Inuit observe climate changes
Projects compares science with tradition

Melissa Vejins
Northern News Services

Sachs Harbour (Jan 10/00) - There's a lot of talk about global warming, but skepticism and doubt still abound. For people in Sachs Harbour, however, climate change is a reality.

The elders have already noticed dramatic changes in the thickness of the ice and permafrost, and they are seeing changes to fish and wildlife habitat.

These observations are the start of a project designed by Neil Ford and Rosemary Kuptana, who is originally from Sachs Harbour.

Ford is the project manager for the Inuit Observations on Climate Change. The project is implemented by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and funded by the federal and Manitoban governments.

According to Ford, climate change is felt the most in the Arctic.

"We wanted to see if the traditional knowledge of the Inuit and the local observations they make could be of use to scientific research," says Ford.

Ford is aiming to provide the public with a documentary of the project, and the observations are currently being videotaped. Ford wants to ensure that the tape is "participatory," meaning that it will show the Inuit point of view.

"Rather than us deciding what is happening with climate change, they (Sachs Harbour Inuvialuit) guide us as to what should or shouldn't be in the video."

Norm Snow is the executive director of the Joint Secretariat and is a scientist on the project. He has been living in the North for 30 years. When asked if he's noticed any changes, Snow says, "No doubt in my mind. It was a lot colder, by 10 degrees.

"Last year, down in the Mackenzie Delta, large numbers of bearded seals were found. I don't think that that's ever been reported ... there is a change in distribution of fairly common species."

If finding sockeye and coho salmon by Banks Island doesn't sound like news, think again. It has never happened before.

The Inuit have also observed "skinny" seals.

According to Snow, this might be due to ice breaking up and melting earlier in the season, so pups are weaned much sooner.

There are no noticeable changes to whales, but there are quite a few when it comes to land-dwelling wildlife.

According to Ford, a reverse trend has occurred: "Muskox are plentiful and caribou are scarce."

However, Ford is reluctant to say how much of that is due to climate change alone.

Ann Gunn is a caribou biologist for RWED and is involved in the study. She has spent several years observing changes among the Peary caribou of the High Arctic.

"The trend is towards increasing snowfall so it makes it more difficult for the caribou to find their food," comments Gunn.

Though research on the Barren Land caribou is fairly new, Gunn does not feel optimistic about their future.

"All we'll do is monitor the changes to try and convince people to do something."

But by the time the caribou start disappearing, it will be too late to take action.

The Sachs Harbour coastline is already victim of mudslides due to the permafrost's diminishing thickness.

According to Snow, some buildings have shifted. Ford says that the whole community could be threatened.

This leads one to wonder what will happen to all Northern communities and wildlife if the government does not take more aggressive action and if people do not provide efforts to reduce emissions.