Indigenous cultures may hold the key to understanding climate change

By Rachel Feltman

Science has invested heavily in assessing and predicting the potential manifestations of climate change, but the newest frontier in climate science may emerge from the collective experiences of those people most affected by a changing world.

By looking back instead of forward, it may be possible to better assess the true impacts of climate change through a perspective that researchers often lack—gaps in knowledge that can be filled by the observations of indigenous cultures. A panel of experts in anthropology, atmospheric physics, and paleoclimatology gathered Feb. 18 to discuss the value of these often ignored sources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver.

Though they shared perspectives from vastly different areas of research, the panelists agreed that indigenous cultures, specifically groups of native Indian tribes in North America, can provide a wealth of information on climate change. When scientific researchers and tribal elders collaborate, the panelists explained, science gains meaningful new insight into both the physical manifestations of climate change in the Arctic and the real-life effects on daily life of indigenous peoples.

Panelists focused on changes in the Arctic, where the observations of indigenous peoples may lend special insight.

Elizabeth Weatherhead, an atmospheric physicist from the University of Colorado, explained that current research depends on satellite images to estimate changes in ice coverage in the Arctic. This allows for a good estimate of the overall coverage in an area, but does nothing to observe changes in the characteristics of that ice coverage.

Cultures such as the Yupik people on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island, just south of the Bering Strait, are experts on this subject by pure necessity, said Igor Krupnik of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“They routinely make observations that scientists only make in teams,” Krupnik said of Arctic hunters and elders. “It's not holistic knowledge, but persistence. . . the observations are made over generations of experience.”

The Yupik, he explained, began to record the disappearance of floating icebergs in the early 1990s. Hunters in the Arctic rely on a very consistent pattern in the circulation of ice packs each winter. The “winter that is locally born” is a phrase elders use to describe the thin, unreliable ice that now surrounds them. This presents new risks and diminishing returns that must be factored into hunting trips, threatening their long-term way of life.

These changes are about more than overall temperature changes, both Krupnik and Weatherhead explained. Weatherhead showed that the unreliability of temperature in a given day or year is a growing issue in the Arctic. The Yupik word for this unreliable weather is “uggianaktuk.” It represents a problem often neglected in the data of climate scientists.

Krupnik shared a sad anecdote to emphasize the point, saying the Yupik had blamed a lack of cold in past winters for thinning ice. When a stretch of weather occurred in January of 2012 that was more reminiscent of times past, the hunters expected thick ice to return and allow them to hunt safely. The ice stayed thin.

The presentations focused not on the lifestyle-altering decline of conditions in the Arctic, but on the importance of the observations of these conditions that had been made by local, indigenous peoples. Krupnik emphasized that the Yupik and other Arctic cultures are eager to share their experience with researchers who are respectful of it.

“The more people know,” he said, “the more open they are to the knowledge of other people.” Perhaps, Krupnik observed, we have finally learned enough about climate change to respect and welcome the perspectives of indigenous laymen who have a personal, generational understanding of it.

Rachel Feltman is a senior at Bard College at Simon's Rock, where she studies environmental science and writing. She writes a science column for her school paper, The Llama Ledger, and blogs at Rachel Does Science. When she isn't writing about science for her senior thesis or wasting time on her Twitter, she enjoys martial arts, music, and theater.

Feb. 21, 2012

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