Features  Canada’s North on thin ice

Geography professor urges solutions to address the palpable effects of climate change

There’s no debate about the existence of climate change in the North. Ask any resident of Canada’s Arctic about how the climate has already changed, and you’ll get a barrage of stories. Janice Grey, a John Abbott College student raised in Nunavik, Quebec, notes, “Even in my short life, I have witnessed incredible changes in the environment in the North.”

“I live in an area where underneath is permanent permafrost and above it is marshland,” she continues. “There used to be berries, and because there were berries, there were always geese…but now that the permafrost underneath is cracking and melting, the marshlands are draining, so it looks a lot like a desert now…. Because of this we don’t get berries and we don’t have geese; the hunters have to go further and further to find food.”

These changes are common across the North. Whitehorse resident Sofia Fortin attests to the changes she has observed. “Rainy summers have become the norm, even though it never rained when I was young,” she says. “The snow comes later; it warms up earlier. We’ve had major flooding in our communities.”

“Last summer the caribou did not come to their traditional summering grounds so a whole community that depends on these animals for winter food had to depend on increased shipments of old, stale, and expensive food from the South,” says Fortin.

“The porch is beginning to crack off the foundation of my mother’s house,” says Grey, explaining that the foundation is built on a pyramid-shaped pillar in order to stop the heat from the house melting the permafrost. When the permafrost melts, the pillars are no longer flat on the ground and houses droop to one side. “People’s houses are going to be destroyed in a matter of years.”

These tangible impacts may not be the first things that come to mind when most southern Canadians think of climate change. Particularly during the lead-up to the UN Conference of the Parties climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December, much discussion has focused on carbon emission reduction targets – who has set them, who will achieve them, who should have bigger targets than others, who will pay for implementation, how much the economy might suffer, and so on.

The clamour to reduce carbon emissions has distracted Canadian researchers and governments from the need for adaptation in northern communities. While mitigating climate change by reducing carbon emissions is essential, Canada’s Arctic is already experiencing significant changes that affect the way communities can live on the land. Yet there is limited knowledge about how these communities can adapt and even less coordinated adaptation efforts.

The Arctic’s “adaptation gap” is the research focus of James Ford, assistant professor in McGill’s geography department
“The adaptation gap is the gap between what we need to know to help communities in the North adapt to climate change, and what we already know,” says Ford. “Adaptation research is 10 years behind mitigation research.

Early next year, the journal Global Environmental Change will publish Ford’s research, entitled “Climate change policy responses for Canada’s Inuit Population: The importance of and opportunities for adaptation,” completed with colleagues from Trent University, the University of Guelph, and Frank Duerden Consulting.

“We need a more comprehensive understanding of climate change vulnerability in the North. We have a baseline, but not the depth needed to produce truly adaptive, informed plans. The best knowledge currently concerns subsistence hunting, but we have a lot to learn in terms of health, food security, and business,” says Ford.

This lack of knowledge makes it difficult for governments and communities to create adaptation plans. “There is no real planning for climate change impacts at the territorial level. Consequently, current development is based on a stable climate and may be unsustainable in the face of climate change,” Ford explains. “For instance, infrastructure may be built on land that is vulnerable to rising sea levels or melting permafrost.”

Daniel T’seleie, a climate change planner for Ecology North, agrees that this lack of information poses immediate dangers. “There are no readily available regional predictions of climate change’s [effects that] different parts of the Northwest Territories may experience over the coming decades,” he explains. “We don’t really know exactly what we’re planning for…. We can’t assess risk if we don’t know the likelihood and frequency of a climate-related event.”

Subsistence hunters may be among the most threatened by climate change, but Ford stresses the importance of their knowledge of the land. “Traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) is a highly adaptive form of knowledge. It includes a body of skills – how to survive in the Arctic, how to anticipate hazards, how to build a snow shelter, how to tell if the ice is safe,” says T’seleie.

“Traditionally, people lived sustainable lives on the land. I think sustainable communities are a key element of adaptation, and we need to utilize TEK when we strive to achieve this goal.”

T’seleie adds that climate change has already started to affect Inuit means of transportation by shortening the season during which ice can safely be traversed, and by unpredictably altering water levels on barge routes. “Shipping prices will likely climb in the future as we rely more on air transport. Any action [that] isolated communities can take to produce food, goods, and energy locally is an adaptive strategy. So, promoting hunting and gardening can be considered adaptation as shipping prices climb. But local production is also a mitigative strategy. And, of course, if we want to hunt effectively we need TEK. So in many cases adaptation, mitigation, and TEK go hand-in-hand.”

The adaptability of the Inuit gives Ford hope that the adaptation gap can be bridged. “Inuit are not passive in the face of changing conditions. The subsistence hunting sector is learning how to modify their activities to ensure continued safe and successful hunting. This has always underpinned Inuit survival in the harsh and unforgiving Arctic.”

Young people, though, are not always as knowledgeable about the land, especially when economic circumstances attract them to Canada’s southern urban centres. “A lot of this knowledge and skill is not being passed on or developed among younger generations,” explains Ford. “Not only is this cultural loss, but it will also affect the ability of Inuit to adapt to climate change.”

Grey agrees that there needs to be more education about climate change among Inuit communities, but also believes that southern Canadians need to be less apathetic about the fate of northern communities. As part of the Arctic Team for the Canadian Youth Delegation to Copenhagen, she will be making sure that Canadian negotiators hear the concerns of people from Nunavik.

Ford’s research offers insight into opportunities to reduce Inuit vulnerability to climate change and increase adaptive capacity.

“Solutions are relatively simple and can be implemented within existing programs, [for example, by] developing land training programs to complement more formal schooling. That’s the beauty of many adaptations – we don’t need lengthy complex negotiations to develop policy response, we just need to do things better today.

“Compared to previous meetings of the Conference of the Parties where it was all about mitigation, adaptation is clearly on the agenda for Copenhagen. Adaptation is creeping up the agenda because it has to: we are now experiencing the effects of climate change.”

You can learn more about Ford’s research at arctic-north.com/JamesPersonalWebsite/.