“It's Cold But Not Cold Enough”: Arctic Residents' Observations of Ice and Climate Change in IPY 2007–2008 and Beyond

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Wednesday, 20 January 2010: 9:15 AM
B213 (GWCC)
Igor Krupnik, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

The paper presents the main outcomes of three years (2006/2007, 2007/2008, 2008/2009) of systematic observation of ice and weather conditions by indigenous monitors in eight communities in Alaska and Chukotka, Russia during International Polar Year 2007–2008. The three-year recording of ice and weather was a part of the international SIKU project (‘Sea Ice Knowledge and Use,” IPY #166). Indigenous observers in eight communities took daily notes of ice and weather around their home areas for three consecutive winters; they were also encouraged to add local details they believe were important, such as data on subsistence activities; marine mammal, bird, and terrestrial species; community events; personal travel across the observation area, and other. All village monitors were asked to include local terms, place names and key descriptions in their respective native languages, whenever possible. Altogether, local SIKU observations in 2006–2009 produced a dataset of several hundred pages. It constitutes an unrivaled database on local ice and weather condition on the ground but also on the status of environmental knowledge in northern communities during the IPY 2007–2008 era.

The first systematic effort in documenting indigenous observations demonstrates the intimacy of hunters' knowledge of the Arctic ice, which is still beyond scientists' reach. Hunters have argued for the replacement of the polar pack by the ‘locally built' types of ice in the fall ice formation at least since 2000. They noticed the disappearance of the multi-year ice in their home areas several years prior to the scientists' ‘discovery' of the crucial role of the multi-year ice in the Arctic ice-climate-circulation system in the early 2000s. Hunters' vision of several types of sea ice of different origins passing through their area during the spring break up season is still unsurpassed in the scientific ice models and hunters' ability to track (and to name!) the many types of ice they watch during the season is unmatched by the scientific ice nomenclatures.

The main lesson of three years of SIKU observations is that the power of hunters' ice and weather knowledge remains underestimated and underused. By applying their traditional observational methods, hunters have independently registered the Arctic warming signal, finessed their vision of change, came to their own interpretation of its causes, and tracked it via many indicators in local ecosystems. This is a tremendous achievement that is still not fully acknowledged by the science community. Of course, there are limits to what hunters can see, since they lack sophisticated computer models and observational technologies. Unlike scientists, hunters do not have access to global ice and climate databases, super-computers, and satellite imagery that would allow them to reach beyond their scale of knowledge, to the meso-scale and planetary level. But this is where the partnership with scientists can make a difference.

Indigenous observational logs from 2006–2009 reveal a very complex signal of change that often differs by season or location, even among the nearby communities. It is based upon sophisticated sets of several dozen local indicators that hunters use to track seasonal transition, ice safety, and shifts in their subsistence calendar. Here, again, hunters' approach differs substantially from that of scientists. In their assessment of climate change, scientists commonly cite what may be called summer indicators, such as the scope of the maximum summer retreat of the Arctic pack ice (‘minimum ice extent'), permafrost and glaciers' melt, increased storm activity and beach erosion, forest fires, northern advance of the more southerly marine and terrestrial species, and other. These indicators naturally underscore the impact of the warming in the Arctic system. Polar residents, to the contrary, are focused more on a much longer ice-dominated period, from October-November till May-June, upon which their livelihood and subsistence economy depends. As such, their vision is that there is not enough cold in the system, particularly, during the peak of the winter season (January-February). Hunters lament that former colder system, when the pack and shore-fast ice was solid, game arrived earlier, multi-year ice was common, and cooler weather could be predicted for a long stretch based upon age-old experience and teaching.

The success of IPY 2007–2008 outreach to Arctic indigenous people via SIKU and similar joint projects is the best evidence of Arctic residents' eagerness to contribute their time and knowledge to document the ongoing change in the polar regions. This is a message that scientists and weather/ice-forecasting services cannot leave unanswered. There are plans to spearhead the momentum created by IPY 2007–2008 to build a sustainable Arctic observing network that will serve science, government agencies, industries, and local communities alike. Indigenous residents should be an integral part of such observing network, both as contributors and consumers. Their knowledge and observations are to be used and actively sought to calibrate the scientists' planetary and regional climate scenarios, ice forecasts, and explanatory models. Such an integrative vision remains invaluable to our common understanding of the new Arctic system to be influenced by climate warming in the decades to come.

The collaborative observational programs engaging indigenous community monitors will benefit climate and ice scientists, but, first and foremost, the Arctic people themselves. It will help sustain their subsistence economy, cultural tradition, and ancestors' knowledge under the impact of rapid environmental and social change.