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Riding the winds of change

The Inuit have spent thousands of years working and living in the Arctic. However, climate change is forcing them to change the traditional way of doing things.

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grantee Barry Smit says the Inuit are sometimes not being given the tools they need to make the correct decisions for their lifestyles. He will lead a discussion to probe this issue – part of a larger problem of bridging knowledge across disciplines – at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The conference will be held Feb. 15 to 19 in San Francisco.

"We have plenty of climate change models for the Arctic, but often they do not measure the things the Inuit rely on to make the best decision on how to use their resources," says Smit, a University of Guelph researcher and the Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change, whose integrative research is also supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

He and his colleagues make periodic journeys to coastal Inuit communities such as Arctic Bay, at the north end of Baffin Island. There, they study how the Inuit are adapting to climate change. What interests Smit is that the transfer of knowledge between the old and the young does not happen as often – and the knowledge itself is no longer as relevant.

"The young are spending much more time in school. That's time they used to spend out with their elders, learning how to hunt and fish," says Smit. "But even if they were out on the land, the lessons their elders have to teach them no longer apply. A generation ago, Inuit used dogs to travel over sea ice. Now they use snowmobiles, which are faster and more convenient, but don't sense thin ice like dogs do. As ice becomes more unpredictable with climate change, this is becoming a serious problem. Degradation of the permafrost is affecting travel on the land and the stability of some structures."

Bridging the gap between scientific and traditional knowledge is the impetus Smit uses as part of ArcticNet, a Network of Centres of Excellence that studies the impact of climate change in the North.

"There are a couple of examples. For the Inuit, the strength and direction of the wind is important for their travel and safety. They also take note of changing ice breakup patterns, how close to the shore the ice is melting, and how quickly it is disintegrating. But we, the scientists, have detailed information on temperature, but less on the relationships between ice behaviour and Inuit travel and livelihoods."

Smit hopes that the case study at Arctic Bay will show other scientists the value of networking across disciplines. That way, the work that science researchers do will benefit as many people as possible – those doing the science, and those affected by it.

Doré Dunne | EurekAlert!
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