Inuit Say They Witness Global Warming Effects

W A S H I N G T O N, Nov. 16, 2000 -- While governments and scientists still debateclimate change, Inuit tribal members on Banks Island in the farnorthern Canadian Arctic are already convinced the world is gettingwarmer.

The evidence is in the land and ice that surrounds them, theysay: The permafrost is thawing, there are fewer seals and polarbears to hunt because of thinning sea-ice, and warmer weather hasbrought more mosquitoes that stay longer. In the fall, it’s freezingup later and later every year.

“We can’t read the weather like we used to,” said RosemarieKuptana, an activist among the 130 Inuit people who live in SachsHarbor, the only community on the island that covers 28,000 squaremiles in northwestern Canada.

It is a land where temperatures can occasionally plummet to 50degrees below zero on winter nights, but Kuptana and her neighbors— trappers, hunters and subsistence fishermen — are convinced awarming trend is changing their lives.

Warming Would Focus at Arctic

The Inuits’ experiences — recorded in interviews by researchersduring four visits to the island last year — are the focus of astudy being presented this week at a climate conference in theNetherlands.

There has been growing evidence of an Arctic thawing, fromreceding glaciers in Alaska to reports of an accelerated melting ofGreenland’s ice sheet. Computer models indicate that if the earthis warming, the amount of warming likely would be greatest in thehigher latitudes such as the Arctic region.

But scientists have yet to determine whether the changesobserved in the Arctic reflect the early stages of a permanentwarming due to manmade, heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphereor a natural, cyclical climate blip.

Still, the Inuit people who live along the southwestern coast ofBanks Island are convinced their climate is changing.

“It provides strong support for the conclusion that climatechange is not just a theory,” insisted Graham Ashford, who headedthe Inuit research project for the International Institute forSustainable Development.

The private group, based in Ottawa, Canada, espouses a broadrange of sustainable development activities and research programs.It gets both private and government funding, although much of itsInuit project was funded by the Climate Change Action Fund, anenvironmental advocacy group.

Evidence in Seasons, Animals

Kuptana, 47, who grew up in Sachs Harbor and raised threechildren there, served as liaison between the researchers and thetribal elders and others in the community, and she is certain thatglobal warming is already having an impact.

In interviews with researchers, she and some of the other SachsHarbor residents described how their environment has changed.

Autumn freezes now occur a month later than the once did andspring thaws come earlier. The winters, although harshly cold, arenot as cold as they once were. One community member said there wasa time when it was not unusual for temperatures to reach well belowminus-40 degrees Fahrenheit; now such temperatures are rare.

Species of animals and birds that once never came to the islandcan now be seen regularly: birds such as robins and barn swallows,as well as salmon and herring. There are more beetles and sandflies and mosquitoes are staying longer in the summer months.

Melting Permafrost

“The permafrost is melting at an alarming rate,” said Kuptanain a telephone interview. She described foundations of homescracking and shifting. She also said she is worried that thecommunity itself may one day slide into the Beaufort Sea because ofmoving mud that once stayed frozen solid.

Inuit hunters complained to the researchers that a thinning ofthe sea ice has made it more difficult to harvest seals and huntpolar bears because both have now migrated farther away. Kuptanasaid the thinner ice and thawing land has made it more difficult —and dangerous — for hunters and trappers to move about.

“What’s scary is the uncertainty,” she said. “We don’t knowwhen to travel on the ice and our food sources are getting fartherand farther away.”

She is not swayed by the scientific uncertainties.

The Inuit people have lived in the region for centuries, shesaid, adding: “The weather, the animals, the migration patterns,the changes that we’ve seen is knowledge. ... It’s our scientificknowledge.”

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