Arctic research initiative targets historical knowledge to track climate change

Three communities in Canada’s northern population are participating in a new arctic research program based out of the University of Victoria.

The project draws on the direct effects of climate change in northern communities to guide researchers

The University of Victoria based research program will talk to youth, Indigenous elders, people who work directly with the land, and the non-Indigenous population to determine the most pressing issues in the communities regarding sea ice and climate change. (John McConnico/The Associated Press)

Three communities in Canada's northern population are participating in a new Arctic research program based out of the University of Victoria.

Oceans Network Canada is collecting information in Nunavut to find out how receding sea ice and the changing climate is affecting the lives of those living in the Arctic.

The Victoria-based initiative has two ocean monitoring systems in the northeast Pacific Ocean and the Salish Sea that continuously collect data on the changing conditions, but in this project they'll be turning to the people living in Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven for their opinions on the most prominent changes.

"The opportunity that this gives us is, in the future, if we identify something where Ocean Networks Canada can play a role and be beneficial in these communities, then we can write a proposal together with the community members to do the monitoring that's really important to them," said Maia Hoeberechts, associate director of user services with the initiative.

Funding for a project with this broad of a goal is rare, she said, but Polar Knowledge Canada provided the financial support to their initiative as part of the 2017-2019 Competitive Funding Process.

"It gives us the freedom to talk to people and find out what the priorities really are in those communities," she told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

Polar's goals include collecting baseline information to prepare for northern sustainability, predicting the impacts of changing ice, permafrost, and snow, and exploring alternative and renewable energy in Canada's North.

Traditional science and historical knowledge

A core aspect of this project is acknowledging the different ways in which information is held, collected and passed on, from historical knowledge to citizen scientists who have kept a close eye on the land.

"A real challenge is figuring out how to take all these different types of knowledge and put them together in something that helps us best understand what's happening in the environment," Hoeberechts said.

Hoeberechts and the team of researchers will be working with youth, Indigenous elders and the non-Indigenous population to gain specific knowledge of how these communities are adapting.

Another source they'll be turning to is what Hoeberechts calls the "middle generation," people who are the active hunters and spend a lot of time out on the land.

Warming oceans

One specific piece of feedback they've received so far from the middle generation is that fishermen in Kugluktuk are finding that Arctic char they normally catch are moving farther offshore.

"Something that we heard was, because the ocean is getting warmer in some regions, people have noticed that the char are not where they typically would expect them to be."

"This is a case where historical knowledge … is not really informing how today's fishermen can find char," she said.

The information they'll continue to collect will vary from wildlife population to weather patterns and will include the feedback of the people whose livelihood depends on the ocean.

"We have taken very seriously the idea that changes that we're experiencing now, either due to climate change or seasonal changes, have the most impact on the people who live directly on the coast."

To hear the full interview with Maia Hoeberechts listen to media below:

Arctic research initiative blends historical knowledge with traditional science 8:23

With files from the CBC's On The Coast