Inuit Culture in a Warming Arctic
The climate of the Arctic region is warming quickly, faster than other places on Earth, and the Inuit who live there have been noticing substantial changes to the environment. “Climate change is amplified in the Arctic,” noted Shiela Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, in a 2005 speech. “What is happening to us now will happen soon in the rest of the world,” she added, “our region is the globe’s climate change “barometer.” If you want to protect the planet, look to the Arctic and listen to what Inuit are saying.”
Inuit culture is closely connected to the Arctic environment. So the skills and knowledge that Inuit developed over thousands of years as a part of their culture are uniquely adapted to the Arctic’s cold and harsh climate. Changes to the natural environment such as melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and change to Arctic tundra species are threatening traditional Inuit ways of life.
“The costs of climate change are already being paid by the peoples and communities of the Arctic,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “The communities and Indigenous peoples of this region are skilled in adapting to harsh and often dramatic changing conditions,” he continued, “including sharp fluctuations in the scarcity and in the abundance of land and marine resources. However, the rapid changes likely in the future may overwhelm traditional coping strategies.”
From 2002-2005, an Inuit organization called the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, in collaboration with several other organizations and regional Canadian Inuit groups, held a series of workshops focused on what environmental change caused by warming means to the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic. Inuit communities recorded their observations about impacts and local adaptations during the workshops. They ultimately documented the Inuit observations of warming in a book called Unikaaqatigiit: Putting the Human Face on Climate Change – Perspectives from the Inuit in Canada.
Their observations included changes in ice and snow conditions. This has had an impact on travel routes. “We need to be more careful when pursuing animals because of thinner ice and changing ice conditions,” said Inuit from the Nunavut Territory.
Inuit from all of the regions across the Canadian Arctic reported a decrease in the quality and quantity of drinking water. “The water from some rivers and ponds smells and tastes bad, particularly when it does not rain for quite some time. We do not want to drink this water,” said the Nunatsiavut Inuit. This is because changes in precipitation patterns are causing changes in lakes and rivers.
Some of the observations are more complex. For example, more freezing rain covers low growing lichens with a layer of ice. The lichens are the primary food source for caribou. Caribou have to travel into new areas to find food. Caribou have become thinner. Inuit, who hunt the caribou, have noticed that they are harder to find. “Caribou are a lot skinnier,” noted an Inuit. “And the caribou don’t look as healthy as they used to.”
Inuit also reported other negative impacts such as an increase in sunburns and a decrease in their ability to predict the weather. But not all of their observed changes told of dire consequences of climate change. Some observations were positive. For example, warmer climate has led to the introduction of species that typically live further south and these species can be new food sources for the Inuit.
What do these changes to the environment mean for the Inuit way of life? “Inuit are going to have to find new ways to make a living from the land. And whatever form that takes, it will not be what Inuit would have wished for, it will not be ideal, and it will not be an uninterrupted continuation of the traditional ways,” said Jose A. Kusugak, past president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s Inuit Organization. He continued that, “our millennia-old traditions are already being altered because of the warming Arctic, and we face the possibility of having to completely reinvent what it means to be Inuit. This is a prospect we fear.”