Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Traditional Inuit knowledge combines with science to shape weather insights

08.04.2010
Using skills passed down through generations, Inuit forecasters living in the Canadian Arctic look to the sky to tell by the way the wind scatters a cloud whether a storm is on the horizon or if it's safe to go on a hunt.

Thousands of miles away in a lab tucked in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, scientists take data measurements and use the latest computer models to predict weather. They are two practices serving the same purpose that come from disparate worlds.

But in the past 20 years, something has run amok with Inuit forecasting. Old weather signals don't seem to mean what they used to. The cloud that scatters could signal a storm that comes in an hour instead of a day.

Now researchers are combining indigenous environmental knowledge with modern science to learn new things about what's happening to the Arctic climate.

"It's interesting how the western approach is often trying to understand things without necessarily experiencing them," said Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research scientist with the University of Colorado at Boulder's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. "With the Inuit, it's much more of an experiential issue, and I think that fundamental difference brings a completely different emphasis both in defining what the important scientific questions are, and discerning how to address them."

For years, researchers had heard reports of unpredictable weather coming in from Arctic communities. But the stories didn't seem to match up with the numbers. By scientific measurement, weather around the world appeared to be growing more persistent with less variation. The disparity left scientists scratching their heads, said Weatherhead.

"I had been hearing about this problem from other environmental statisticians for a number of years," said Weatherhead, who also works closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., and who is chief author on a new study on the subject. "But the Inuit used a different language than what we statisticians used, and none of us could really figure out what matched up with their observations."

That's where Shari Gearheard, a scientist with CU-Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center, also part of CIRES, comes in. Gearheard lives in Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada, an Inuit community on eastern Baffin Island, and for the past 10 years has been working with Inuit hunters and elders to document their knowledge of the environment and environmental change.

Weather has a special importance in Arctic environments, where a reliable forecast can mean the difference between life and death. There are members of the Inuit community who possess the skills to predict the weather, but that knowledge is dying off as both the culture and climate change, according to the scientists.

"The impacts of that are a loss of confidence in those forecasters and concerns about incorrect forecasts," said Gearheard. Forecasters don't want to send somebody out to go hunting if they're going to be unsafe and be in poor weather conditions."

Gearheard meticulously collects the stories told to her by the Inuit and makes systematic records of indigenous environmental knowledge. Through this, patterns begin to emerge, she said.

Of special importance were changes experienced by the Inuit during the spring, a time of transition for many environmental processes. During spring, the Inuit would notice that the top layer of the snow melted during the day and then would refreeze at night, forming a crust.

"In fact, in a lot of places, the season is named after a particular process by the Inuit," said Gearheard. "In cases like this where the Inuit are not seeing that process anymore, it is an indicator to them that something had changed."

Gearheard's records created a resolution of detail for Arctic weather observation that, by bringing the two studies together, gave Weatherhead the information she needed to bridge indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge. "What was incredibly helpful was Shari's detailed description of what they were experiencing on what sort of timescales," said Weatherhead. "That really allowed us to start focusing on our statistical tests and try to find exactly what matched their observations."

Statistical analysis of day-to-day temperatures at Baker Lake, Nunavut, showed that in May and June the persistence of temperature had recently declined, matching Inuit reports of greater unpredictability at that season. "People hadn't previously looked at persistence in this way," said CIRES fellow Roger Barry, also director of the World Data Center for Glaciology at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at CU-Boulder and a study co-author along with Gearheard.

What they found was a scientific story more in line with what people were witnessing on the ground. Weather along the Arctic latitudes was behaving more unpredictably than in other parts of the world.

"That's an incredibly important parameter to care about," said Weatherhead. "The way I try to describe it to some people is if we get an inch of rain out at my house in the month of July, I don't need to turn on the sprinklers. But if we get an inch of rain on July 1, and no rain after that, my lawn is dead.

"Ecosystems have evolved under a certain type of pattern. So if that is changing, that could be just as important as a small increase in temperature or some of the other changes we're talking about," Weatherhead said.

The new study helps scientists refine and test climate models, while also providing such models with a new category of information to consider, said Weatherhead. And Gearheard's work with the Inuit is demonstrating the value of indigenous environmental knowledge to modern climate science.

"When we first started talking about this, indigenous knowledge didn't have the place it does now in research," Gearheard said. "It's growing. People are becoming more familiar with it, more respectful of it."

Weatherhead and Gearheard said they are intrigued by the insights that incorporate indigenous knowledge and climate studies, but they don't want to stop there. The new study has sparked an interest in the type of environmental knowledge other communities could provide to climate scientists, from ranchers and farmers to indigenous groups. "When you treat these perspectives as different forms of evidence or knowledge and see where that takes you, that is when exciting stuff happens," said Gearheard.

The study appears this month in the journal Global Environmental Change. The National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada provided funding for the study. Photos and a podcast interview with the study authors can be downloaded at http://cires.colorado.edu/news.

Elizabeth Weatherhead | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.colorado.edu

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Color effects from transparent 3D-printed nanostructures

New design tool automatically creates nanostructure 3D-print templates for user-given colors
Scientists present work at prestigious SIGGRAPH conference

Most of the objects we see are colored by pigments, but using pigments has disadvantages: such colors can fade, industrial pigments are often toxic, and...

Im Focus: Unraveling the nature of 'whistlers' from space in the lab

A new study sheds light on how ultralow frequency radio waves and plasmas interact

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles present new research on a curious cosmic phenomenon known as "whistlers" -- very low frequency packets...

Im Focus: New interactive machine learning tool makes car designs more aerodynamic

Scientists develop first tool to use machine learning methods to compute flow around interactively designable 3D objects. Tool will be presented at this year’s prestigious SIGGRAPH conference.

When engineers or designers want to test the aerodynamic properties of the newly designed shape of a car, airplane, or other object, they would normally model...

Im Focus: Robots as 'pump attendants': TU Graz develops robot-controlled rapid charging system for e-vehicles

Researchers from TU Graz and their industry partners have unveiled a world first: the prototype of a robot-controlled, high-speed combined charging system (CCS) for electric vehicles that enables series charging of cars in various parking positions.

Global demand for electric vehicles is forecast to rise sharply: by 2025, the number of new vehicle registrations is expected to reach 25 million per year....

Im Focus: The “TRiC” to folding actin

Proteins must be folded correctly to fulfill their molecular functions in cells. Molecular assistants called chaperones help proteins exploit their inbuilt folding potential and reach the correct three-dimensional structure. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (MPIB) have demonstrated that actin, the most abundant protein in higher developed cells, does not have the inbuilt potential to fold and instead requires special assistance to fold into its active state. The chaperone TRiC uses a previously undescribed mechanism to perform actin folding. The study was recently published in the journal Cell.

Actin is the most abundant protein in highly developed cells and has diverse functions in processes like cell stabilization, cell division and muscle...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

LaserForum 2018 deals with 3D production of components

17.08.2018 | Event News

Within reach of the Universe

08.08.2018 | Event News

A journey through the history of microscopy – new exhibition opens at the MDC

27.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Climate Impact Research in Hannover: Small Plants against Large Waves

17.08.2018 | Life Sciences

LaserForum 2018 deals with 3D production of components

17.08.2018 | Event News

Quantum material is promising 'ion conductor' for research, new technologies

17.08.2018 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>