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How Arctic Communities Respond to Climate Change

The impact of climate change on Arctic communities is so great that it limits their ability to adapt, or at least that’s what has long been assumed. But according to a recent study in Nature Climate Change, it’s non-climatic factors that obstruct adaptation.

Written by Emily Schwing Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA – When the Wellness Centre in Arviat, Nunavut took a look at what children in the town were eating, the results came as a surprise. Their diets contained almost no local foods – such as caribou and berries. And they couldn’t explain why.

As community members in Arviat looked more closely, they found a range of factors had contributed to the shift – from a decline in traditional hunting practices to the thawing of food cellars dug deep into the permafrost that could no longer keep subsistence foods cold throughout the summer. In many northern communities, climate change threatens subsistence culture as a whole, as wildlife migration patterns change, soils warm and invasive species take hold.

The information, which was gathered in 2010, set the community into action. They began to pay more attention to local changes to the environment – and to find ways to adapt.

Now, volunteers in Arviat track summer berry production and the presence of non-native species that appear on the tundra. Similar projects have been created across Nunavut. “We can’t tell how the climate is changing if we do not observe closely,” said Shirley Tagalik, who leads the Wellness Centre.

Residents have also constructed a greenhouse where they grow all kinds of vegetables, including radishes and tomatoes. The warmer temperatures and longer growing season have given Arviat the chance to supplement their diets with healthy, locally grown produce. Tagalik said the greenhouse experiment has prompted efforts to develop culture and community cooking programs and soil quality monitoring. “I think that everything taken together is assisting with a shift in levels of vegetable [and] fruit consumption,” she said.

The project has even had some unexpected benefits. Youth living in the village who did not previously have the observation skills to plan seasonally and sustainably, are beginning to learn traditional methods, said Tagalik. And they now see career options in technology and environmental monitoring, she added.

Arctic communities are highly vulnerable to climate change, but they can adapt, like Arviat has, according to a recent review of more than a decade’s worth of academic research looking at Arctic communities from around the world. They are adaptable because many of the people living in Arctic communities are used to experiencing change and understand their surroundings are unpredictable. “There are serious and real impacts, but communities are quite resilient in turning those changes into advantages,” said James Ford, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, who led the study, recently published in Nature Climate Change.

But not all Arctic communities readjust. In their review, Ford and his colleagues found the hurdles these communities face are unrelated to climate change. Instead, outside pressures, such as outdated land management practices, bureaucratic regulatory processes, limited education and marginalization curb the ability of these communities to adapt to the effects of climate change.

For example, the Inuit in northern Canada have altered the timing and location of traditional hunting practices in response to the rapidly changing sea ice. But in some places, the regulations and quotas for hunting and fishing have not kept pace, creating a mismatch between the policy and the adaptive activity.

Ford’s study suggests changes to current policy and management models could better equip Arctic communities to deal with the impacts of climate change. But a lack of policy is also a limiting factor because adaptation hasn’t yet become part of any major policy agenda, said Ford. “You’ll see a lot of policy-makers talking and talking, but there’s very little buy-in, there’s not much leadership,” he said.

Formal meetings, conversations and even monitoring programs don’t account for the speed at which climate change-related impacts are increasingly threatening communities.

In western Alaska, for example, some communities simply don’t have enough time to collect long-term data on climate change, as Arviat is doing. Shifting infrastructure and eroding coastlines and riverbanks have attracted film crews and the media to Kivalina, Shishmaref, Newtok and other communities to capture dramatic images.

At Newtok, nearly a mile of land has slipped into the Ninglick River over the past 60 years. The village is in the midst of a relocation effort, but progress has been slow.

The community recognized the need to relocate nearly a decade ago. Construction of a $6.5 million evacuation center began in 2010, but misappropriation of funds and local corruption slowed the effort.

Misconduct is likely playing out elsewhere in the Arctic, but it hasn’t been captured in the academic literature, said Ford. “Corruption goes into the whole idea around institutional management. You have a lot of turnover in personnel and institutional memory, so there’s no long-term leadership to champion adaptation,” he said.

The Cold Climate Housing Research Center, based in Alaska, is working with Newtok’s residents to mount a more effective response as the riverbank continues to erode out from under the community. The approach is led locally and rooted in strong leadership and co-management, combined with traditional knowledge.

For now, the key players are meeting to discuss the situation, but in the future locals will play a major role in planning so that agencies can leverage funds, said Judith Grunau, a project manager and architectural designer at the center. She called the approach “holistic,” and explained that it “enables money to go further, connects everybody and allows more to be accomplished.”

According to Ford, local input directly affects how communities adapt. “Increasing community engagement has been the biggest movement in the last decade,” he said. “We’re now seeing community consultation coming in at the early stage,That’s how we need to be thinking for the future.”

Top image: Research from McGill University shows that it is possible for Arctic communities to adapt to climate change if various hurdles like outdated land management practices are overcome. (Graham McDowell)

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