Nfld. & Labrador·Thin Ice

As Labrador Inuit try to keep pace with climate change, adaptation takes a toll

Fog obscures starlight, thin ice turns seal hunting dangerous, and keeping up with the constant change causes widespread fatigue among communities in the north.

Thin ice making activities like seal hunting more dangerous

A seal breaks through the ice near Rigolet, Labrador. Thin ice is impacting the ability for Inuit to hunt seals, says Johannes Lampe. (Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc)

The stars were brighter when Johannes Lampe was young.

"The weather has become so unpredictable, and [there's] so much fog coming in," said Lampe, the president of Nunatsiavut, the self-governing territory of Labrador's Inuit.

That fog obscures the starlight, and is just one of many new phenomena appearing in and around Nunatsiavut and other areas of Labrador's northern coast. Lampe, 65, has been watching the climate shift for decades, but he and others say in recent years it has sped up to a pace that poses a huge challenge for maintaining traditional ways of life and passing on those traditions.

Elders teach how to predict the weather by looking at the moon and the sun, but those methods don't work anymore, Lampe said.

"We still remember, or understand, that knowledge. But the weather is so unpredictable now that you don't know what the weather is going to be like," he said. 

Lampe, the president of Nunatsiavut, says Inuit will continue to adapt in order to preserve and continue their culture. (Hamlin Lampe)

'Cabin fever'

The changes in climate have also brought Lampe's community closer to the edge — literally. 

"Since I was young, the ice edge, where we always had to go during the wintertime to hunt for seal, is much closer than it used to be," said Lampe.

Not only is the ice closer, he said, but it's also thinner than it used to be. Those observations align with those of the Canadian Ice Service, which says Labrador's ice coverage has generally trended below average since the late 1990s. 2021 has proved to be a particularly dire year for the region's sea ice, with the ice setting in late and ending up averaging between 25 to 30 centimetres thinner than normal. 

On Labrador's north coast, the sea ice is used as a highway system for connecting communities in the winter. When thin ice combines with unpredictable weather, it can make it dangerous for people to leave their homes. It stops trips to cabins and visits to lands where people were born — something Lampe said prevents spiritual nourishment. 

"That creates cabin fever. And when you're in cabin fever, you are not good to anybody," said Lampe. 

"That has impacted Labrador Inuit, mentally and physically and culturally, spiritually and certainly emotionally too."

This year's ice season in Labrador has been extremely poor, with the ice setting in late and thin, causing travel disruptions and impacting daily life along the coast. (Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye)

The impacts of the changing ice are on the mind of another Inuk elder, about 150 kilometres down the coast from Lampe, in the community of Hopedale.

"That's what makes me the most afraid. It's the conditions of the ice," said Martha Winters-Abel, who turns 67 in May. 

"There are some young hunters that go off without really knowing what the ice conditions are like. And some people can go through and something bad could happen. It's just scary for me."

On top of worrying about the conditions of today, Winters-Abel also worries about what changing conditions will bring in the future.

"I have grandchildren. I have a great-grandchild, another one on the way. And what's going to happen by that time? By the time they become my age?" she said. 

In the face of that, Winters-Able said there is only one option facing future generations.

"They have to adapt. They have no other choice." 

Adaptation fatigue 

That fact is a heavy load to bear. 

"Adaptation, and the pressure to adapt, can be very tiring and very exhausting," said Ashlee Cunsolo, the founding dean of the school of Arctic and subarctic studies at Memorial University's Labrador Institute, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. 

Ashlee Cunsolo, the founding dean of Memorial University's school of Arctic snd subarctic studies, says people on the front lines of climate change around the world are suffering from adaptation fatigue — the effects of constantly responding to shifts in their environment. (John Gaudi/CBC)

Cunsolo's research focuses on how climate change affects all facets of mental and emotional health and well-being. For people living on the front lines of climate change, like in Labrador, significant changes are underway, she said.

"They're significant enough that people have had to shift their lifestyles, shift their travel strategies, learn new skills, change infrastructure and really plan for a continued change," she said. 

Cunsolo said living in a constantly changing environment prompts unanswered questions about how that will affect people in both the near and distant future. 

"When you're carrying that level of burden and anxiety and stress, and trying to find new ways to do things that you've done for generations, that is definitely not only a stressor, but a huge sense of exhaustion and fatigue," she said. 

Using technology to help

Amid that exhaustion, adaptation continues, as it has to — there are no indications the effects of climate change will slow anytime soon on Labrador's north coast.

Canada has signed on to the international effort to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 C, and the federal government has introduced a bill pledging to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but the bill itself does not outline a plan for how to do so. 

Current climate change policies don't meet Canada's emissions targets.

In the midst of all that, in Nain, Lampe can list the adaptations well underway.

This is Lampe's home community of Nain, as viewed from out on the ice. (Hamlin Lampe)

Anyone travelling on the north coast should have the help of an experienced guide, he said, but they should also use GPS and check Facebook for updates from others who have been out on the ice. Any technology, from social media to other tools, are welcome to add to the arsenal.

"I believe that whatever technology that might come our way to help, that elders will learn about it, and what tools can help Labrador Inuit," said Lampe. 

And whether it's going out seal hunting, hunting for geese and ducks, or fishing Arctic char, Lampe said Labrador Inuit have to balance those activities with being more vigilant about the ice conditions. 

Even if it means major changes in order to continue Inuit culture, Lampe said, people will adapt.

"We have to continue to do what we have been doing for thousands of years," he said. 

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.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He is the host and producer of the lunchtime radio program The Signal.