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The Arctic: a reality check on environmental health

6 September 2012

In the first in a series of articles on the Arctic, Elvira Nurieva, a recent intern at MRG Europe’s office, outlines the worrying environmental changes in the region and explains why indigenous peoples’ knowledge should be considered in strategies tackling climate change.

Is there any evidence that the Arctic – which is currently fuelling territorial disputes between Canada, Greenland, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States – is a wealth of natural resources?

Although the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that scientific data diverges on this issue, an increase in military presence in the Arctic region is being interpreted as a reliable sign of countless resources.

Despite the fact that indigenous communities are predominantly located in remote areas and lack contemporary infrastructure, and are therefore more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, they are still a source of knowledge and adaptation strategies. The example of Inuit communities in Canada is illustrative of this.

Map showing the Arctic. Credit: University of Durham.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that the Arctic experienced a warming trend in air temperature up to 5°C during the 20th century, and sees a continuous decrease in sea ice. Further warming and increases in precipitation are projected for the 21st century. The predicted impact of warming includes: increased melting on Arctic glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet, substantial loss of sea ice and the opening of new sea routes and changes in ecosystems and increased plant productivity.

Other predicted outcomes include changes to visible dynamics in species compositions on land and in the sea, as well as changes in the concentration areas of the Arctic vegetation and loss of some polar species. Changes in sea ice will affect the species inhabiting the area: their patterns of migration, nutritional status and reproductive success as well as their abundance and balance.

The knowledge of indigenous peoples, including Inuit, contrasts with scientific explanations and, as a result, is neglected or ignored by established international, regional and local actors in the development of climate mitigation strategies and policies.

An Inuk pulls aside a snow brick over the igloo door at dusk. Credit: Igloolik. Nunavut. Canada © Bryan and Cherry Alexander / LUZphoto

Inuit groups have developed a strong knowledge base concerning weather, snow and ice conditions and natural resource availability. They learn this knowledge through their experience of surviving off natural resources in the remote harsh Arctic environment. Thus the knowledge, accumulated by Arctic indigenous peoples, enhances conventional science and environmental observations.

Given the facts, the knowledge of indigenous peoples provides an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change.

Apart from speculations over an abundance of natural resources and military presence and capabilities in the area, changes in the Arctic’s environment are attracting the attention of the general public. As are drastic weather changes such as rising heat records, “derecho” storms, and severe flooding. Any and all alert us to the looming consequences of persistent ignorance, prompt us to acknowledge the connection between human activity and climate change, and develop mitigation strategies with the participation of all actors, including indigenous communities.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.