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Indigenous observations of climate change in the Arctic

This is Section 3.3 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
Lead Authors: Henry Huntington, Shari Fox; Contributing Authors: Fikret Berkes, Igor Krupnik; Consulting Authors: Anne Henshaw,Terry Fenge, Scot Nickels, Simon Wilson


Indigenous peoples have only recently been engaged in climate change research and only through a relatively small number of projects. However, these projects have amassed a large collection of indigenous knowledge and observations about climate and environmental change, reflecting the depth of knowledge held by these peoples. Figures 3.1 and 3.2 present examples of observations documented in these projects, and highlight five major topic areas: changes in weather, seasons, wind, and sea ice (Figure. 3.1), and changes in animals and insects (Fig. 3.2). This information is organized by community and region across the Arctic, but is derived from projects conducted in different ways, with different objectives, and at different times. This compilation provides a useful introduction to changes experienced by indigenous peoples, but should not be used for detailed comparisons across regions without referring to the original reports. Also, some of the changes were not necessarily considered by the observers to be climate-driven, and this is particularly true for information in Fig. 3.2, while some do have connections to climate. The original reports should be used for clarification.


caption Fig. 3.1. Indigenous observations of changes in weather, seasons, wind, and sea ice. (Source: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment)


Many of the topics addressed by indigenous observations in Figs. 3.1 and 3.2 are discussed in other chapters of this assessment. There are many links between indigenous and scientific observations of arctic climate and environmental change and many opportunities for complementary perspectives on the nature of various phenomena and their impacts. For example, Chapter 7 reports that biologists connect a changing climate to changing animal migration patterns, such as caribou (see section 7.3.5). Indigenous knowledge is cited as helping to explain how caribou migrations may be triggered by seasonal cues such as day length, air temperature, or ice thickness[1]. Also, scientific descriptions of changes in the arctic climate (such as those reported in Chapter 2) are often consistent with indigenous observations. For example, observational data from the scientific record indicate that the Arctic is warming in western Canada, Alaska, and across Eurasia, but experiencing no change or cooling in eastern Canada, Greenland, and the northwestern Atlantic (see section This is supported by indigenous observations by comparing those from communities in Alaska with those from Igloolik and Iqaluit in Nunavut, Canada.


caption Fig. 3.2. Indigenous observations of changes in animals and insects. (Source: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment)


Indigenous and scientific observations do not always agree, however. For example, in the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut, Inuit have observed more abundant and new types of shrubs and lichens[2]. While the increased abundance of shrubs corresponds with aerial photography of vegetation change, experimental evidence suggests that lichens should decrease under the changing environmental conditions seen in the Kitikmeot (see section There are probably other disagreements between indigenous and scientific knowledge. Examining the reasons for these differences, however, may drive interesting questions for further research on environmental change. Trying to link different perspectives may result in meaningful insights into the nature and impacts of arctic environmental change[3].

The spatial scale of the observations in Figs. 3.1 and 3.2 is significant. Models of arctic climate provide information on regional scales. Indigenous observations, by contrast, are more localized. A major challenge is to refine model outputs to finer scales, which requires the connection of large- and small-scale processes and information. A corresponding challenge is to combine indigenous observations from various areas to create a regional picture of environmental change. Using these different sources of information across different scales may help to identify the local components of regional processes as well as the regional processes that account for locally observed change.

The information in Figs. 3.1 and 3.2 provides a starting point for studies of the link between indigenous knowledge and other research, for example by cross-referencing different perspectives on climate and environmental change. In this context, several important points about the figures should be noted. First, the information is not comprehensive. The projects cited and even the observations taken from particular projects are only examples. There is not the space to record all documented observations here. Second, each observation is from a particular person, from a particular place, and with a particular history and point of view. Such details are lost when the information is reduced to fit this type of format, and so the information presented here is out of context. The condensed format is valuable for certain purposes, such as a broad comparison across regions or with scientific findings, but the original sources should always be consulted when using the information presented here.

3.1. Introduction
3.2. Indigenous knowledge
3.3. Indigenous observations of climate change
3.4. Case studies
3.4.1. Northwest Alaska: the Qikiktagrugmiut
3.4.2. The Aleutian and Pribilof Islands region, Alaska
3.4.3. Arctic Athabaskan Council: Yukon First Nations
3.4.4. Denendeh: the Dene Nation’s Denendeh Environmental Working Group
3.4.5. Nunavut
3.4.6. Qaanaaq, Greenland
3.4.7. Sapmi: the communities of Purnumukka, Ochejohka, and Nuorgam
3.4.8. Climate change and the Saami
3.4.9. Kola: the Saami community of Lovozero
3.5. Indigenous perspectives and resilience
3.6. Further research needs
3.7. Conclusions



  1. ^ Thorpe, N., N. Hakongak, S. Eyegetok and the Kitikmeot Elders, 2001. Thunder on the tundra: Inuit qaujimajatuqangit of the Bathurst caribou. Generation Printing, xv + 208p.
  2. ^ Thorpe, N., N. Hakongak, S. Eyegetok and the Kitikmeot Elders, 2001. Thunder on the tundra: Inuit qaujimajatuqangit of the Bathurst caribou. Generation Printing, xv + 208p.
  3. ^ Huntington, H.P., T. Callaghan, S. Fox and I. Krupnik, 2004. Matching traditional and scientific observations to detect environmental change: a discussion on Arctic terrestrial ecosystems. Ambio, 33(7):18–23.







Committee, I. (2012). Indigenous observations of climate change in the Arctic. Retrieved from


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