Indigenous People: Impacts

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

Inuit Observations

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.

In 2019, Bering Sea elders authored a chapter in the Arctic Report Card. The authors highlighted detrimental impacts of declining sea ice on marine mammals, fish, seabirds, and indigenous communities. Slower fall freeze-up, for example, leaves communities stranded for longer periods of the year, unable to access other communities, hunt traditional foods, for travel for health care. In communities not on road systems, travel by snowmobile over sea ice used to allow access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds, but the ice is too thin to support the weight. The island community of Diomede traditionally used an ice runway, but by 2019, the ice had been too thin to support one for a decade, forcing the community to turn to less-reliable helicopter access. "In the northern Bering Sea, sea ice used to be present with us for eight months a year. Today, we may only see three or four months with ice," the elders write.

Sea ice retreat combined with permafrost thaw has led to coastal erosion. On August 16, 2016, residents of the village of Shishmaref, a village on Sarichef (a barrier island north of the Bering Strait) voted to relocate their community after decades of coastal erosion. Finding the funds to support such a move, however, was uncertain.

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

The Arctic Indigenous Peoples 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.

Last updated: 3 April 2020