Climate Change

The impacts of change

Evidence of climate change is being seen right now in indigenous communities in the Arctic. Some people outside of the Arctic assume that climate change would be a good thing for Arctic Peoples, if it means that the weather will get warmer. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to be the case. Arctic Peoples are well adapted to their environment, and to using the plants and animals that are adapted to the cold northern weather. As the weather gets warmer, people, plants and animals are becoming stressed. Saami are seeing their reindeer grazing pastures change, Inuit are watching polar bears waste away because of a lack of sea ice, and peoples across the Arctic are reporting new species, particularly insects. Some communities are having to sand-bag their shorelines to try to slow down an increase in coastal erosion, while in others, buildings, pipes, and roads are slumping because the permafrost is thawing. Vital travel routes linking communities to each other and to harvesting sites are becoming dangerously unpredictable. Routes across the ice become dangerous when the ice thins, or thaws at times different from the past, and water routes can also become dangerous as water flows change.

Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

More than 200 Scientists and Indigenous Experts worked for four years to produce a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of climate change on the Arctic. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) summary document was released in November, 2004. The full scientific document was released several months later. The assessment collected the evidence on impacts already being felt, and made some predictions about what will happen in the Arctic in the future if the present rate of climate change continues. The different chapters of the ACIA look at the likely changes from many perspectives. For instance, there is a chapter on the effects of the changes on forestry and agriculture. There is also a chapter on indigenous knowledge of and experience with climate change. For a complete copy of the ACIA, click here

The Pace of Change

The climate is expected to change at least partly as a result of the gases that people are putting into the air. Carbon dioxide, much of which is produced by burning fuel, is one of the most important gases in changing the climate. Much of the change in the Arctic is expected to be felt in warmer temperatures, and changes in the amount of rain and snow that fall in different places. The change is not expected to be the same across all of the Arctic. Warming seems to be strongest in central Russia, Alaska and western Canada, while some other parts of the Arctic may actually be cooling. Weather systems are complicated. When one part of the Arctic gets warmer, it can change the strength and direction of wind and water currents, and make other parts of the Arctic get colder. There are also some natural changes in the climate that occur over the course of several years. When you put these natural changes together with the changes expected to be caused by the extra gases in the air, it makes it even harder to predict what will happen. The expected changes in the strength of some ocean current leads some people to believe that North-western Europe, which is home to the Saami, will become cooler. Warm ocean currents flow past North-west Europe, making the area much warmer than other parts of the Arctic that far north. Scientists predict that the Arctic could warm by as much as three degrees in the next 80 years. That may not sound like much, but it is enough to cause enormous changes. The potential loss of sea ice is particularly worrisome to coastal peoples, as this would change the environment completely. For instance, many species of seal (a staple food of some Arctic Peoples) would probably die out without ice, as it provides a place to give birth and to rest. The Arctic is expected to feel the effects of climate change more than other regions of the earth. There are several reasons for this, including a thinner Arctic atmosphere, and an increase in the heat that the land and sea can absorb when they are not covered by snow and ice for so long. The warming of the Arctic may speed up warming across the world, because some gases that contribute to warming are currently frozen in the Arctic. If the Arctic warms up, these gases will be freed. A change in the arctic climate will also affect the climate in the rest of the world, because a lot of the world’s climate processes (wind and water currents) are driven by the difference in temperature between the Arctic and hotter parts of the world. If there is less difference between those temperatures, the winds and waters may change direction, or slow down.

What Arctic Indigenous Peoples are doing About Climate Change

The Indigenous Peoples represented at the Arctic Council are doing their part to ensure that people in other parts of the world are aware of the reality of the changes taking place in the Arctic. Those changes are important not only for Arctic Peoples, but also for people around the globe. The Arctic has a major impact on global weather systems. Change in the Arctic affects everybody.

Actions taken to date include:

  • Taking part in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, contributing traditional knowledge to create a more complete understanding of changes taking place.
  • A tour of some major European capitals to bring information to people in those countries as they consider their levels of commitment of action on climate change after the Kyoto Protocol commitment period runs out in 2012.
  • Arctic Day: at the recent Montreal meeting on climate change, attended by thousands of delegates, the Arctic indigenous peoples were a key part of the success of “Arctic Day”, an event that informed hundreds of people about the changes taking place in the Arctic.

Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat
Fram Centre, Postboks 6606 Langnes, NO-9296 Tromsø, Norway