January 24, 2003

Climate change erodes Inuit knowledge, researches say

Change in weather, change in health


Climate change is eroding the role Inuit elders play in their communities because it makes their traditional knowledge unreliable, elders told researchers at a workshop on global warming last week in Kangiqsujuaq.

The Jan. 15 and 16 workshop was the last in a series of community meetings on climate change that Laval University researchers have conducted across Canada’s Arctic since the start of 2002.

The meetings were funded under Environment Canada’s Northern Ecosystem Initiative and organized in partnership with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and regional Inuit organizations.

Their aim was to gather Inuit observations of both climate change in the Arctic and the impact of these changes on public health in Northern communities.

The overall message from Kangiqsujuaq, said Chris Furgal, the senior public health researcher at Laval University who headed the project, was the same in Puvirnituq and Ivujivik as it was in Nain, Labrador and Tuktoyaktuk, NWT: the Arctic climate is changing and many unforeseen aspects of Inuit life are changing with it.

"Environmental change is changing the level of tradition in communities," Furgal said in an interview this week. "In Nunavik, as in other regions, elders have expressed concern. They said, ‘Part of my role in the community is no longer important....’ They can no longer provide the information about whether or not it’s a good day or bad day for hunting, or provide weather forecasting and also passing the information on about how to survive on the land."

Naalak Nappalak, an elder from Kangiqsujuaq who participated in the workshop, confirms climate change has affected his role as village counselor.

There have always been fluctuations in the weather and temperature, he said, but today’s changes are without precedent.

Nappalak said he is less comfortable making weather forecasts when the environment is so unpredictable.

"Before we knew by looking at the sky whether there would be storms or if it would be calm," Nappalak said. "Nowadays just when you think you know how the weather will be, they can change in an instant. It’s this inconsistency that is most noticeable."

The weather is only the tip of the melting iceberg.

Napaluuk and Inuit elders across the country reported many other environmental changes at the ITK workshops.

Biting flies and robins have migrated North and are now regularly seen in Kuujjuaq. Geese once flew close enough to Ivujivik for hunters to catch but now the birds’ fall migration is too far east to hunt.

Nappalak himself has noticed the land that was damp when he was younger is now dry. The sun is stronger and there are heat waves, he said. The water around his community, once clear and good to drink, has become muddy and undrinkable.

Then there is the ice — the gateway to seal hunting. Every year, he said, it seems to form later in the winter and break earlier in the spring.

"In my community right now, the sea should have been frozen by now, but we still have some open water — that’s late," he said. "It can be dangerous for hunters because if you’re not careful you are in danger."

Furgal is working with the elders to connect the physical phenomena of climate change with its health and societal impacts.

Some connections are direct and visible. Furgal and elders can clearly see the link between unpredictable storms and an increase in accidents and deaths. Changes in ice distribution and stability have lead to more hunting accidents on poor ice.

But others, like the impact climate change has had on the traditional role of elders, are surprising. Some may not even be happening yet.

For example, Furgal said, the appearance of new species in the region could lead to new animal-borne diseases in the area.

"One of the concerns from the Nunavik side is in hares. There have been a couple incidences of a deadly disease known as tularemia. Now the range of those hares is very much controlled by environmental conditions," Furgal said. "There’s a possibility of those hares travelling farther north as the climate warms and the disease could spread to an Arctic hare population. And for tularemia we know there’s been a couple of [human] deaths along the north shore of Quebec in the past 10 years."

Other indirect links include a potential increase in the rate of botulism as the weather warms and a decrease in the consumption of country foods as caribou and geese migration patterns change, Furgal said.

The next step of the workshops, he said, is for governmental agencies to look at the Inuit observations and develop ways to adapt to the potential repercussions.

Furgal and his team of researchers will soon produce a draft summary of the workshops, which they will present to all participants. After it is approved, it will be delivered to such organizations as Environment Canada.