Features | Breaking the ice

McGill researchers work with Inuit hunters to understand and publicize the social effects of climate change

Although it is 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Iqaluit, Nunavut is still in the midst of vast Arctic tundra, with a climate of long, cold winters and short, mild summers. The territorial capital, Iqaluit is located on southeastern Baffin Island, near the northwestern tip of Frobisher Bay. A community of about 7,200, Iqaluit’s inhabitants are 85 per cent Inuit. Local hunters now say that the climate is changing faster than they have ever seen, with later sea ice freeze-up and earlier melting. In the face of climate change, the way in which the Inuit rely on the land is being forced to change.

Last December, while most students were fretting in the library or enjoying the holidays happily at home with their families, Graham McDowell packed his bags for Iqaluit. McDowell, a U2 Honours Geography student and research assistant for McGill geography professor James Ford, spent December 9 to 18 with Inuit hunters on Baffin Island doing field work for the Iqaluit Land-Use Mapping Project (ILMP).

The ILMP seeks to understand how climate change is affecting Inuit hunters. Experienced Inuit hunters carry GPS units during their hunting trips and contribute their observations of landscape and wildlife anomalies, thereby enabling the project’s researchers to better understand both the hunters’ vulnerability to climate change and their ability to adapt to the fluctuating conditions. I sat down with McDowell to find out more about his research concerning the human dimensions of climate change in the Arctic.

The McGill Daily: What did you go to the Arctic to find out?
Graham McDowell: My work in Iqaluit is focused on understanding how climate change – and its interaction with social, economic, and political change in the north – is affecting Inuit hunters. More specifically, I am assessing and documenting emerging land-use hazards and how these hazards, interfacing with other changes, affect the ability of hunters to procure “country food” (e.g. caribou and seal); for example, unstable sea ice and high gas prices together restrict access to traditional hunting areas.

MD: Is there a lot of work being done in this field? How does your research fit in?
GM: Research examining climate change through the lens of socio-economic and/or political change is a fairly new development, but the approach is being increasingly pursued by researchers working in northern communities. The project is part of this broader research agenda, which seeks to understand the human dimensions of climate change in the Arctic. However, a unique contribution of this project is its monitoring of climatic impacts over time (see GPS hunting routes map). This aspect is deepening our understanding of how coupled social and environmental change in the Arctic is progressing.

MD: What is it exactly that you do in your research?
GM: During trips to the Arctic, I spend as much time as possible “on the land” with hunters. By accompanying hunters on their outings I am able to experience, document, and discuss hazards as they are encountered. Sometimes these are day trips, and sometimes they last several days. While on the land, the hunters carry GPS units to record our routes. This data is then used to compile land-use maps. I also interview hunters about non-climatic factors affecting their ability to hunt, such as the cost of fuel and snowmobile upkeep.

MD: What are the results of the project so far?
GM: It’s clear that because of climate change a number of land-use hazards are increasing in occurrence and/or severity – for example, unstable sea ice, thin snow and exposed rocks, and increasing whiteout conditions. We’ve produced a series of land-use maps documenting problematic areas and the resulting changes that hunters are making to the ways they use the land.

It’s also clear that, despite the seemingly ubiquitous nature of climate change impacts, the vulnerability of hunters to climate change is uneven. For example, hunters with strong land-use skills and/or access to economic means are relatively less affected; these hunters are very familiar with the local environment and are more capable of sensing dangerous situations. They may also be able to afford responses like boats for the lengthening open-water hunting season. Those less well-equipped – young hunters and economically or socially marginalized hunters – are being tangibly impacted. Challenges faced by these hunters are propagated through the community, especially in terms of food security.

MD: What do you do for the project when you’re not in the north?
GM: At McGill, I work with Ford to analyze information collected during fieldwork and to devise methods of improving the project. I also stay in touch with our colleague at the Nunavut Research Institute, Jamal Shirley, to stay abreast of notable developments with the project hunters. In addition, I work to communicate the project’s findings via article writing and media and wmulti-media avenues.

MD: Why are you interested in this field?
GM: A great deal of energy has been invested in exploring ways to mitigate climate change (e.g. by reducing greenhouse gas emissions), and rightly so. However, we now know that regardless of mitigation efforts the planet, and therefore human communities, will be exposed to a certain degree of climatic change. I am interested in what this conclusion means for human communities: how human communities are affected, who is most vulnerable, and why. Ultimately, however, working to reduce the vulnerability of those most susceptible to climate change drives my interest in the field.

MD: What do you wish every Canadian knew about the Arctic?
GM: I wish Canadians were more aware of the fact that Arctic residents are being affected by climate change today. It seems that many Canadians consider climate change to be an abstract future threat. This perspective is out of step with reality. Climate change, in conjunction with socio-economic and political change, is already affecting the ability of Iqaluit’s hunters to pursue culturally acceptable livelihoods.

MD: What’s next for you?
GM: This April I will be presenting the project and its findings at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Washington, D.C. In May, I’ll be back on Baffin Island for continued fieldwork. In addition to my Arctic research, I will be spending July and August in a Nepalese community conducting a climate change vulnerability assessment for my Honours thesis. This project has a similar methodology, but will be situated in an alpine context. I’m hoping to make a modest contribution to the currently insufficient knowledge about human vulnerability to climate change in the Nepal Himalayas.

Our conversation emphasized to me how important it is that human rights and equity become a larger part of the discussion around climate change. As seen recently with all the muckraking concerning errors in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the resulting surge in the climate denial community, there is a tremendous need for scientific research,w which robustly shows the effects that climate change is already having on communities. These “human dimensions of climate change” engage citizens on an ethical level instead of on purely scientific or economic grounds and we can always hope that policymakers and politicians will respond to public pressure. Empirical evidence from vulnerability assessments helps to inform policymakers on how best to support adaptation to changing climatic conditions and, more broadly, informs equity discussions that are an increasingly large part of the climate change conundrum.

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