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The Project: Context

Indigenous Observing Systems

One of the most innovative developments since the IPCC AR4 has been the expansion and multiplication of collaborative research efforts involving indigenous peoples and natural and social scientists (Huntington, 2011). These emerging partnerships build upon a long history of joint research and management that in the Arctic dates back several decades to the land claims processes in Arctic North America in the1970s and 80s. Ground-breaking work on indigenous knowledge and climate change observation has been completed in the framework of the International Polar Year (Hovelstrud, Krupnik and White, 2011). One such project, Sea Ice Knowledge and Use: Assessing Arctic Environmental and Social Change (SIKU), involved the establishment of daily ice and weather observations by indigenous monitors in 10 communities in Alaska, Canada and Russian Chukotka between 2006 and 2009 (Krupnik et al., 2010). This community-based monitoring was continued for a fourth year in three Alaskan villages, thus providing an uninterrupted record of indigenous observations covering four consecutive ice seasons. Overall, the SIKU project produced several hundred pages of local indigenous observations, organised in more than 150 monthly logs (Hovelstrud, Krupnik and White, 2011).

Gearheard et al. (2010), for example, document Inuit observations that weather and wind conditions have become more variable and unpredictable, that the prevailing wind direction has changed and that winds are stronger and more constant than in the past. Yet when these indigenous observations are compared with wind data from the local meteorological station, the quantitative time-series data since 1977 do not uphold observations made by the Inuit. Data from other climate studies are equally at odds with indigenous observations. S. Gearheard persisted, however, and in tandem with a meteorological expert generated thought-provoking results. Their analysis of weather ‘persistence’ – described as the likelihood that an exceptionally warm day will be followed by another such day, unveils a significant drop, starting some 20 years ago, in weather persistence in the spring (Weatherhead et al., 2010). These data coincide with Inuit observations that, starting in the 1990s, the weather has become more difficult to predict, and particularly so in the spring season.

Collaborative initiatives that bring together indigenous and scientific knowledge contribute importantly to climate change monitoring and adaptation. They provide meticulous and systematic local observations, informed by indigenous experience and understandings, and further enriched with relevant information related to subsistence livelihoods and community concerns and needs.

By Doug Nakashima (2014)


Gearheard, S., Pocernich, M., Stewart, R., Sanguya, J. and Huntington, H. 2010. Linking Inuit knowledge and meteorological station observations to understand changing wind patterns at Clyde River, Nunavut. Climatic Change 100: 267-294.
Hovelstrud, G., Krupnik, I. and White, J. 2011. ’Human-Based Observing Systems’ in Krupnik, I. et al. (eds.), Understanding Earth’s Polar Challenges: International Polar Year 2007–2008. Summary by the IPY Joint Committee. Edmonton, AB, Canadian Circumpolar Institute Press, pp. 435-456.
Huntington, Henry P. 2011. The Local Perspective, Nature, Vol. 478, pp. 182-183.
Krupnik, I., Aporta, C., Gearheard, S., Laidler, G.J., and Holm, L.K. 2010. SIKU: Knowing Our Ice: Documenting Inuit Sea Ice Knowledge and Use, London, Springer.
Weatherhead, E., Gearheard, S., Barry, R.G. 2010. Changes in Weather Persistence: Insight from Inuit Knowledge, Global Environ Chang Vol. 20, pp. 523-528.