NUNAVUT, Canada — Arctic climate change has done more than shift the ecological dynamics of polar landscapes. As the ratio of ice caps to snowmelt becomes more skewed, so too do the food webs that sustain Inuit populations, and food insecurity follows.
In May 2007, a National Geographic expedition trekked 1,600 kilometers into Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost and least populous territory. Around 86 percent of Nunavut’s sparse population is indigenous, and nearly 99 percent of its indigenous population is Inuit. Nunavut makes up the northern front of the part of Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homeland) located in Canada.
The purpose of National Geographic’s journey was to seek out and engage Inuit voices, which all too often are relegated to the sidelines of decision-making processes that directly concern their livelihoods. Anecdotal exchanges between team members and Inuit informants revealed a critically human perspective on Arctic climate change. The Inuit perspective demonstrated an immediate struggle for survival and identity among Nunavut’s wayward winds, drifting animal species and rapidly morphing terrain.
How Southern Industrial Activity Raises Temperatures
Just a few months before the expedition departed, a European study of the connections between industrial activity and Arctic climate change predicted that by the end of the twenty-first century, a large portion of the region’s surface air would warmer by five degrees Celsius.
According to the study’s researchers, a toxic brew of ozone, shipping emissions, artificial aerosols and forest fire smoke is primarily at fault for the anticipated temperature spike. The pollutants likely come from industrialized countries further south.
Over the past three decades, regional temperatures reached record-breaking heights, jumping nearly 50 degrees Farenheit in some areas. For the Inuit, these changes are significant. The rising temperatures and resulting change in geography has led to differences in movement, abundance and life cycles of Arctic animals — the same seals, caribou, walrus and other animals that make up Inuit country food.
The tradition remains alive and well today. In 2005, 68 percent of Inuk adults living in Inuit Nunangat harvested country food. In 2012, 82 percent of the same demographic affirmed in a survey that they had hunted, fished and trapped animals or gathered wild plants within the past year.
How an Identity Crisis Becomes a Food Crisis
While the Inuit are fully capable of adaptation and do import store-bought foods, the abrupt disruption of centuries-old hunting and harvesting methods has proven tough to endure. The Inuit once traversed territory by way of familiar ice formations and other natural landmarks. To forecast weather, they looked to the skies.
Modern navigation and prediction instruments have yet to replace the ways of old, but Arctic climate change threatens to render traditional survival techniques obsolete. As traditional food-gathering methods become less relevant in the face of a changing environment, feeding Inuit families becomes more expensive. As a result, food shortage and malnutrition have multiplied.
A 2012 survey found that more than half of Inuit still living in their homeland experienced food insecurity in the past 12 months. Of the Inuit in Nunavut, 56 percent reported household food insecurity. An earlier study on Nunavut from 2007-2008 revealed that 70 percent of the region’s Inuit preschoolers go hungry.
Ecological disruption isn’t the only cause of food insecurity by any means. Economic modernization, politics and generational divides contribute to varying degrees. What’s clear, however, is that more attention must be paid to the Inuit and the battle to preserve their well-being. After all, it won’t be long before we all come face-to-face with climate change.
– Josephine Gurch