The sea ice in northern Labrador is thinning — fast. Here's why the Inuit are worried
Ice that is normally 1 metre thick near Makkovik is only about 15 cm this year
As raindrops pelted down the night of March 3, it felt a bit like fall in Barry Andersen's home of Makkovik.
"You wouldn't know it [wasn't] October with the rain storms we had on the go," Andersen said.
The unusual wet spell was the latest climate curveball in a winter full of them along Labrador's north coast, which is warming at a quicker pace than most places in the world — and forcing changes in life as people in its communities know it.
During one standout storm at the end of January, tides and sea swells combined to batter and break the fragile ice about 100 metres from the town's harbour.
'Pure open water'
"It was all open water, and it was quite a sight to see that late in the winter," said Andersen, the town's AngajukKak — the head of its Inuit community government. "Just pure, pure open water right from nearly to the dock on out to the Makkovik Bay."
After its second warmest December on record, Makkovik had its warmest January ever this year, with an average temperature of –8.2 C, more than 10 degrees above normal for the month. Then, February experienced another record.
And Makkovik, which is about 200 kilometres northeast of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, isn't alone. Across Labrador, weather stations racked up records, or came close, this winter.
WATCH | Nunatsiavut residents describe the toll thinning sea ice is taking on communities
A fraction of its typical thickness
The sea ice has now set in along the coast, but is a shadow of its normal self. North of Makkovik Bay, Andersen said, the ice is only about 15 centimetres thick in an area where typically it would be about a metre.
The late and meagre ice this year has been the talk of Makkovik and the four other communities that comprise Nunatsiavut, the self-governing territory of Labrador's Inuit — along with the Innu village of Natuashish, which lies on the north coast between Nain and Hopdale.
No roads connect the communities to each other or to the outside world. Ferry services end in the fall and air travel can take a backseat to weather conditions. In the winter, snowmobiles and the sea ice that bears them, are essential.
'The ice is our highway'
"The ice is our highway, and when that gets disrupted, so does life on the north coast," said Andersen.
Trails on the ice connect communities and allow people to collect wood to heat their homes and to hunt for food.
Ice also provides a bridge to the intangible.
"It refreshes you. It reminds you of who you are, where you came from, and stuff like that," said Charlotte Wolfrey, the AngajukKak of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut's southernmost community. "When we can't get out, it's a big deal."
As the ice thins, its dangers keep people closer to home, which means more people have to rely on store-bought foods.
'People are coming back with nothing'
"Because everybody is hunting in the same areas, because they can't get where they want to get because of lack of sea ice — a lot of people are coming back with nothing," said Joey Angnatok, a fisherman and hunter in Nain, the northernmost community of Nunatsiavut.
Angnatok is a repository for local knowledge, as well as the evolving science around it. In 2014, he was honoured with a national award for his research work, which included turning his fishing boat, What's Happening, into a marine vessel.
"I was told many years ago that there's changes happening," said Angnatok. "But I never, ever dreamt that it would be happening as fast as it is."
A window to the future
The experiences and statistics emerging from the 2020-21 ice season are startling. But they are also foreshadowing, according to the co-author of a recent study about climate change in Nunatsiavut and Nunavik.
"A year like this gives us a bit of a window into potentially the types of conditions that we will see on average, say, 30 years down the road," said Robert Way, a professor of geography at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who specializes in climate change in Labrador.
Way, who is of Labrador Inuit descent and has been back in his hometown of Happy Valley-Goose Bay during the pandemic, called this a "really weird winter." He recalled water flowing off his roof during a 5 C day in March. It should've been about 15 degrees colder, he said.
'Changing pretty dramatically'
Way's study compiles the wide-ranging effects of climate change in Nunatsiavut — including almost 40 fewer days of snow on the ground since the late 1950s and the sea ice "changing pretty dramatically." In fact, northern Nunatsiavut is losing its ice coverage faster than anywhere in the Canadian Arctic.
This year's temperature surge tracks with how Labrador climate change is unfolding in what can feel like fits and starts, Way said. Thanks to factors like the North Atlantic Ocean, there's always been variability in the region that makes some years milder than others. But as climate change prompts continual climbing temperatures, the natural swings are amplified, resulting in extreme years like this one.
Complicating matters further, Way said, is an institutional lack of climate data across the eastern Canadian Arctic and subarctic regions. What is in place is often insufficient, he said. For example, Environment Canada only measures snowfall in two places in Labrador — with one of them, in Nain, offline this winter due to technical bugs.
This is a problem, because knowing how much snow has fallen gives people a better idea of what's happening with the ice below it, said Way. And while the Canadian Ice Service provides sophisticated modelling of the area for ships, it rarely takes samples to document ice thickness.
Adapting and evolving
As changes and challenges mount, people along Labrador's coast are taking action.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national group representing Inuit released a climate change strategy in 2019 and the Nunatsiavut government has its own initiatives, including a large solar project in Makkovik.
One globally lauded sea ice adaptation was sparked after the winter of 2010, when thin ice caused a host of problems in Nunatsiavut. That year, one in 12 people surveyed in Nain fell through the ice.
That led to SmartICE, a social enterprise that marries traditional knowledge with technological innovation to help people plan safer routes over the ice, in part via devices they call SmartBuoys. It has spread from two pilot project sites to about two dozen across the Arctic.
Makkovik was set to join that program this winter, but the plan to deploy a SmartBuoy for the community went awry.
"We couldn't get it out due to the ice conditions, which is sort of ironic," said Andersen. "It's sitting here on the ground."
Way has led a team to install weather stations in six Labrador communities, with plans for a seventh. Each station is designed to have the data publicly available in real time, so people can plan their days and track changes. So far, Environment Canada and other agencies have not included data from those stations in their forecasts, he said.
Changes coming quicker now
"We're going to have to adapt to the changing conditions," said Andersen. "I know that we've been able to adapt in the past, but I think that the changes are coming a bit quicker now, in the last 20 years."
One certainty is that changes will keep coming: one United Nations study shows the Arctic is locked into a three- to five-degree warming scenario regardless of any mitigation measures for global greenhouse gas emissions.
Way said that holds true for Labrador. By mid-century, even if the world manages to meet international climate change targets, this year's winter weather could be average for Labrador.
"If things don't go well with mitigation, then things might be not heading in a good direction," he said. "We might be closer to conditions we haven't really experienced very often. So it is a stark reality."
Wolfrey said her fears circle around how her grandchildren and great-grandchildren will cope with the altered landscape.
"All that we've learned can't be passed on, and it's gonna end with the next generation," she said.
"All those good things that kept us healthy and well, and kept us who we are, and kept us grounded, are not going to be available, I don't think, to our next generation."
Thin Ice is a special CBC series about the changing climate along Labrador's north coast, and the Indigenous-led responses arising from it. Read more in this series in the coming weeks.
With files from Meg Roberts and Adam Walsh