Satellite pics vital for hunters as climate changes

“Not all of the indicators are reliable anymore”


Special to Nunatsiaq News

It’s hard enough to find the safest route to the floe edge but with a warming climate causing fast ice to fracture in unpredictable ways, Nunavut hunters need new tools to make their journey safer.

And increasingly, they’re looking to the sky for help, or at least images captured there.

Carleton University researcher Gita Laidler has been studying how Nunavut harvesters use satellite images of sea ice as a tool to evaluate a journey’s hazards and risks. She presented her findings at last week’s ArcticNet conference in Ottawa.

“There are traditional indicators, but they’ve been saying that not all the indicators are reliable anymore and conditions do change very rapidly so the ice can break off overnight and you wouldn’t necessarily know,” said Laidler. “These images allow you to look at it before you go.”

Hunters use many tools to determine safety on the ice, she said, including cloud cover, wind, weather, surface ice conditions, snow and, of course, knowledge borne of years on the land.

But Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images, provided for free on the Noetix Research website, can offer added security by exposing, for example, areas of thin ice eroded by ocean currents.

Those detailed SAR images were first made available through a pilot project to Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay.

The project was later expanded to include Igloolik, Cape Dorset and Pangnirtung, which is where Laidler conducted her International Polar Year funded research.

The study was part of the Inuit Sea Ice Use and Occupancy Project based out of Carleton University where Laidler is an assistant professor at the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.

Laidler’s goal was to find out who used the images and how. What she discovered was that while younger hunters relied more on the new technology, elders understood the pictures better.

“Elders are less likely to access it on computer or consult the images because they know what they’re doing,” said Laidler.

“But when you show them the images, they’re the most able to interpret them, even though they have the least experience with that technology. They understand the ice. It’s fairly intuitive for them.”

Which is why, she added, the more experienced harvesters insisted technology alone was not enough to ensure a safe and successful trip to the floe edge—that real experience, on the ice, was fundamental to a young hunter’s education.

And it wasn’t good enough just to view the most current ice image. The harvesters Laidler consulted during community workshops said they liked to see many images at once to determine how the ice was growing, shrinking or shifting as well as historic images to gauge annual variability.

With about 400 regular users, including hamlet offices and hunters and trappers associations which print off and post the images for those without computer access, Noetix is now offering SAR images and other optical maps throughout Canada’s Arctic.

The problem is, says Noetix’s Mark Kapfer, the company has no funding to travel to each community to determine what local people want, tailor the coverage area and maps to local needs and to seek out partners willing to print off and post the images on a regular basis.

So while satellite images of communities across Nunavut are readily available on the Noetix website, they might not be used frequently.

The Noetix images are provided by the European Space Agency, Radarsat International and the Canadian Space Agency. Detailed maps are then produced by Noetix in collaboration with the Canadian Ice Service.

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