'It's their backyard': Inuit voice essential in Arctic climate studies, scientists say

Incorporating the Inuit voice into the study of climate change isn't optional; it is essential, scientists believe.

Residents' knowledge of the fastest warming place on Earth fills gaps in scientific data

Scientists looking to track the changes in the Arctic need the help of the Inuit who have been living there for generations, researchers say. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The Arctic: a cold, snow-swept landscape. It's a place few have had the privilege to see; its wildlife, plants and delicate ecosystem are a mystery to most.

But that icy image is being replaced. Now the images of the Arctic most Canadians see include chunks of ice bobbing on shallow waves in the Arctic Ocean, polar bears swimming long distances to find food and hunters using boats instead of sleds to carry on age-old traditional hunting.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth.

Because of the region's isolation, there are no long-term written climate observations. Though the study of ice cores and other scientific methods can provide important data, observations by its people over the years are invaluable.
Cabins stand in Double Mer, outside Rigolet in Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador. Climate change has caused ice to break up or not form at all, making it difficult for Inuit to access their cabins to hunt and trap. (Ashlee Cunsolo Willox/My Word: Storytelling & Digital Media Lab)

The Inuit, who have lived in the region for generations, are observing and reporting thinner ice, later ice, and birds and insects in areas where they've never been seen.

"Scientists, although they have really powerful models and tools … lack the ability to be on the ground year-round observing environmental conditions," said Jamal Shirley, manager for research design at the Nunavut Research Institute of the Nunavut Arctic College.

Incorporating the Inuit voice in the study of climate change is essential, Shirley says.

If you're putting a microscope on the Arctic, you must incorporate that traditional knowledge piece.—  Caitlyn Baikie , Students on Ice

"It's the growing recognition and basic necessity of incorporating knowledge and observations of people closest in proximity to the changes that are occurring in the environment." 

One effort to incorporate the Inuit voice is ArcticNet, a government-sponsored initiative that brings together scientists and Inuit to study climate change in the coastal Arctic. More than 1,000 papers from various universities have been published on the rapidly changing Arctic, with the voice of the Inuit as part of the discussion.

"How Inuit are involved in the research varies a lot, but what's really attached to that is their knowledge of the land," said Caitlyn Baikie, Arctic student and partnership program manager at Students on Ice. Using that knowledge leads to successful and well rounded studies, she said.

"If you're putting a microscope on the Arctic, you must incorporate that traditional knowledge piece."

Caitlyn Baikie, a manager at Students on Ice, says using Inuit knowledge of the Arctic leads to successful and well rounded studies. (Caitlyn Baikie)

Baikie, an Inuk from Nain, N.L., has seen what she calls rapidly changing, unpredictable and unsustainable weather events. Stories of hunters falling through the ice are becoming more common.

People are more commonly getting lost in blizzards, she said. And while natural weather variability is common, she said more extreme weather events are happening more often.

Arctic splendour

Baikie's program takes youth out to the Arctic to witness its splendour.

Of the 120 students who participate, 50 are Indigenous. It's important for them to know that they are the experts of the Arctic, she said. "It's their backyard."

While the application of Inuit knowledge is becoming more common, it's still not enough, Baikie said.

Often the research is led by Arctic communities, which approach universities. The researchers then visit the community to study a particular concern or event.

But Baikie believes there has to be more effort to incorporate the Inuit voice in the findings of these studies. "We still have a long way to go when that is the norm," she said.

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.