6253 What Did We Learn from Indigenous Knowledge of Arctic Environmental Change: 20002010

Saturday, February 18, 2012: 8:00 AM
Room 212 (VCC West Building)
Igor Krupnik , Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
By the late 1990s, collaborative studies across the Arctic confirmed that indigenous people of the region had been observing a strong warming signal. In the following decade, Arctic peoples’ observations and knowledge were increasingly sought by anthropologists, climate and marine scientists, data managers, general public and policy makers. This paper addresses indigenous observations in a decadal perspective as seen via several collaborative programs with the Yupik experts on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska during 2000–2010.

In case of observing change, we learned that the Yupik people on St. Lawrence Island are using dozens of natural indicators to track the changing conditions. These include wind, weather and ice patterns, plants, animals, and birds, status of the shoreline, as well as the specific timing of numerous local ‘benchmarks.’ That gives local observations a higher resolution in tracking multiple signals compared to satellite imagery, averaged time series, and scientists’ models.

In understanding change, the decade of partnership revealed that polar people have a complex vision on how the change is progressing. On St. Lawrence Island, they claim that there is ‘not enough cold’ in winter, particularly in February, to produce the solid thick ice that stays longer and is favored by the animals they hunt. The integrative nature of indigenous observations allows people to view concerted changes affecting ice, weather, winds, animals, birds, shore zone, and to follow changes across much broader area.

In responding to change, the people of St. Lawrence Island have to factor the rapidly altering environment, as well as social stressors, such as lagging economy, high gasoline prices, increased ship traffic, commercial tourism and fisheries. The basics of life on the island have not changed and marine catch is abundant; but it comes with higher risks and growing insecurity.

The greater understanding of polar peoples’ views on their environment has come with better scientific assessments of Arctic change. During the same decade, the Arctic sea ice retreated to the record lows in September 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. Also, scientists have come closer to indigenous users in their vision of seasonal ice dynamics. They now factor ice thickness, age, safety, local patterns into new concepts, such as, regionally-organized ‘seascape,’ much like hunters do.  This remarkable conversion, either through better knowledge, sharing, or inspiration, may be our greatest legacy of partnership in the studies of Arctic environmental change.

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