Case Study - Inuit People and Climate Change in the Arctic

First Nations People of the Arctic Adapt

photo of Inuit man carving a small stone polar bear from rock

Only recently, have debates about global climate change taken into account human responsive capacity or adaptive capacity. The arctic is where climate change will be felt earlier and more intensely. The arctic is considered the barometer of the world and the Inuit are the mercury. (Summarized from Berkes and Jolly, 2001)

The Inuit people live in Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in the Canadian Western Arctic. Hunters and elders of Sachs Harbour have been making observations about their environment that are remarkably consistent in providing tangible evidence of climate change. They have made observations of thunder and lightning due to warmer temperatures and have noticed that Pacific salmon have appeared in the Beaufort Sea or mainland ducks have extended their range to the high arctic. Both are welcome contributions to the Inuvialuit diet however some changes are challenging their way of life. The changes reported involved the extent of sea ice, the timing and intensity of weather events, fish and wildlife distribution, permafrost depth, and soil erosion.

These changes have had impacts on the Inuit’s livelihoods and have forced them to adopt coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms are immediate responses to situations where livelihood is threatened. Often these are emergency responses provoked by irregular extreme events such as, discrete changes in climate, as in this case. Access to resources is often related to the ability to travel on land or sea ice. Increased variability associated with spring weather conditions and changes in the rate of spring melt can affect community access to hunting and fishing camps. Changes in the predictability of weather and ice melts create significant safety concerns as it makes travel and hunting more dangerous and does not allow for traditional knowledge of weather to be relied upon. The indirect effects of climate change, such as changes to the availability of forage and water or the intensity of parasitic infections, may have an impact on Arctic wildlife, and thus on the community harvest. Less summer ice means less seals but also different species of fish and birds.

The Inuit people engage in several land-based activities, and in a mixed economy where wage income, transfer payments, and subsistence harvesting all contribute to economic well being and many families obtain significant portions of key food resources (protein) from hunting and fishing.
Resilience in this case study is defined as:

  1. The amount of change a system can undergo and still retain the same controls on function and structure.
  2. Degree to which the system is capable of self organization
  3. Community’s ability to build and increase its capacity for learning and adaptation.

Their adaptive capacity is derived in part from historical adaption, culture, environmental context and economic development. For example, although they were historically dependent on dogs they adopted snowmobiles as their main form of transportation; they have a culture of getting by living in an environment where biological production is relatively low, resources are patchy and availability is unpredictable caution and contextual knowledge is taught as survival tactics.  The contemporary mixed economy means that wider range of livelihood strategies as they have access to other food sources and newer connections to the outside world that can be utilized as insurance or in times of scarcity.  They also have several cultural practices that enhance adaptive capacity.

The unpredictable arctic environment influences social organization and encourages small groups and a high degree of mobility as opposed to large social groupings and permanent settlement to maximize resources obtained and efficiently distribute them within the group.  (Examples are semi-nomadic settlements or group hunting excursions). Traditional resource use has been flexible and responsive to what was available at the time and to natural variation. Species could be switched opportunistically dependent on abundance and backup plans were continually developed given scarcity or other unforeseen events. Oral tradition also provides community memory of past scarcities or disturbances and human responses.

The unpredictable nature of their environment requires a diverse skill set, detailed knowledge of various species and of the environment. Diversification and generalist eating habits were risk-spreading strategies that help mitigate uncertainty and surprise. Self-sufficiency is socially emphasized and these skills are shared across genders and autonomy. Cultural ethic, status, social networks and kinship ties facilitate food sharing and distribution to those who cannot gather themselves. This cultural practice provides basic needs to the community as a whole. Intercommunity trade also equalizes regional differences in resource availability and forms symbolic relations that extend the social network groups can draw from in times of need.

However as time passes the Inuit community has changed somewhat. Now the majority of people live in permanent settlements, subsistence knowledge changes and is incomplete and many young boys know how to use guns versus make snow shelters. On the ground education is less common, very few people with complete knowledge, many who know parts- say how to preserve food but not how to build snowshoes and there are only a few families who are on the land educating their children with subsistence knowledge and experience. There are also fewer hunters providing for more people. Now food is not just being traded but also other goods such as wage income and materials from the outside world. Intercommunity trade has increased as species abundances are changing so now snow geese and musk ox abundant in Sachs Harbor are traded for beluga whales and caribou, which are abundant in neighboring communities. This trade is based on generosity, sharing and generalized reciprocity not western rules of economic exchange.

Despite the changes these communities have undergone, these strategies and cultural underpinnings provide buffering capacity to respond to and deal with environmental change. In the face of climate change the Inuit have adopted several coping mechanisms to respond to environmental change.

Coping mechanisms:

  1. Adjusted to the flexible timing of hunting, made back up plans and opportunistically switched foodstuffs based on availably.
  2. Changing fishing locations and travelling farther.
  3. Construction of new trails and routes to avoid permafrost thaw.
  4. The use of ATVs versus snowmobiles.
  5. Hunting from boats versus ice floes.
  6. They utilize increased caution.
  7. Weekly flights into the community are used as a source of information about ice conditions on a larger scale.

To enable their community to respond to change quickly they have developed co-management arrangements so that they can participate and influence responsive change at that larger scale. These new institutional linkages facilitate co-learning and self-organization. They also provide cross-scale communication allowing community concerns to be transmitted from the local to the regional to the national and international scales.

The Inuit community of Sachs Harbor has drawn from their oral history, culture, social organization, close knowledge of their environment, traditional practices of hunting and gathering, modern economic and social networks and technology to respond to climate change. This case study emphasizes the complexity of assessing social and ecological resilience and the multiple levels and sources of adaptive capacity. It also shows the intimate relationship between ecological and social resilience, as the ecosystem transitions into an alternate state as arctic ice melts, and species migrate, human communities embedded in these ecosystems who have also undergone historical change themselves must respond and try to find some new balance in this changed environmental and social context. 

Resilience thinking arises at a particular time in which we need it the most. We have seen our current models of science and management exposed as limited and reductionist in the context of the large wicked social and ecological problems we are experiencing. We need scholars who think in systems, who allow for uncertainty and emergent behavior and who can identify feedbacks and integrate social and ecological systems simultaneously. We are in a position in which we possess the incredible assets of scientific prowess, resources, and institutional support and we have recently had the humbling realization that our current approaches to solve problems need to be modified. This presents an incredible opportunity to reprioritize our management goals and scientific questions to effectively address the real problems we face and to begin to build our collective adaptive capacity to foster resilience within the social and ecological systems that we depend on. After all adaptive capacity, the willingness and ability to respond to change, will ultimately determine our ability to sustain ourselves in this rapidly changing world. -IS


Berkes, F. and Jolly, D. (2001) Adapting to Climate Change: Social-ecological resilience in a Canadian Western Arctic Community. Ecology and Society 5: 2 (18).

See also: Ford, J. D., and Pearce, T. (2010) What we know, do not know, and need to know about climate change vulnerability in the western Canadian Arctic: a systematic literature review. Environ. Res. Lett. 5 014008

Photo Credit: Ascappatura 2010.