Newfoundland and Labrador

Labrador Inuit already hit hard by climate change

Melting ice and permafrost is bringing major changes to remote northern communities
Photo: Stefan Cook

Last year was the warmest on record, and 2016 doesn’t seem to be getting any cooler. One of the fastest warming rates on earth can be found in Nunatsiavut, Northern Labrador, and no one is feeling the brunt of its impact more than the Labrador Inuit.

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Inuit elder and community leader Jack Shiwak says the thick sea ice surrounding his community of Rigolet, on the north coast of Labrador, has been thawing progressively earlier each year.

“It's something that you have to be around to notice. The change is subtle and over a period of years,” says the 64-year-old, who has spent most of his life here.

“There was a time when we hardly put any boats in the water before mid-June,” explains Shiwak, referring to the abundance of sea ice in the water. “Now people have their boats out in the water in April.”

For most of the year in Nunatsiavut, snowmobiles are everything. They allow Inuit to access a myriad of traditional hunting and fishing spots, connect communities, and give people the opportunity to connect with the land and return home safely in the same day.

Shiwak says he was once able to drive 150 kilometres on the ice to the next community as late in the spring as mid-May, but that’s not the case anymore.

Each spring when the ice melts, many Labrador Inuit swap their snowmobiles for boats, and then swap back when the ice is substantial enough in the fall. The transitional periods during the spring thaw and fall freeze are the most dangerous.

In Rigolet and across Nunatsiavut, Shiwak says, transitional periods were once more or less the same each year. Now he says the freeze or thaw could be weeks off and take much longer than usual, cutting off communities from the land. At these times, flights are the only way in or out of most communities.

“It is having an impact on our way of life, but I think it's an impact that we don't really notice, because it's a slow and subtle impact, so we sort of adjust our lives accordingly,” says Shiwak. “You notice changes, but you sort of accept and adjust to it.”

The adjustments Labrador Inuit are making to adapt to climate change may be subtle at times, but cumulatively they hare having major impacts on Nunatsiavut society, says researcher Ashlee Cunsolo Willox. She has investigated the social, health, and cultural effects of climate change in Nunatsiavut for nearly a decade, and her research shows that climate change is negatively affecting almost every aspect of life.

“Everything about health, well-being, culture, ancestry, heritage, cultural continuity — it all comes from the land,” says Cunsolo Willox. “So when people talk about the biggest impact of climate change, it's that disruption to access to the land. So whether it's access to hunting grounds, or going to the cabin, or reliability or safety of weather, or whether it's being able to get out for a day or an evening with family, to be able to travel longer distances, all these things — the land is really foundational to all aspects of well-being.”

These impacts are being felt across Nunatsiavut as Inuit try to adapt to their changing environment.

Elizabeth Evans-Mitchell, from the community of Makkovik, says she too has noticed changes in climate.

What has struck her is the inconsistency of the weather from year to year. She says that people no longer know what to expect with the seasonal weather. It could be a warm wet winter, or there could be a cold frozen month; summers could be long and dry, or short and wet. There is no way to know or prepare ahead of time.

Climate change hits food supply

Changing temperatures also mean changing habitats for the animals.

The Inuit of Labrador have relied on hunting seals and marine mammals since time immemorial. Seals provided food, materials for clothing and tools, even lamp oil. Today, they continue to be a major food source for Inuit in Labrador, and their fur is used for clothing and crafts.

Evans-Mitchell is worried about the effect of climate change on the plants and animals that the Inuit rely on to survive. “Climate change makes a difference for all the animals because the ice is not around. There’s an area close to here, there used to be like lots of seals up there, and now you wouldn't be able to get a seal to save your soul. They're not there up in the bay anymore like they used to be.”

Climate change is already beginning to change the Inuit diet.

Known locally as bakeapples, cloud berries are a treat across Newfoundland and Labrador, and a local staple in Nunatsiavut. The milky orange berries grow in cool damp marshy areas, which makes them particularly vulnerable to warming temperatures.

Fluctuating weather patterns from year to year also mean that the annual bakeapple yields vary. Some years the berries may be plentiful, but other years, such as this year according to Evans-Mitchell, the bakeapples have been scarce.

“Years ago you could make desserts from bakeapples almost any time you wanted to, but now you must try to save your bakeapples for Christmas, for special occasions,” says Evans-Mitchell.

Climate change data shows that not only are the Labrador Inuit correct in their observations of changing temperatures, but also that Labrador has one of the fastest rates of warming.

“The average global temperature has risen by almost 1 C. In Labrador it's been a degree and a half, potentially a bit more,” explains climate change researcher Robert Way.

"Buildings which have begun to be damaged because of the melting permafrost beneath them."

Changes in climate over many years can be traced in the layers of ice in permafrost and glaciers. Way, a PhD candidate at Carleton University, has been tracking the rapidly shifting climate patterns in Labrador. He has documented the a 10 per cent retreat of glaciers in Northern Labrador in the last five years alone.

It has taken hundreds, even thousands, of years for permafrost and glaciers to form. Way says it is shocking to see how quickly they can disappear.

“We've seen evidence in various parts of Labrador, including for instance in Nain in Nunatsiavut, places where permafrost has begun to thaw,” he explains. “As a result there are, for instance, buildings which have begun to be damaged because of the melting permafrost beneath them.”

According to Way, the climate in Nunatsiavut is heavily regulated by the Labrador Current, which brings cold Arctic waters and temperatures south. Decreasing sea ice levels, and thus increased exposure of open water to the sun’s heat for longer periods of time, warms the water and therefore the climate in Nunatsiavut. Way believes the kinds of changes facing Nunatsiavut now could soon become common across the North.

Keeping traditions alive

Climate change can exacerbate already existing social problems in the North.

The reduced ability to hunt and fish means a greater reliance on expensive store-bought foods. Melting permafrost leads to shifting and cracking housing foundations in areas that already suffer from overcrowding. Being cut off from the healing nature of the land can greatly impact mental health.

Cunsolo Willox heard again and again from her research participants that in years when the lack of ice prevented Inuit from hunting and fishing, they were depressed. “They said it felt like a loss or a death.”

Many Labrador Inuit have turned to less healthy ways to cope with this loss, says Cunsolo Willox.

“In response to not being able to get out on the land, a lot of people were disclosing that either they, themselves, or friends or family members were turning to more drugs and alcohol to fill the empty time,” she says. “I’m not saying climate change is causing drug and alcohol usage, but it's a factor. When you look at all the other sorts of intergenerational traumas, and relocations and residential schools, and underlying mental health that comes from severe colonization and marginalization, and when you add in another stressor like climate change that takes away the ability to go out on the land regularly, which is where people heal and cope, then a lot of people have nowhere to turn and end up consuming more drugs and alcohol.”

Michael Mitsuk is a youth outreach worker in his home community of Hopedale, further north up the coast. The 32-year-old works with at-risk youth, as suicides and drug and alcohol abuse plague his community. Part of his job involves taking youth out on the land with hunters, fishers, and other gatherers.

“Out on the land, it's peaceful, and they love it out there,” says Mitsuk. The program teaches Inuit youth the skills they need to sustain themselves, and their harvests are given back to the community.

Warming unpredictable temperatures will interfere with young people’s abilities to learn the skills that are vital to Inuit survival and culture.

“I think the big part of it is keeping our tradition alive, our culture. For people in our youth program, it gives them a chance to go off on the land,” explains Mitsuk. “Because with their families, a lot of youth in my group, they don't have a Ski-Doo, they hardly get a chance to go out. It gives them a chance to go off, and it seems like they really enjoy themselves.”

Mitsuk is concerned that warming unpredictable temperatures in the future will interfere with young people’s abilities to learn the skills that are vital to Inuit survival and culture. He wonders how to teach these skills if the environment is not the same as it used to be.

“It’s hard to learn the new skills. Say if somebody is going off and they're trying the read the ice and that — I don't think that there's a proper way that you can read the ice, how thick the ice is, or if it's just snow on top [of water]. It’s becoming so unpredictable.”

Still, Mitsuk says that he will try to help pass on these skills to youth, because they will have to learn to survive in a rapidly changing world.

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