Inuit Culture on Thin Ice – The Alaska Climate Change Challenge

by Laura Hüßner and Kirstin Werner, Alfred Wegener Institute

Inuit communities have inhabited the high northern latitudes for centuries and their lifestyles are perfectly adapted to the cold, harsh Arctic weather conditions. A recently released report by the Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska (ICC Alaska) describes how food sovereignty and self-governance are affected by changes of weather and climate.

The impacts of climate change on communities have tended to dominate the daily news, although right now the rising numbers of new COVID-19 cases take priority over stories about the damage caused by extreme weather conditions or flooding. While the consequences of climate change remain less obvious in the mid-latitudes, Arctic coastal communities already regularly face environmental changes in their everyday lives. Traditional Inuit knowledge on weather and sea ice is gradually becoming less reliable. Providing the northern communities with highly reliable Arctic weather and sea-ice forecasts is therefore crucial for them to plan their year-round hunting schedule to ensure their survival.

“In order to become healthy again, we need to be in control of our lives here.”

(ICC Alaska report, P. 13)

Food Sovereignty and Self-Governance
The Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska (ICC Alaska) recently released a report led by Inuit, entitled “Food Sovereignty and Self-Governance - Inuit Role in Arctic Marine Resource Management”. The report illuminates Inuit management practices that have successfully safeguarded Arctic peoples for thousands of years. ICC is a permanent participant in the Arctic Council; it has grown into a major international non-governmental organization which currently represents around 180,000 Inuit people from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. In the report, the sustainable use of resources such as char, beluga, walrus and salmon are highlighted as examples of current hunting management practices in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Alaska. 

We Need to Be in Control of Our Lives
Prior to U.S. governmental management policies, the Inuit followed adaptive hunting practices in which they managed the different species they were hunting to maintain a sustainable distribution of animals that could support a healthy ecosystem. The disjointed management situation in which they find themselves today has even led to them getting arrested for exercising hunting practices they have known for years to be sustainable.

To ensure that the Inuit peoples can maintain sovereignty and continue their traditional food procurement activities, the ICC Alaska report recommends close cooperation between the government and Inuit representatives, e.g., when setting up hunting and fishing regulations for northern Alaska. In this way, Inuit food sovereignty can be connected to a holistic and adaptive management to ensure food security, health, and well-being throughout the Arctic for the Inuit generations to come. Current environmental changes lead to extreme, unpredictable weather conditions, rising air temperatures, and hence changes of animal migration. The report highlights the need for the Inuit communities to adapt by better understanding the new weather patterns. This will support them in being able to anticipate when animals and plants are likely to be available as a food source in the new state of the Arctic.

“It is not only the weather [changing] around here. You could tell where the sun would set. […] The sunset is different now. […] It is a big difference ever since that global warming”.

(ICC Alaska report, P. 103)

Making Use of Traditional Knowledge
A study recently published by Fox et al. describes a long-term research project based in Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River), Nunavut, Canada. A research team comprising Inuit and visiting meteorologists combined Inuit traditional knowledge with information from a community-based weather station network. Interviews were conducted to feed into mutual discussions to co-produce knowledge related to human–weather relationships and weather information needs and uses in one of the Nunavut communities. The paper links Inuit knowledge with environmental modelling with the aim to better understand human-weather relationships. It also provides insights into the process of building diverse research teams and knowledge production.  

“[…] Like, global warming is a big thing up here now. It affects all of the animals, it affects us, it affects the animals. All of the erosions – there are a lot of landslides […].The weather is not like what it used to be. It has really changed.”

(ICC Alaska report, P.103)

Learn from Each Other
Inuit hunters pay close attention to the weather and make decisions on the basis of their weather observations. Meteorologists are not so different.
In their paper, Fox et al. mention that travelling on land together with their Inuit research team helped the visitors to understand the specific concerns that Inuit face when travelling. The authors also learned about the sources of information Indigenous people use to infer on upcoming weather conditions – a precious ability to save lives that needs to be refined to continue to protect northern communities in the changing Arctic.

"When you live in an area, you become part of the environment, we are part of the environment. We have been sustaining this environment for thousands of years without degrading it. Resources keep coming back to us, year after year. And that’s one thing millions of people in the world misunderstand: we are actually part of the environment […]” 

(ICC Alaska report, P. 12)

Want to know more?

Learn more about Inuit communities’ situation by watching the YouTube mini-series “After the Ice”, produced by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS)