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Global Warming Melts Inuit’s Arctic Lifestyle

Traditionally, the 130 members of the Inuit community of Sachs Harbor, located on the western tip of Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic, supported themselves through age-old patterns of hunting, trapping, and fishing. Recently, however, members of the community have taken on a new role: climate-change observers.


Sachs Harbour resident John Keogak points out signs of slumping, the collapse of land when permafrost thaws, to a film crew. (Photograph Courtesy International Institute for Sustainable Development)

Here, 400 miles (640 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle, global warming is not a theory that is debated among scientists, but a reality of everyday life. Sea ice is thinning, and disappearing. Indigenous animals are moving farther north. And melting permafrost has loosened the ground enough to weaken foundations and cause homes to lean. This, plus rising sea levels, threatens to displace an entire community.

Surrounded by signs of change, in 1998 the residents of Sachs Harbor devised a plan to document the changes affecting their home and bring attention to the very obvious signs of global warming.

Led by Rosemarie Kupatana, a Sachs Harbor resident, Inuit Observations on Climate Change is a community-based project developed in cooperation with the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Aided by project scientists, community members are working to produce a video that will record the changes threatening their home.


Among the most alarming changes is the disappearance of native species. Caribou, long a staple of Inuit diet, are falling through once-solid sea ice. Polar bears are moving farther north, as are seals, who need the shelter of pack ice to give birth to their young.

As traditional Arctic species move north, new species are moving in. Grizzly bears have been spotted in territory once dominated by polar bears. Salmon, never before caught this far north, are making appearances in fishermen’s nets.

The changes make hunting and fishing very difficult. “Even with generations of indigenous knowledge available to the hunters and trappers of Sachs Harbor they are having a difficult time predicting when once-predictable seasonal migrations will occur,” says Jennifer Castleden, project officer for the International Institute of Sustainable Development.

Physical changes to the land include rising water and softening permafrost, which threatens to ruin house foundations and the one road that leads to the tiny community. Slumping, the collapse of land under the weight of newly thawed permafrost, is also altering the look of the land along the coast.


Scientists and other project team members have traveled to Sachs Harbor four times in the past year to document climate changes recorded by the community. The result of their labor is a 42-minute video, narrated entirely by Sachs Harbor community members, detailing the drastic changes affecting this Arctic outpost.

In addition to the video, which will be released in November, project scientists will compile a detailed report on the value of traditional knowledge and local observations in documenting climate change.

“As far as we know, this is the only project of its kind in the Arctic,” said Castleden, who noted that news reports from eastern Arctic communities indicated similar patterns. Perhaps, she notes, this project will raise awareness of the need to document climate change in other parts of the Arctic.

“Climate change is a reality—not a distant threat,” says Castleden. “This community is the ’canary in the coal mine’ of climate change.”

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More Information

The Arctic is traditionally defined as the area north of 66 ½ degrees of latitude.

Portions of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Scandinavia, and Greenland are contained within the Arctic Circle.

The Arctic Ocean is the smallest of the world’s oceans.

Global air temperatures, as measured by land-based weather stations, show an increase of about 0.45 degrees Celsius over the past century, which some scientists believe is a trend. However, scientists disagree on the cause of this warming.

Early traders and explorers in North America called the inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic “Eskimo,” a name derived from an Algonquin term meaning “eaters of raw flesh in the north.” They call themselves Inuit, which means, simply “the people.”