Inuit-led project maps more than two decades of sea ice conditions near Pond Inlet

“I may be using similar tools as southern researchers to create the atlas, but what’s unique is that I’m using Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit to interpret the imagery”

Nearly 25 years’ worth of local sea ice data, in the form of over 4,000 satellite images, has been digitized to create a sea ice atlas for the residents of Pond Inlet. (Photo by Andrew Tagak)

By Dustin Patar

Residents of Pond Inlet will one day have 23 years’ worth of local sea ice conditions available in map form at their fingertips.

To create those maps, Andrew Arreak, a regional operations lead for SmartICE, spent more than a year digitizing and analyzing more than 4,000 satellite images that he then turned into a series of 230 maps, 10 for each year.

“I may be using similar tools as southern researchers to create the atlas, but what’s unique is that I’m using Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit to interpret the imagery,” said Arreak during a presentation earlier this month at the virtual ArcticNet conference.

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit refers to Inuit traditional knowledge.

“This will be impossible for someone without Mittimatalik sea ice knowledge and experience.”

But Arreak said that even 230 maps was too many to look at using a geographic information system.

To further simplify the data, he added all 23 years together by week, allowing him to show average break-up conditions for any given week.

Analyzing all of the data also allowed Arreak to see an increasing trend in dangerous sea ice travel conditions.

“This is an example of how Inuit are able to generate their own records of how climate change is affecting our lives,” he said.

This sea ice travel map shows the months of May through July. It was produced by the Sikumiut management committee. (Image courtesy of SmartICE)

The project to map out dangerous ice areas is managed and guided by an Inuit expert group called Sikumiut, which consists of elders, search and rescue members, hunters and other community representatives.

Although scientists have been talking about declines in sea ice levels over the last two decades, most of that research comes from looking at the Arctic as a whole rather than at the community level, said Katherine Wilson, a PhD candidate with Memorial University of Newfoundland and the chief of strategic policy and planning at the Canadian Ice Service, which was also involved with the project.

For instance, said Wilson, “We had folks at the Canadian Ice Service trying to interpret the data at that community scale, and they didn’t know if that dark area was a polynya or not.”

A polynya is a stretch of open water, surrounded by ice.

Knowledge gathered at terminology and mapping workshops was later turned into two posters, one for those preparing to travel on the sea ice and the other for travelling on it. (Image courtesy of SmartICE)

Not only did Arreak have answers to these questions, but the maps confirmed what he was taught by his father and grandfather.

“I knew where the dangerous areas are, or where the polynyas are, way before these images were available,” he said.

“Local knowledge is always there — [that’s] how it’s always been and will be.”

Before requesting maps of dangerous sea ice areas, Sikumiut wanted local sea ice terminology to be documented, so later maps could be based on that knowledge, Wilson said.

For example, there are more than 60 words Inuit use to describe freeze-up and break-up, according to Arreak.

These terms will eventually find their way into a booklet that will be illustrated by a local artist and distributed to each household in the community.

Although the posters, terminology booklets and eventual atlas will all be specific to Pond Inlet, Arreak said it would be worthwhile for other communities to follow their model.

“The next steps are just for SmartIce to determine which communities are interested in doing something like this,” said Wilson, adding that each community will have their own needs and requests.

“Generally it’s a bit of a snowball effect, right? Once you start and you see what can be done, then the ideas just explode.”

Neither Wilson nor Arreak were unable to provide an estimated timeline for rollout of the project, as they say their work is ongoing.

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