Community knowledge key to coping with climate change

Scientists, governments can help with research and money, conference told


Coping with climate change in Nunavut doesn’t start with scientists, but with communities — and the people who live in them need help adapting.

That’s the message James Ford and Kik Shappa brought to Montreal during the United Nations Climate Change Conference earlier this month.

Ford, a graduate student at the University of Guelph, teamed up with land expert Shappa in Arctic Bay. Their plan: to learn more about what the community’s natural enviroment says about what’s needed for adaptation to climate change.

“Climate change is not experienced in isolation,” Ford told a symposium on Arctic science, which was part of Canada’s World of Solutions program during the conference.

In Arctic Bay, hunters have a number of ways to deal with changing conditions: they identify safe areas where they can get shelter during summer while boating; they have learned to avoid travelling on the land or water if they believe the weather is going to be bad; they avoid dangerous areas and travelling at dangerous times of the year; and they return quickly if they’re out on the land when weather conditions turn bad.

As well, hunters often check ice conditions on satellite reports before leaving; bring radios to stay in touch with others when they’re away; and, they now bring along a row boat, in case they’re marooned on the ice during the spring hunt.

Hunters also make additional preparations before going out due to the increasing risk of getting stuck out in bad weather.

“We take extra grub, gas and naptha so we can be prepared to be stranded on the land or ice,” Shappa said.

Some hunters have stopped taking part in the floe-edge narwhal hunt altogether because of all the risks involved.

That’s just one community’s response to change.

But in other Nunavut communities, Nunavummiut are resorting to other strategies to adapt to change:

* In Iqaluit, there’s a notice at local gas stations, requesting that people register their destination and expected time away, so search and rescue teams can find them more easily;
* In Hall Beach, the hamlet erected a concrete structure in 2003 to deal with erosion along the shore;
* In Kugaaruk, to make sure they don’t run out of water, hunters take blocks of fresh water-ice with them because of the increased salinity of sea ice;
* In Igloolik, hunters are using immersion suits when they’re out boating and constantly checking ice for safety.

Responsibility for many of these strategies rests with the more experienced hunters who encounter, adapt to, and respond to climate change through frequent trial-and-error experience out on the land.

“We use the traditional knowledge of our elders for survival,” Shappa told the gathering in Montreal. “Traditional knowledge helps us cope with these changes.”

Yet some adaptation strategies have high costs. Hunters must repair tents ripped by high winds, replace snowmobiles worn out by travel overland, buy additional supplies, and purchase GPS devices and other new communications equipment.

But not all have equal access to this traditional know-how or equipment, Ford notes, because they lack the money to invest in necessary equipment or the knowledge they need.

Young people, in particular, who are used to watching television or studying in school, may not acquire the knowledge they need to function out on the land.

How Canadian Arctic communities adapt to climate change will be looked at in more detail during the International Polar Year in a project called “Community Adaptation Vulnerabilities in the Arctic Region,” an eight-community project nick-named CAVIAR.

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