People at the Poles

One IPY research project documents how the Arctic’s indigenous use sea ice.

By Sarah Parsons

Photo by Gita Laidler

In the two previous International Polar Years (IPY) and International Geophysical Year (IGY), scientists conducted research in the Arctic and Antarctic on a wide variety of subjects: oceans, ice, snow, atmosphere, animals, and much more. But one research area was consistently—and conspicuously—absent: people.

The current IPY aims to remedy that shortcoming by undertaking more than 30 projects that study the people who call one of the world’s most extreme environments home. From March 2007 through March 2009, researchers will look at various facet’s of Arctic people’s lives, ranging from their health to sustainable development in communities to how climate change is affecting reindeer herding. Perhaps one of the most comprehensive people-centric programs is the Sea Ice Knowledge and Use (SIKU) project, which aims to document indigenous perspectives on how Arctic sea ice is used, and how it’s changing.

SIKU (the term, appropriately, is also the most common Eskimo/Inuit word for sea ice) is a consortium of projects involving research in more than 20 communities in Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Greenland. While researchers in each country are pursuing their own agendas and using different approaches, they are united under one common theme: recording indigenous knowledge of sea ice. Unlike many traditional research projects, which rely on data and measurements obtained directly by scientists, SIKU researchers are interested in the personal perspectives and observations of Arctic peoples. The Inuit, Inupiat, and others have an intimate knowledge of sea ice because they spend up to eight months of the year surrounded by ice-covered terrain.

“It’s actually pretty amazing what they [Arctic peoples] know about sea ice,” says Claudio Aporta, a cultural anthropologist at Ottawa’s Carleton University who heads up the Canadian branch of SIKU, called Inuit Sea Ice Use and Occupancy Project (ISIUOP). “We’re talking about a body of knowledge that has been built up over hundreds of years. A scientist might take a measurement and then come back next year and take another measurement, but the Inuit look at the relationship [of ice] to many other things. They are not only measuring the ice, they are living on the ice.”

Scientists are recording indigenous people’s observations to learn about how different ice conditions affect communities’ ability to hunt, travel, and use boats, and to document how sea ice has changed over time.

Another goal is preserving Arctic cultures, which have been suffering language loss due to changing lifestyles, environmental conditions, and an emphasis on formal education over traditional learning. To that end, researchers employing Arctic residents to write diaries of ice observations, and are working to create electronic, interactive databases to track how different communities utilize sea ice. Another SIKU effort involves making sea ice dictionaries (complete with pictures and English translations of the words) of native words that describe different ice and conditions. Because sea ice plays such an integral role in Arctic communities, Igor Krupnik, a cultural anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institute who is the principal coordinator of SIKU, estimates that Arctic peoples have used more than 100 terms to describe ice and other ice-related conditions.

“This is knowledge that is most threatened because of loss of language and expertise in many places, and also because of the dramatic change of ice” says Krupnik. “People may have several words for multi-year ice, but there’s not multi-year ice anymore. In many places ice is changing so rapidly even if it’s still present, it will be gone very shortly. This IPY has a very urgent agenda of documenting the status of today’s environment and people’s knowledge because it may all be very different in 50 years.”

Researchers also hope to use the data they collect to create a baseline for comparison in future projects. Prior to SIKU, there was a dearth of knowledge about how Arctic communities used and observed their environments. By amassing indigenous perceptions of sea ice, scientists studying this topic years from now will have a wealth of findings to which they can compare future observations.

“We really think this is going to have an impact on the next IPY, where people actually come to our database and take a clear look at how people were using the ice in 2007/2008, and what are the changes,” says Aporta. “We’re really hoping to get a snapshot of current sea ice use.”




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