A hunter tests the sea ice near a crack in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, Canada.

On the front lines of climate change, Arctic communities use tech to keep tradition alive

Arctic Indigenous communities are fighting to preserve their culture in the face of the climate crisis.

Among the Inuit Nunangat communities in far northern Canada, there's a saying: If you smack the ice with your harpoon and it doesn't go through on the first hit, it's thick enough to walk on. If you can hit it three times without it breaking, it's good for snowmobiles. And if you can hit it five times, it can support anything.

This valuable advice has kept generations of Inuit hunters safe as they navigate the frozen sea in search of whales, seals, fish and birds. But as climate change disrupts the rhythms of life in the Arctic, it's becoming increasingly difficult to apply traditional knowledge to the sea ice, weather patterns and the seasons. The Arctic as a whole is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and scientists estimate that Arctic summer sea ice could totally disappear by the year 2040.

With old knowledge faltering as the environment becomes unpredictable, people living in the far North are increasingly having to seek new methods to keep alive their cultural practices and methods of subsistence living, such as whaling, reindeer herding and ice fishing. Often this means turning to technology -- sensors that show when the ice is safe to cross, GPS collars for tracking reindeer and bespoke social tools to share knowledge between communities. 

Unlike in many regions of the world where climate change solutions are still talked about in the future tense, Indigenous communities are actively adapting their lives with technology as they see the changes happen in real time. Much of this technology is springing up from initiatives within the communities, after what Matthew Druckenmiller, research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, says are decades of failures by international global powers to tackle the crisis, which "has really set the stage for self determination." Increased access to and involvement in scientific research is providing Arctic Indigenous peoples with the power to build solutions based on their first-hand experience of seeing environmental changes take place.

"Certainly in my lifespan, I can see the change in the climate and how it affects us," says Rex Holwell, of Nain, Newfoundland and Labrador, whose father used to take him out ice hunting throughout his childhood -- something he still does to this day. Now 45 and working on climate change solutions to serve Indigenous Arctic communities, he worries whether future generations will be able to continue this tradition. "We're seeing the ice freezing later and later every year, and with the anomalies like rain in January, people are more unsure of their traditional ways."


Staying safe on the ice is hugely important across the Arctic.


Today Holwell is the northern production and regional operations lead for a nonprofit called SmartIce based in St. John's, Newfoundland. Founded in 2010, it builds climate change adaptation tools, which integrate modern ice-measuring technologies with traditional Inuit knowledge. Just last month it received a Canadian government grant of more than CA$670,000 to make travel over sea ice safer in Inuit regions while continuing work on gathering real-time data on ice conditions.

SmartIce's tools and technology are in serious demand from Arctic communities all over northern Canada, and for good reason. The Arctic hasn't been this warm for 3 million years and the problems aren't limited to Canada. In Alaska, studies have shown more people are falling through sea ice than ever before, and across the North Pole in Siberia, researchers noted that the sea ice didn't freeze during October this year for the first time on record. 


SmartIce operators in training in Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

Rex Holwell

But as the Arctic unravels, life goes on for people living in the northernmost reaches of our planet. Whatever longitude they happen to reside in, their communities are feeling the sharpest impact of climate change. Melting sea ice is already a major source of food insecurity for  Indigenous people in Arctic North America that rely on the ice to travel for fishing and hunting. The threats to their livelihoods and cultures are not theoretical, academic or impending. The residents of those regions are navigating them now, in real time. 

"We know that in the north, the speed of change and consequences is faster than elsewhere," says Peter Sköld, director of the Centre for Arctic Research at Sweden's Umeå University. "Indigenous peoples have been masters of resilience, and I guess they still are. But ... the problem is so much bigger today."

Mapping whale trails

Druckenmiller, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, has been mapping whale hunter trails along the sea ice in Utqiaġvik in Alaska's North Slope borough since 2008. He charts the trails on top of satellite imagery, which also includes measurements of ice thickness.

The impact of the project is two-pronged, says Druckenmiller. The data his team collects about the shorefast ice (the sea ice fastened to the coastline) feeds into long-term climate change studies, but also provides Utqiaġvik's residents with maps they're able to use during their spring whaling season, which is protected under international regulation and managed by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. 

The maps are created with a handheld GPS device and a 4-meter-long piece of equipment that uses electromagnetic induction to measure ice thickness, which Druckemiller describes an "awkward, awkward device to be carrying along trails." It's transported in a custom plastic sled that's dragged behind a snowmobile along the trails the hunters have created.

The maps also serve as a tool for hunters, but Druckemiller is keen to emphasize that the hunters aren't dependent on them nor are they a substitute for local or traditional knowledge.

"When you're driving down the trail on a snow machine with this instrument mapping the thickness, I'm always aware that what I'm mapping are the decisions that the hunters are making," says Druckenmiller. "I've learned over the years that different hunting crews have their own unique strategies, and so traveling out there it's exciting to see the different features that hunters are using."


Community-driven research is becoming increasingly important, with hunters directly taking part in tracking environmental change.


The routes the hunters choose to take help Druckenmiller understand the full context of how the Earth is changing. "They're not only trying to get to the open water, but they're trying to get to the open water where it's safe to put up the camp, where the ice conditions at the edge are suitable for chopping a ramp in the ice to where they can pull up a whale," he says. "And those are the types of things that they actually look for in the satellite imagery."

In the past Druckenmiller says he's worried about whether he's actually providing something of genuine use to the community, but every year he gets emails asking when the maps will be ready. "We've had continued interest from the hunters, and I'd almost go as far as to say demand -- that they every spring really look for these maps," he says.

Since the project began, Druckenmiller and a handful of other scientists have spent a few weeks every spring out on the ice in Alaska. It's all on a voluntary basis, having not received any outside funding to continue the work. This year was different though -- due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, a local biologist and the hunters created the maps instead.

But not all scientists heading to the Arctic to learn about climate change keep the people they'll be encountering top of mind. Research projects are usually designed around scientific questions, and even though they rely tremendously on local Indigneous knowledge, helping those communities deal with the very real impacts of climate change can be an afterthought. 

"That Indigenous knowledge is not just a pool of data that you pull from," says Druckenmiller. "It's people, it's their livelihood, it's their well-being that comes along with it."

That well-being is the guiding principle behind the curation of an exhibition (Arctic: Culture and Climate) taking place at the British Museum in London. The philosophy behind it, says Peter Loovers, one of the exhibition's curators, is "really collaborating as much as possible with Indigenous people and putting forth the Indigenous People's voice." 

Those voices are often overlooked in narratives about climate change in the far north, casting Indigenous people in a passive role, which was something the museum wanted to avoid. Climate change has been talked about in the Arctic long before it entered mainstream consciousness, not just in changes to the weather patterns or snow conditions, but in dreams. 

One contributor to the British Museum's exhibition, Martha Snowshoe, a Teetl'it Gwich'in from Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, reported hearing such a story from her own family.

"Long ago people knew something was going to happen to this Earth," she said. "How the elders knew it, I don't know. My grandfather mentioned in the 1940s that there is going to be change. They meant climate change."

The museum is also hoping to give people a different perspective of the Arctic, rather than showing it as "a pristine, uninhabited wild place ... filled with light," says Loovers. Dramatic events such as the ice not yet freezing might seem, if viewed in isolation, abrupt and shocking. But, he points out, Arctic Indigenous peoples have been living with climate shifts for thousands of years.

By Inuit, for Inuit

Ensuring communities truly benefit from participating in science and technology projects was the reason the government of Nunatsiavut, an autonomous region of Labrador, used SmartIce. Not only does the nonprofit fully serve the needs of Inuit people, Howell says, but because the technology is built in Nain, it's also providing jobs and education to local young people. Likewise, when a new community adopts SmartIce's smart environmental sensors, it employs its own residents who are trained to run and maintain the technology.


Deploying a SmartBuoy in Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

Rex Holwell

Holwell says for him, this is the most important part of the job, relaying the story of a community meeting he attended to explain how SmartIce would work. "At the end of that meeting, the elder said thank you for what you're doing because you're providing our local men and women with the skills and employment to help keep us safe in our community."

SmartIce has developed two styles of ice measuring sensors -- a stationary SmartBuoy that measures the ice thickness in the location where it's deployed, and the SmartKamotik, a modified ground-penetrating radar that's towed behind a snowmobile to measure sea ice thickness. SmartICE also works with another community-driven technology project, SIKU, based in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, to display the data collected from its SmartBuoys. 


A SmartBuoy in place in the ice.

Rex Holwell

Launched at the end of 2019, Siku is part mapping platform, part social network that provides Indigenous communities from around the Arctic with tools and services they need to safely navigate the ice, including tide times, marine forecasts and ice texture measurements. Proximity alerts that will warn people when they're near thin ice using the GPS on their phones will be the next big feature.

For now, hunters can post pictures (the stomach contents of a seal, for example), warnings about thin ice and maps of their journeys on Siku's mobile app (available on iOS and Android), sharing the information with their own communities in their local languages and scientific researchers -- if they choose to. Wireless coverage is far from perfect in the region, but all communities in Nunavut have cell service.


The Siku platform.


The app was created in consultation with Indigenous youth organizations and elders, says Joel Heath, executive director of community-driven research network Arctic Eider Society, based in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, which created and runs Siku. It was important from the start that it was based on a framework that allowed people to retain full ownership and control of their own data to promote "Indigenous self determination."

In the past there's been a disconnect between scientific knowledge and Indigenous knowledge because Indigenous knowledge, while encompassing large-scale ecosystem shifts, has been part of the oral tradition, meaning that researchers view it as anecdotal. But the two have more in common than people think, says Heath.

"People are out there every single day making careful observations," he says. "You have very complex category language systems for different kinds of sea ice that are scientific in their own way. It's their own kind of science. And they talk to other routers and hunters -- a peer-review sort of system."


Puasi Ippak tests the Siku app near Sanikiluaq, Nunavut.


Whereas in the past, researchers have tended to be outsiders coming into the communities, Heath is hoping Siku will help Indigenous people take a more central role in the science of climate change in the regions in which they live. "I think it's going to be a bit of a game changer for the role of the Inuit in their self determination and research and monitoring, and using their own systems to help with adaptation," he says.

Reindeer herding

In the Arctic, there are many different communities and cultures, all of which are being impacted differently by the shifts the climate crisis brings.

Stretching across the northernmost reaches of the Nordic countries and Russia live the Sami people, who are best known as reindeer herders. Though less than 10% of Sami are involved in reindeer husbandry today, it remains more than just a livelihood -- it's a culture and philosophy that's deeply meaningful to the community. 

But as climate change makes it increasingly difficult to find food for the animals to graze, reindeer herding is under threat. A study conducted by Finland's University of Oulu earlier this year on how Sami culture was shifting with climate change noted that vegetation, weather conditions and even seasons are changing at an accelerating rate.

Anne May Olli, is the director of RiddoduottarMuseat -- a collection of four Sami cultural museums in West FinnMark, Norway -- and runs the family livestock farm inherited from her parents. Olli is now 45, and she says throughout her lifetime there have been severe noticeable shifts in the weather, such as harsh coastal winds moving farther inland. The previously dry environment also has become overwhelmingly wetter, with floods preventing the growth of the grass the farm animals and the reindeer eat.

"You can't trust the old signals of how the season is going to be or what the weather is going to do," says Olli. "I'm worrying about the traditional methodology that we have, that traditional way of doing things. … Maybe in the future it is not going to have that function anymore."

Her work at the Sami museums sits closely alongside working her family's farm and her husband's work as a reindeer herder. She feels it's her responsibility to preserve the Sami culture and knowledge even if the practical need for it should die out. "If it's not in use, it is forgotten," she said. "If it's forgotten, it is lost."

This past year was the worst she's seen in the decade she's had the farm, she says. They had to send many of the animals away because there was no grass to feed them.

Grazing is particularly tough for reindeer, which are hardy creatures, but are facing unprecedented new challenges. Changing temperatures mean that melting and freezing builds ice layers in the snow that are hard or even impossible for the reindeer to dig through in order to eat the grass underneath, Sköld says. "It's not physically possible to use all the traditional paths anymore, because what used to be dry land is now a wetland, and the opposite. And what used to be part of a glacier is no longer a glacier."


Reindeer herding faces a precarious future.

Anne May Olli

The instability is particularly hard for reindeer herders, like Olli's husband, Tor Mikkel Eira. Herding takes place in wild conservation areas, with seasonal changes traditionally dictating long journeys across northern Scandinavia.

"Reindeer herders have traditionally had eight seasons," says Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi, who was lead researcher on the Oulu study and also comes from a reindeer-herding Sami family. "Now, the intermediate seasons, such as spring-winter (the period in March-April during which the sun starts shining again), have become shorter and are about to disappear."

Last winter, things reached a crunch point, according to Sami Council President Kristina Henriksen. In both Norway and Sweden when the reindeer couldn't find food in the mountains, army helicopters had to bring in hay paid for by the government. Then in the spring the rapid melting of snow meant that the reindeer couldn't complete their migration, and the herders had to bring in vehicles with trailers to move the animals.

"That's not a sustainable way of doing it," she says. Neither is it profitable. People don't exactly become wealthy herding reindeer, she adds -- it's more of a lifestyle and keeps the culture and community alive. "But the recent development is that it takes too many resources to do the things that should be natural, and that is due to climate change."

In spite of these threats, the Sami are fighting to keep reindeer husbandry alive -- with a little help from modern technology. Younger herders in particular have been using GPS necklaces for reindeer and drones to track and map the reindeer movements. Both tools have helped herders to understand where the animals are, how they're moving and whether they might be in trouble, said Olli.

Reliable internet connectivity has also been hugely important to the safety of herders who are out alone in the wilderness, says Henriksen. Reindeer husbandry used to be more of a community activity, but these days herders often work alone, making it tricky to get help if something goes wrong.


Reindeer herding can be a dangerous activity.

Anne May Olli

"Being a reindeer herder ... is really hard work, and it's dangerous work," she says. "You're working alone, often in the winter when there is minus 30 degrees [Celsius] in the tundra. [If] you're alone in a cabin and something happens, you're depending on technology to get the message [across]."

Fortunately, she adds, because the Norwegian government sees value in the land and natural resources of the North, 4G connectivity is fairly reliable.

But Sköld it's hard to say whether technology will continue to help reindeer herders navigate climate changes in the long term. The speed and extent to which climate change continues to take its toll will ultimately determine their fate.

"Technology cannot balance too drastic shifts," he said. "And I think that the big question for the future is whether there will be an opportunity for reindeer herding at all."

Traditional knowledge in an internet age

Olli is keen to dismiss a common assumption about Indigenous communities -- the idea that there's a fundamental disconnect between maintaining a traditional way of life and being early adopters of new tech. "We are still Sami, even though we are using the new technology," she says.

The Sami were some of the first people to use portable satellite phones when they appeared in the 1960s and early 1970s, and today they know that the internet offers important opportunities for learning and connecting. 

"If we're going to make sure that we are going to survive ... we need to learn about climate change, we need to learn how to make sure that farming and also reindeer husbandry and other ways of living in our areas are still possible for the future," says Olli. "We need to change and we need to gain new knowledge, but without losing who we are as a people."

It also means they can be part of wider climate conversations, rather than being further excluded from them, which has sadly been the trend in the past. Colonial histories have prepared Arctic communities to an extent to advocate for themselves on the world stage, said Loovers. "Indigenous people have had to organize themselves politically, and they understand the political arena," he said. But that doesn't mean they don't have a fight on their hands.


Hunters still test the ice with harpoons, but now use sensors too.


Henriksen says she first became politically motivated at the age of 16 when she got involved in Sami youth organizations and realized she couldn't speak the Sami language, so she taught herself in her bedroom. She was part of a wave of young Sami in the 1990s who became concerned about the erasure of the language and culture.

The one place where the Sami are consistently listened to about matters of climate change is the Arctic Council. Henriksen says is unique in that representatives from six Indigenous Arctic communities sit at the same table as the eight nation state members that surround the Arctic. 

The Sami find the most support and value in their global networks of Indigenous people, Henriksen says, but have also been involved with the UN and other global climate change negotiations. "What we are promoting in international forums is that we are not the ones causing this, but we are experiencing it first," she says.

Further pressure on reindeer husbandry in particular comes from the national governments in the Nordic countries. They want the Sami to reduce the size of their herds and their grazing areas in order to repurpose the land for mining or green energy projects.

"In my world, it's not green energy at all, because it's destroying our feeding areas for the reindeer and also making more traffic," says Olli. She wonders if it's fair for Sami communities and their tradition of reindeer husbandry to pay the price for the rest of Europe to receive green energy. "They [the Norwegian government] are not willing to discuss it," she says.

Lessons from the Arctic

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to tackle climate change in the Arctic anymore than there can be for the world's other regions or ecosystems. The lessons we can learn from the front lines of climate change are not just about innovative tech-based solutions, but about attitudes, values and perspective.

Indigenous peoples' responses to climate change are shaped by their understanding of time, Sköld says. Much of the world takes a linear view that goes hand in hand with the political and economic systems that we've built, which doesn't encourage us to look back to understand the consequences of our actions. But many Indigenous people have a circular perspective of time, which leads them back to a point where they have been before. 

"By doing that [thinking of time as circular] they can also build a sustainable system," says Sköld. "Indigenous people have proved for thousands of years that they have the capacity to build sustainable systems and use them in a sustainable way."

Sustainability goes hand in hand with taking responsibility for your actions, adds Loovers, and understanding the place of humans in the wider ecosystem. He says that across the Arctic, there's a strong emphasis on the knock-on effect the actions of humans can have on nature.

"It has to do with this respect and the understanding of the environment or the animals, and this idea of connectedness -- that humans are not the centerpoint in the entire puzzle, but they are just kind of a component or fragment of it."

It hasn't escaped the notice of those suffering the harshest consequences of climate change that they aren't the ones causing it, but there's a prevailing pragmatism that seems to rule their response. Their concern for the future is as much global as it is local. "They see that what they defend is not only their own culture, but maybe at least partly the future of the world," Sköld adds.

Olli says she hopes that this year, while people are flying less during the pandemic (air travel is a source of greenhouse emissions), they'll think more about their own contribution to the climate crisis and whether they can take on a greater role in preventing it.

"We are actually the ones that are experiencing the changes now, but later on it will be every country, not only the Arctic areas," she says. "So if they are starting to listen, then maybe we have a possibility for change, to step up a little bit and not to contribute to this process going so fast."