Indigenous People: Impacts

Reductions in sea ice during the last several years have impacted Arctic indigenous people by forcing them to change their hunting strategies, and by posing serious safety concerns.

Inuit Observations

Native hunter with harpoon

Native hunter with harpoon

Inuit girls

Inuit girls

The autumns of 1997 and 1998 were two of the warmest seasons on record. In both years, hunters reported poor seal hunting because of diminishing sea ice. Some Inuit report that fast ice, or ice anchored to the ocean shore or bottom, has been thinning in the Home Bay area of northern Canada. Overall, ice formation seems to be later and thinner since 1998. When the ice melts, it creates mushy conditions, which are dangerous for hunting. Some Inuit have also noticed changes in seals: they used to grow new fur around July, but recently, new fur growth has been occurring earlier.

When ice conditions in 2002 caused the ice to be thinner and more hazardous for travel, hunters in Shishmaref (on the far western shore of Alaska, about 203 kilometers, or 126 miles, north of Nome) were forced to travel as far as 322 kilometers (200 miles) from town to hunt for walrus. Hunters started using boats to hunt seals instead of hunting them over the ice.

"This year, the ice was thinner, and most of the year at least part of the ice was open. We don't normally see open water in December," said Edwin Weyiouanna, an artist who has lived most of his life on the Chukchi Sea. ("Global warming could put Alaskan village underwater," Los Angeles Times, 08 July 2001)

According to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment's 2004 report, Impacts of a Warming Arctic, changes in species ranges and availability as well as reduced access to various species because of unsafe ice, will create serious challenges to human health, food security, and possibly the survival of some cultures.

Rosemarie Kuptana, a resident of Sachs Harbour on Banks Island gives the following summary (Johansen 2001):

We don't know when to travel on the ice and our food sources are getting further and further away....Our way of life is being permanently altered....We have no other sources of food. The people in my community are completely dependent on hunting, trapping and fishing....We have no means of adapting to a different environmental reality, and that is why our situation is so critical.

Accidents on the Ice

Changes in sea ice—such as thinning, unusual cracks, and changes in the timing of breakup and freeze—are impacting travel safety. Hunters often test the stability of the ice with a harpoon before hunting in the autumn and spring. Accidents on the sea ice are increasing due to unusual conditions, resulting in injuries and death, loss of valuable equipment, and expensive rescues. There are no clear statistics on the number of ice-related accidents, yet more are being reported. In addition, unexpected storms have left hunting parties stranded.

More Severe Storms

Natives have noticed an increasing rate at which large storms develop, which they believe is a result of diminishing sea ice.

When sea ice is present, less moisture moves from the ocean to the atmosphere, which limits the development of strong storms. With less sea ice, stronger storms are possible. Sea ice also prevents large ocean waves from forming, so without sea ice, these waves can cause significant coastal erosion. In fact, with the recent decline in summer sea ice extent (see Trends in the Environment section), these storms and waves are more common, and coastal erosion is threatening some communities.

One example is in the village of Shishmaref, on the western shore of Alaska, where years of retreating sea ice in the Chukchi Sea have led to large waves that erode the shoreline and are now threatening to destroy the village's large fuel stores near the shore. The town's permafrost base has been thawing, and the ocean has already claimed the town's drinking water supply.