Climate change in the Arctic: A reality for Inuits

Published on: Last updated:

The United Nations Environment Programme refers to the Arctic Circumpolar as the world “barometer” of climate change. The 160,000 Inuits who live in Northern Canada, Greenland, Alaska and in the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia have been witnesses to climate change caused by global warming for nearly 20 years.

It is important for us to know the consequences of climate change because the conditions that we are confronted with today will be reproduced in several years in the Southern regions. I live in Inuvik, a village situated above the Polar Circle, on the MacKenzie delta in the Northwest territories of Canada. Around 4,000 people live in Inuvik, where the land is exploited for its petrol and gas mines in the Beaufort Sea region.

Confronted by globalisation, we see that the Arctic Circumpolar is not an isolated region. The South is interested in our petrol, gas and minerals, and exploration activities have multiplied in numerous parts of the Arctic. According to the U.S Geological Survey, this region contains 25% of the global petrol and gas reserves. Northern Canada is the third world producer of diamonds. Important base metal, precious metal and coal deposits have been discovered in the North. The Inuits have adapted to social, economic and cultural change over the past 40 to 50 years; however even if we adapt to globalisation, we realise that the reduction in climate change will probably be the driving force of socio-economic and cultural change in the years to come.

In 1999, the International Institute for Sustainable Development established in Winnipeg, and the Sachs Harbour community (which is made up of around 125 people) on Banks Island in the Beaufort region, documented local and regional environmental changes. In a video presented at the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in 2000, hunters and elders spoke with authority of the concerns that closely affect them, such as current and cumulative changes; the thawing of the permafrost leading to beach subsidence and the erosion of lake embankments; intensified snowfalls; extension of ice-free sea periods; sightings of new bird and fish species (barn owls, mallards, pintails and salmon) in close proximity to the community; decline of the lemming population (which makes up the Arctic fox’s basic diet as well as being a hunted species), and the general global warming trend.

These changes are not unique to the region. They have also been observed by the Inuits in Greenland and Alaska, the Sami people in the north of Norway, the Aleuts in the Aleutian Islands, the Athabaskans and the Gwich’in in North America, the Nenets, the Chukchi people, and by the numerous other indigenous populations in the north of Russia. Our world is changing more and more. Traditional knowledge representing the way in which we see the world, and passed down from generation to generation, is dying out. Climate change is not a distant theoretical problem that the future generations will have to resolve but a real problem that already exists in the Arctic, a region trying to adapt to these effects. Communities are faced with the disappearance of historical sites, the degradation of burial places, the destruction of communities and their relocalisation. Inuits, like several other communities, have the ability to adapt…however there are limits.

Based on our observations we managed to persuade the eight Arctic states to launch the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) in 2000. 300 scientists from 15 countries as well as the indigenous Arctic populations participated in this initiative […]

Ten years ago climate change in this part of the world was hardly spoken about. Today, numerous articles are dedicated worldwide to bears, seals and Inuits. Scientists and politicians are beginning to notice that the barometer reading is announcing stormy weather ahead. One of the conclusions of the ACIA (almost 1,000 pages long) is that global warming is threatening to cause the melting or the disappearance of already established ice in the second half or at the end of the century. The Arctic Ocean would therefore resemble the Great Lakes of Northern America – with lakes freezing in the winter (to a certain extent) and thawing in the summer. Scientists think that this situation could happen in 2040 or even before.

I would like to stress two points outlined in the ACIA conclusion, in the event that the Arctic Ocean should be deprived of its ice in the summer. The first point concerns the disappearance of marine mammals including polar bears, walruses and seals, as well as the marine bird species that depend on ice to survive. The Inuit culture and the relationship that the Inuits have with nature are uniquely connected with the Arctic ecosystem, and we are therefore directly affected by what happens to the species. […]

The second point is that the Arctic will be much more accessible, especially through sea routes, which will facilitate the exploitation of mineral deposits and hydrocarbon in the Arctic, as these are largely found on the coasts. It is likely that the maritime congestion of cargos which pass through the north-western or north-eastern passages or even through the Arctic Ocean will increase. In short, the climate change will favour and accelerate industrial development in a unique, vulnerable and fragile region. One can feasibly imagine that the maritime routes in the Arctic linking Europe, Asia and the East and West coasts of North America will enable cargoes to gain thousands of kilometres compared to classic maritime routes, thus weakening our region.

The Arctic Circumpolar region could become a considerable geopolitical and strategic issue. Certain writers have predicted major population migrations resulting from climate change. However though this situation is plausible in the tropical and temperate regions, it is less so in the Arctic. But how will the indigenous populations manage to live in a region affected by global climate change? It is difficult to give clear answers. However a profound change – which also presents risks – will be necessary. The Inuit culture and other Arctic indigenous populations are based on their relationship with the land, environment and animals. Systematic adjustment to an industrial future could be synonymous with assimilation, which is what indigenous populations are trying to avoid.

The way in which the adjustment process will be set up will reflect the relationship between the indigenous Arctic populations and their national government. But whatever their future, the Inuits and all the indigenous Arctic populations will urge the international community to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – the main known cause of climate change in the Arctic Circumpolar and regions facing the same problems.


UN Chronicle, Issue 2, 2007

Media Query: