Arctic hunters learn to adapt to changing ice conditions

CLYDE RIVER, Nunavut; NUUK, Greenland -- When Joelie Sanguya thinks back on his childhood, some of his fondest memories are of growing up on the sea ice.

"It wasn't like now," the 57-year-old Inuit hunter said, gesturing around his living room. His wife Igah made hot water for tea in the nearby kitchen. His son Matthew shuffled up and down the hall in baggy jeans and a loose black T-shirt.

"We used to live as nomads in those days," Sanguya continued. "After Christmas, when there was enough snow, we'd go out on the sea ice and make igloos.

"In those days I didn't have any math or measurements ... or anything like that. But I remember looking down through seal breathing holes and the ice was so thick, they looked like they were tapering away.

"Today you don't see that very much. You'll probably see 4 feet or 5 feet (down) and that's it."

Meanwhile, almost a thousand kilometers across Baffin Bay, an Inuit hunter in Greenland reflects on how the sea ice has changed her community.

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Toku Oshima grew up fishing and hunting on the sea ice by dog team. She now owns a 10-dog team herself. And while her team has never fallen through the ice, she's seen other teams that have.

"It's dangerous," Oshima, 35, said on the telephone from her home in Qaanaaq, a town of about 600 people in Greenland's northwest. "You have to avoid the bad ice."

And way across the Arctic Ocean from Qaanaaq, Joe Leavitt, an Inupiat Inuit subsistence hunter and heavy equipment operator in Barrow, Alaska, also thought back to his childhood days on the ice.

"When I was a boy, the ice used to hover around Barrow all year," 51-year-old Leavitt said. "Now when the ice takes off it doesn't want to come back. So our hunting is very limited."

Whale hunting is central to the culture of the Inupiat in Barrow, a town of about 4,500 people. Whalers in Barrow hunt in teams. After they catch the whale, the team hauls it onto the ice.

The thinning ice not only makes it hard to pull the whale out of the water, it also puts the whaling team's lives in jeopardy.

"The sea ice just tends to break now," Leavitt, also a registered whaling captain, said. "We're almost getting used to drifting out into the ocean because of all the thin ice. People are trying to take more care. They're always ready to evacuate the ice."

Global temperature change warms up Arctic

Climate scientists generally agree that, on average, sea ice is retreating and thinning throughout the North.

But despite the attention global warming in the Arctic receives, few scientists, politicians or environmental groups have been able to offer the Inuit that live in the North solutions on how to live with or adapt to the changes.

Most climate change research has focused on the ice that forms in the middle of the Arctic and that moves around in the ocean. Less attention has been paid to the landfast ice, the ice that forms alongside coasts, that Inuit communities across the circumpolar world have relied on for hunting and transportation for over 5,000 years.

So no matter how much the specific Arctic cultures or environments differ, the thinning sea ice means each community is confronting similar obstacles.

But with political borders, different dialects and thousands of kilometres between them, the communities are often facing these challenges completely alone.

However, a recent project is slowly trying to change that by bringing Joelie Sanguya, Toku Oshima and Joe Leavitt together... At the same time, on the same continent and to the environment they're most comfortable in on earth... the sea ice.

Arctic hunters share knowledge

The Siku-Inuit-Hila Project was started by Canadian scientist Shari Gearheard and was funded by the National Science Foundation in the United States.

The name of the project means "Sea Ice - People - Weather." The objective of the project was to document the changing relationship of Inuit to the sea ice. But Gearheard and her science team sought to do it in a unique way, not only by having Inuit hunters working closely with scientists from the south, but by setting up monitoring stations manned by locals and allowing Inuit hunters to travel to each others communities and see how ice was changing across the Arctic firsthand.


They recruited hunters in three northern communities: Clyde River, Canada; Barrow, Alaska; and Qaanaaq, Greenland. In total, 21 hunters and scientists were involved in the project.

"It's a huge concern for scientists how the Arctic sea ice is changing," Gearheard said. "And if you're trying to understand a problem it just makes sense to have as many perspectives as you can.

"In a place like the Arctic, there's already a knowledge base (among the Inuit) that's survived and thrived in this environment for thousands of years. Science brings its own strengths and tools. It's not always easy (to bring the two knowledge bases together) but I think it's really important and is how a lot of research should be done."

Local communities get answers from each other

Elder Ilkoo Angutikjuak is also part of the sea ice experts group. The 67-year-old Clyde River hunter is known in his community as one of its keenest weather forecasters. But he admits that unpredictable patterns have emerged that are making this more challenging.

"It's good to talk to the Alaska and the Greenland people about their experiences," he said through a translator in his Clyde River home as family members rushed in and out.

"Our elders predicated global warming long before anyone was talking about it. We can't change global warming. It's God's will.

"But we were able to talk about our Inuit culture, how we survive without technologies. About the tools we use."


For Lene Kielson Holm, the anthropologist in charge of Siku-Inuit-Hila's Greenland team, this was one of the most important parts of the project.

"The hunters from Alaska, from Canada and Qaanaaq were able to talk about the sea ice together, and talk about the changes," she said, sitting by ice in Nuuk's old port and looking out over water. "(They also) asked the right questions and have more answers to the questions than we have.

"They will find ways to adapt by their own ways and means."

Once a week, Teema Qillaq, a 26-year-old hunter, leaves his home with a generator and a drill. He hooks his komatik, a kind of Inuit sled, up to his snowmobile and steers it down a quiet Clyde River street.

With a sharp turn, he tears down a short embankment and blasts across the frozen sea ice near his community. Ten minutes later, Qillaq stops at a bunch of sticks and what looks like twine, sticking out of the ice.

"This is Station One," Qillaq said proudly. He unloaded his equipment and moved swiftly around the station explaining how he verifies snow and ice thickness.

"It's to measure global warming stuff," he said shyly. "I enjoy it because I have to stay outside a little bit. I have to know the ice thickness too and how it's different every year."

Getting people like Qillaq involved in measuring ice and snow in their own communities, instead of using satellite imagery or flying up a scientist from the south, was another important part of the Siku-Inuit-Hila project.

"A lot of what science understands about the Arctic and how it's changing is on a very big scale," said Andy Mahoney, a physical scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who helped set up the research stations in each community. "(Science knows) 'in general' that sea ice is retreating. But of course 'generals' don't work everywhere.

"These local measurements actually allow us to see how sea ice is responding at a local level. (That's) what's really relevant to the community. We're taking measurements for the people that live there."

While the Siku-Inuit-Hila project may carry on in future with further funding, for now, the initial stage of the project is drawing to a close.

Project scientists Gearheard, Kielson Holm and Mahoney say the four-year project has built up an invaluable data bank of snow and ice readings, chronicled, in detail, the relationship between the Inuit and the sea ice in different communities and allowed them to map how hunting routes are changing over time.


This is key to understanding how communities in the North might need to adapt if sea ice changes become more extreme or even if the ice disappears in some communities altogether.

But the project also changed how the researchers perceive the sea ice, Gearheard said.

"I'm a scientist so when I look at sea ice I see what its properties are. How dense it is. But I remember sitting with the hunters when we were all in Qaanaaq. They looked at the sea ice and the first thing they said they saw was 'freedom'.

"(Sea ice) meant they could hunt for food. It meant they could travel to see relatives on the other side of the water, that they hadn't seen all year.

"That was a very powerful thing for me as a person, not just as a scientist."

As for Joelie Sanguya, Toku Oshima, Joe Leavitt and the other Siku-Inuit-Hila hunters, all say they benefited from the project and the sea ice experts groups set up in their own communities.


And while each community is implementing what they learned in different ways, all agree they've been changed for the better by the experience.

"I don't like to think about it (the sea ice disappearing)," Leavitt, the Barrow whaling captain, said. "Our people (Inuit) have always lived through temperature and weather changes. And I think our people will find a way to adapt again and survive again.

"I hope."

This story first appeared on Radio Canada International. It is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.