Life on the edge of a warming world

The native Inuit people of the Arctic regions need no convincing of the effects of global warming. As Clare Kendall discovers, they are already suffering its impact

In recent years, while governments around the globe have been prevaricating over carbon emission policies and scientists arguing over the existence of global warming, the arctic has been melting. To the native Inuits of Northern Canada, the United States, Russia and Greenland, global warming is a reality, not a series of hypothetical scenarios. Since the millennium they have seen their landscape, their livelihood and their very cultural identity eroded at such an alarming rate that they now look set to become the first society to fall victim to climate change in the 21st century.

In the remote arctic village of Puvirnituq in Nunavik, Northern Quebec, just south of Baffin Island, they know a good deal more than you and I do about global warming. After thousands of years on the ice, they are closely allied to their environment and notice even small changes.

This April they experienced temperatures normal for June and a visiting party of Canadian officials meeting to discuss climate change were forced to decamp to a tent when their igloo collapsed due to the heat. The Inuit elders of Puvirnituq involved in its construction were anything but surprised as spring has been arriving here earlier and earlier for the last six years.

Eva Inukpuk, 41, an Inuit mother from Inukjuak, just south of Puvirnituq, said: ‘My mother is 70, she grew up when they still lived in igloos. She used to be able to just look out of the window and tell me what the weather would be like the next day. Now, it could be anything. All her knowledge counts for nothing these days.’

Quara Irnikayak, who works at the Ivujivik municipal office in a village to the north, complained about the lack of snow. ‘I look out at the mountains and I can see the rock. It should be completely white with snow. We haven’t had enough snow this winter and there is open water in the bay!’

Mario Aubin, of the Nunavik Arctic Survival Centre in Puvirnituq, has spent most of his life with Inuits and knows first hand the cost of the shorter winters. ‘Pack ice to the white man seems like a barrier, something to fear. But to the Inuit it’s their highway. It’s their communication system, their freedom, their livelihood, their independence. Without it there is no Inuit culture.’

When the survival school started six years ago, Mario could guarantee his clients five months of winter cold enough to build and sleep in igloos, from December through to the end of April. Now it is only six weeks long, mid January to the end of February. ‘There will be some time before and after when it is cold enough, but we never know now when that will be. ‘I had to cancel a course inside the arctic circle this March because there wasn’t enough ice. I have a film crew here in the summer making a feature film. I think they may have to bring polystyrene blocks.’

Upheaval is not unknown to the Inuits. In the 1960s they were forcibly moved out of their igloo camps and into government subsidised prefabricated ‘villages’ along the coast. Previously a nomadic people, the social transition was not an easy one and the collision with modern western values was disastrous. All communities have serious alcohol and drug problems. Teenage suicide rates are among the highest in the world.

Despite these problems however, their very remoteness has insured their survival. To this day they are a people with one foot still firmly placed in their traditional way of life. If the weather is good, the school in Puvirnituq will empty as children go hunting with their parents. In Inukjuak when the caribou arrive or in Ivujivik when the beluga whales appear in the bay they hunt them – lessons or no lessons – and all the social problems seem to disappear when they are engaged in these traditional activities.

But the landscape to which they are so closely related is changing so rapidly it is difficult to see how they can adapt.

In the last three decades, 400,000 square miles of sea ice has melted. That’s an area the size of George Bush’s home state of Texas. The ice is also now 40 per cent thinner. Arctic air temperatures are warmer than they’ve been for four centuries and the more the ice melts, the less ice there is to reflect heat back into space and the process is accelerated.

Recently published findings by Eric Rignot and Pannir Kanagaratnam show that last year alone the melting Greenland ice sheet deposited 224 cubic kilometres of ice into the ocean as opposed to 90 cubic kilometres in 1996. Greenland contains enough land ice to raise ocean levels 23 feet. Antarctica holds enough to raise them by more than 215 feet. Sea levels also rose four to eight inches last year and already villages in the Pacific Islands have had to be relocated.

But what the people of Nunavik describe isn’t just climate change. Change can be adapted to, accommodated. What they describe is climatic disruption. ‘It isn’t just that it is warmer,’ said Aubin. ‘It’s the unpredictable nature of the weather now. We can go out hunting or fishing inland in March and find it’s too warm to build an igloo, so we put up a tent and then the temperature suddenly drops again and we could freeze to death.’

In a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently many Inuits described accidents related to the rapidly changing climate. On the east coast near the Nunavik capital of Kujjuak, Lizzie Gordon describes losing several close family members who were killed in a freak blizzard. Her husband Sandy recalls an incident when travellers had to be rescued by helicopter because of sudden freak snowmelt. Even the experienced hunters have started falling through thinning ice, sometimes fatally.

They also talk of freak environmental incidents. Puvirnituq experienced an earthquake last month, much to the alarm of the local people. Scientists believe it was caused by glacial movement. The region’s first ever thunderstorm was witnessed last November. Last May the town of Kuujjuarapik in the south of Nunavik experienced temperatures of 100°F, which brought TV crews scurrying in from the south.

Animals and birds, previously never seen in the area, are being spotted. In the same petition, Inuits describe seeing strange flowers or plants. Caribou have been seen to starve to death because of the lack of vegetation.

The shortage of food to hunt is also bringing polar bears dangerously close to human habitation.

‘In the past we may have seen one polar bear near the village every year,’ said Adamie Kalingo, the mayor of Ivujivik, the village situated on the most northerly tip of Quebec. ‘Now there are many and they are hungry.’

They also talk of disturbing changes to the sun itself. ‘It moves,’ said Adamie Kalingo, ‘in the sky. It’s not right.’

Quara Irnikayak described a remarkably similar phenomenon. ‘It’s in a different place in the sky.’ she said. ‘It used to be lower. And it feels different to how it used to.’

Inuit skin is naturally very resilient to the sun, but in the last few years many have started to complain of burns and blisters in the summer. Piatsi Lamoureux from Ivujivik complains that her skin gets burnt even in the winter and she has to wear sun block.

‘My husband is in Quebec city right now,’ she said. ‘He will bring some sun screen back for me because I have run out. I have to wear it even in the winter now. This has only happened in the last five years.’

Winds have also become noticeably stronger in the last few years, which causes disruption and helps break up the sea ice. ‘It makes the snow a different colour,’ said Adamie. ‘Not a good clean white, but a kind of grey. It is very disturbing to see.’

In the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit, on Baffin Island to the north, one woman has brought the Inuit concern to the table of global politics. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit grandmother and professor of statistics, has become a mouthpiece for her native communities and is currently trying to sue the US Government under its own human rights laws, in order to force it to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions.

In her role as the elected chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (a federation of 150,000 Inuits from Canada, Greenland, Russia and the United States), she instigated the filing of a petition last year with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Although the commission has no power of enforcement, a finding in favour of the Inuits could provide the basis for future lawsuits in federal courts throughout the United States and has already forced governments across the world to accept the reality of global warming.

Watt-Cloutier claims that more has to be done, notably by the United States. ‘The US is by far the biggest culprit,’ she said in a recent interview, ‘producing 26 per cent of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.’ She says that the will for action is there from most of the Arctic council (Canada, Finland, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States), but because it acts only on consensus from all members progress is slow without their cooperation. ‘It is difficult for seven countries to move forward if the eighth is not on board,’ she said.

The petition, if successful, could transform global warming politics. Arguing that the actions of one nation can violate the rights of a people beyond its borders. Despite some fierce opposition from commercial factors within the United States, Watt-Cloutier has succeeded in putting arctic meltdown firmly on the global agenda, and has been given a number of prestigious international awards for her work.

‘The actual act of going out onto the land, and the skills that are required to survive these conditions are the very skills young people need to survive the modern world,’ she said. ‘What the land teaches you ... is to be bold under pressure, to withstand stress, to be courageous, to be patient, to have sound judgment and ultimately wisdom.’ Without that land it is hard to see a future for the Inuit culture: they will be trapped in a cultural no-man’s land, separated from their historical roots but unable to integrate into modern Canadian society.

‘It is very sad,’ said Inuit mother Eva Inukpuk from Inukjuak. ‘My daughter Qulliq will not grow up eating caribou every day like I did. She will eat junk food and Pepsi. But we can’t move. We can’t live in the city. We hunt. That’s what we do. That’s who we are.’

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2006

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