1] have done the initial work to link indigenous and scientific observations of weather variability for one community on Baffin Island. Further investigation covering a larger region would be useful and desirable.

While increased weather variability clearly stands out as the most common observation of change across arctic communities, changes in wind and changes in sea ice are also important and widespread. The details of both, however, depend on the location of the observation. In some communities, residents are concerned about changes in wind direction, in others wind strength and the frequency of high winds have changed, and in some places both trends have been seen. Changes in sea ice are similarly variable in time and space. Sea ice may be of the usual thickness but lesser extent in one area in a given year, and the usual extent but reduced thickness in a different area or in another year. The common theme is the prevalence of unusual characteristics and patterns in winds and sea ice. This leads to another insight from analyzing indigenous observations, which is the stress on interconnections between impacts from climate and environmental changes.

Many of the examples of indigenous perspectives of climate change presented here illustrate how the impacts of climate change are connected, interacting to produce further changes. For example, the Nunavut case study (section 3.4.5) shows how wind changes in the Baker Lake area have packed the snow unusually hard, making igloo building difficult or impossible.When these winddriven snow changes interact with the recent unpredictable weather conditions, dangerous situations arise as travelers are unable to build emergency snow shelters. The Kotzebue case study (section 3.4.1) offers several examples of the different and interacting consequences of change in a single variable in that region.

The climate and environmental changes observed by arctic indigenous peoples produce impacts through their interactions with one another, and through the ways in which they play out in social, political, and cultural contexts. Indigenous perceptions of climate change do not arise in isolation, but are shaped by these contexts as well as the context of the overall climate change debate.

This is best demonstrated in the case study from the Kola Peninsula (section 3.4.9).While the Saami of that region have observed the impacts of climate change and are concerned about the long-term implications, they are far more concerned about their immediate economic and political circumstances.When people are concerned about making a living and providing food for their families, it is not surprising that less immediate concerns do not rate as highly. In Nunavut, the situation is not as dire, but people are nonetheless very concerned about issues such as poverty, housing, and cultural preservation. Here, too, climate change may not be regarded as a top priority issue.

The contexts within which indigenous peoples observe, assess, interact, and respond to the impacts of climate change are extremely important, especially as individuals and communities begin to develop ways to adapt to these changes. Political or economic situations will play a role in constraining or enabling people to adapt. For example, Chapter 17 discusses how reindeer herders in Finnmark are hindered in their ability to deal with icy grazing areas in the autumn. In the past, herders could move the reindeer to other pastures that had not iced over. Owing to changes in land use and new boundaries, however, herders are now prevented from moving their herds and are thus vulnerable to localized freezing events.

Two areas in particular need further development to enhance the abilities of indigenous peoples to cope with the impacts of climate change. First, increasing flexibility and the response options available will allow a broader array of potential responses.This entails devolving authority and capacity to more local levels so that people and communities can choose for themselves the responses that make the most sense in their particular situation, given the costs and benefits of those responses. Such responses range from changing regulations concerning resource use to moving settlements to more favorable locations. Second, more information about the potential types of changes that may be seen will help identify particular areas of vulnerability.The common themes and concerns in this chapter – increased variability in weather, changes in wind patterns, changes in sea ice and snow, more freeze-thaw cycles, more and stronger storms – are topics that are not well addressed in typical climate models (see Chapter 4). Greater attention to the climate parameters that affect local people and ecosystems directly will help to identify critical areas for local and regional action.

These steps can and should flow from the documentation and presentation of indigenous perspectives on climate change. Indigenous knowledge and perspectives are a foundation upon which individuals, communities, and regions can design responses and take action. Other information and expertise are also essential to this process, and collaborative approaches are thus the most likely to be effective in identifying and addressing the challenges and opportunities posed by climate change. Randall Tetlichi, a Vuntut Gwitchin leader from Old Crow, Yukon Territory, referred to the need to draw on scientific and traditional knowledge as the need to “double understand” (quoted in Kofinas et al.[2]). For the peoples of the Arctic, whose future is at stake, having the ability to make choices and changes is a matter of survival, to which all available resources must be applied.

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., M. Pocernich and J.A. Miller, in prep. Climate and weather variability in the Eastern Canadian Arctic: linking Inuit observations and meteorological data.
  2. ^Kofinas, G.P. and the communities of Aklavik, Arctic Village, Old Crow, and Fort McPherson, 2002. Community contributions to ecological monitoring: knowledge co-production in the U.S.-Canada Arctic borderlands. In: I. Krupnik and D. Jolly (eds.).The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change, pp. 55–91. Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S., Fairbanks, Alaska.






(2012). Conclusions on Indigenous Perspectives on the Changing Arctic. Retrieved from


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