The Heat Is Online

Inuit Bear Witness to Dramatic Climate Changes

Signs of Thaw in a Desert of Snow
Scientists Begin to Heed Inuit Warnings of Climate Change in Arctic

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Foreign Service, May 28, 2002

IQALUIT, Nunavut -- And so it has come to be, the elders say, a time when icebergs are melting, tides have changed, polar bears have thinned and there is no meaning left in a ring around the moon. Scattered clouds blowing in a wind no longer speak to elders and hunters. Daily weather markers are becoming less predictable in the fragile Arctic as its climate changes.

Inuit elders and hunters who depend on the land say they are disturbed by what they are seeing swept in by the changes: deformed fish, caribou with bad livers, baby seals left by their mothers to starve. Just the other year, a robin appeared where no robin had been seen before. There is no word for robin in Inuktitut, the Inuit language.

Elders say they are afraid of the changes. "When I was a child, if there was a ring around the sun or the moon, it meant the change of weather in the next few days. Better or worse, it was nature's message for the hunter," said David Audlakiak.

He is walking on a thick layer of ice frozen over the arctic waters. The hills behind him should still be covered in snow, but are mostly bare. As this winter ends, he says that it has been warmer than winters past. The bald spots showing the tundra are disturbing.

Audlakiak, who grew up in an igloo, says there are more signs the land, sea and animals are in turmoil. "The weather pattern has changed so much from my childhood. We have more accidents because the ice conditions change. We are living in one of the most unforgiving climates in the world. It is becoming more dangerous every year."

There is increasing evidence that the Arctic, this desert of snow, ice and killing cold wind, one of the most hostile and fragile places on Earth, is thawing. Glaciers are receding. Coastlines are eroding. Lakes are disappearing. Fall freezes are coming later. The winters are not as cold. Mosquitoes and beetles never seen before are appearing. The sky seems to be clapping as thunderstorms roll where it was once too cold for them.

"The Inuit always observed the sun and astrology for direction and for weather," Jayko Pitseolak, an Inuit elder here, said through an interpreter. "We were taught ... that one day the world will change, and it has."

While scientists debate the causes of climate change and politicians debate whether to ratify the Kyoto accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists believe cause global warming, the Inuit who live in Canada's Far North say they are watching their world melt before their eyes.

For years, the wisdom of Inuit hunters and elders about climate in the Arctic, known as "traditional knowledge," was largely disregarded. Sometimes it was called merely anecdotal and unreliable by scientists who traveled here with their recording devices, measuring sticks and theories about the North. Some of them viewed the Inuit as ignorant about a land in which they and their ancestors have lived for thousands of years.

But in the last few years, scientists have begun paying more attention to what the Inuit are documenting, and even incorporating it into their research about changes in the climate, the prevailing weather conditions of a given area. In 1997, the Canadian government mandated that government agencies incorporate traditional knowledge into land-use decisions and consult aboriginal people about the environment.

"Traditional knowledge is very useful," said George Hobson, a geophysicist and retired director of the Polar Continental Shelf Project, a Canadian government agency that provided logistical support to government and university scientists researching the Arctic.

"If you go back 100 years or 200 years ago, European forefathers thought they [the Inuit] were savages. 'What did they know?' they said. But there was traditional knowledge and people were not tapping it. It was just waiting to be passed down.

Some people might say, 'I'm a university prof, what does that fellow know? He doesn't have grade six.' But when they have grade six and they have lived out on the land, they had one hell of a lot of knowledge about land and animals. They may not have had the same education, but they were not stupid. You could not be stupid and survive in that kind of climate."

During the past 40 years, average temperatures in Canada's Western Arctic have risen by 1.5 degrees Celsius, to -13.5 degrees Celsius, according to Environment Canada, the government's environment ministry. Temperatures have also risen in the Central Arctic, but not in the Eastern Arctic, where some scientists suggest there may even be a modest cooling. "Global warming doesn't mean all areas will warm," said Tom Agnew, a senior meteorologist with the Meteorological Service of Canada. "Some will warm and some will cool a bit." Some scientists predict a rise in sea levels leading to devastating floods, thinning ice and perhaps even an ice-free Arctic within 50 years.

Terry Fenge, former research director of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference of Canada, said that in the last decade scientists have acknowledged the Arctic as a barometer of climate change and the effects of pollution. "This is one of those very important areas where traditional knowledge and traditional science is coming together with Western science and they are both in essence saying the same thing: Climate change is not a future event. It is happening now."

For the Inuit, climate change poses an immediate danger to a way of life. They cannot read the weather the way they used to.

"When you think in terms of the long-term negative effects of climate change, this could be the beginning of the end of the way of life for a whole people," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of the circumpolar conference. "Our cultural heritage is at stake here. We are an adaptable people. We have over the millennium been able to adapt to incredible circumstances. But I think adaptability has its limits. If the ice is not forming, how else does one adapt to seasons that are not as they used to be when the whole environment is changing underneath our feet, literally?"

For thousands of years, the Inuit have lived by rules that require them to respect animals and the land. The Inuit's ancestors are believed to have arrived in the Western Arctic about 10,000 years ago, migrating from Siberia across what was then the Bering land bridge.

They adapted to the cold climate as they hunted seals, walruses and beluga whales. It was a time "when people and animals could speak together and when spirits of the sea and the land controlled the fate of both the animal and human world," according to a report by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, a nonprofit Inuit organization.

Hunters would forecast the weather by looking for signs in the way animals behaved or by looking at clouds, stars, wind, snow and water currents. Some Inuit knew to expect bad weather if a caribou or seal shook its head, according to a report on traditional knowledge by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a research institute in Winnipeg.

"In spring, Inuit expect bad weather when northbound geese reverse direction," the report said. When an echo traveled for miles, poor weather. Cold was expected when "the woodpecker's beak moves fast."

Siloah Atagoojuk, who lives here in Iqaluit, has lines on her face, but she does not want to pretend she knows more than anyone else -- nor does she try to assign blame. She is simply worried. Her world is not as it used to be and her people may not be able to adapt to it. "There is sickness in the animals," Atagoojuk says. "The flesh doesn't look good. You have to cook it extra.

Even the caribou are not healthy, as fat -- same for marine animals. We have known all along since we were little kids there will be a time when the Earth will be destroyed and destroy itself. Seems this is happening."

The sustainable development institute produced a videotape of observations by Inuit hunters and elders that was recently shown as evidence of climate change at a conference in The Hague. In the video, hunters and elders speak about melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers and a stronger sun. There is concern that the community of Tuktuujaqtuuq, in the Western Arctic, could slide into the sea.

"Tuktuujaqtuuq is very low and very vulnerable," said Rick Armstrong, manager of scientific support services for the Nunavut Research Institute. He said ice acts as a buffer between land and ocean and protects coastal communities from storms and erosion. "With the warming, there is a concern they may need to move buildings in Tuktuujaqtuuq."

The Inuit, many of whom toggle between the Stone Age and the Space Age, building igloos and surfing the Web, have created a Web site on which elders and hunters post their observations. "About two years ago, when we were corralling reindeer . . . the north wind started blowing and there were dead birds and dead hair seals and dolphins. All kinds of sea birds that were washed ashore," said Herman Toolie of the community of Savoonga. "And dog salmon that were never touched by sea gull or foxes. They were never eaten. We were wondering why. . . .

One of the elders said that these things never used to happen. It is something new to them."

Near the sea's edge, the ice floes are melting. The hunters are heading out on snowmobiles. Natsiapik Naglingniq knows they are headed into danger, unable to rely on the weather or the ice, which is opening and closing, teasing those who walk across it. Just the other day, a hunter went on the local radio to warn that the ice seems to be melting from the bottom.

Naglingniq says that when she was just a girl, living in an igloo, her job was to take out the garbage and, as she did, take notice of the world.

"When I would come back in, my parents would ask, 'So what was the weather like out there?' I would explain. By explaining the weather to my parents, I learned to be able to tell what the next day's weather would be like."

In the dark, she would watch for a ring around the moon. "That would mean that it will be a bad day tomorrow." But if she saw a clear night and the stars getting closer and farther, as if they were getting bigger and smaller at the same time, "it meant it will be windy the next day."

In the past, Naglingniq says, there were good days and bad days, but not the same as the weather today, changing so rapidly that people cannot make sense of the ring around the moon or the burning circle around the sun.

"We were told by the elders at the time there will be a change," Naglingniq says. Beneath her fur-trimmed parka, her eyes are turning a milky gray, but she says she can see when something is amiss. Last summer, the elders saw insects they had never seen before. "The insects are larger," she says. "It has lots of legs and it is quite big. As soon as it observes humans, it curls up in a ball. It's strange." She cannot say its name. There is no word in Inuktitut for this insect.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company