ICSU Dark Nature


Aims, scope and workplan

IGCP 490


An Interdisciplinary Meeting, June 15-17, 2005, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada

Rapid Landscape Change and Human Response in the Arctic - a Message from Whitehorse, June 17, 2005

SUMMARY The prospect of substantial and ubiquitous climate change faces the Earth during the 21st century. The levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are higher now than at any time in the last 20 million years. The record during and at the end of the last Ice Age, demonstrates that major shifts of climate may take only decades. Climate change will affect everyone on our planet, but particularly aboriginal people, whose sustaining culture is tied more closely to the local environment than the lifestyles of western civilization. This Conference urges decision makers to improve research on past environmental change and the human response to such change, in order to prepare northern societies for the challenges we will soon face. The conference urges First Nations' governments and Western scientists to integrate their efforts so that the results of research may be utilized rapidly by northerners to prepare for the future.


The Arctic and Sub-Arctic are now undergoing disturbing changes to land and sea, ecosystems, and people. Coastal erosion, increases in landslides, melting of permafrost and glaciers, changes in sea ice distribution and timing, influx of new species and decrease in others (e.g. caribou, polar bears, seals, birds), and many changes to boreal and tundra flora are commonly reported. Potential damage to towns, roads and other built structures is now a major concern. Because the Arctic and Sub-Arctic are integral parts of the global earth system, changes in the north are both driven by and have consequences for other regions.

In addition to climatic variations, there are also rapid disturbances associated with forest fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other non-climatic "drivers" of environmental change. Sudden and surprising changes will continue to be common. However, in many places, social, economic and political pressures interact tightly and intricately with natural climatic and non-climatic earth processes, so that they are very difficult to separate. Despite potential benefits, rapid changes on land and sea are typically disruptive and challenge efforts to maintain stability and to achieve a more lasting and equitable society.

Extensive paleo-environmental and archaeological research shows that there were earlier periods of abrupt climatic and landscape change, which affected trees and plants, animals, and aquatic life, as well as the people who depended upon them for sustenance. Though the current warming is clearly linked to human activity, such as greenhouse gas emissions, this is unlikely to have been so in the case of changes that took place more than 500-1000 years ago. Many past changes took place on a millennial time scale, but others appear to have been much more rapid, even taking place over a few years: these would certainly have been obvious to local people.

Their own stories and culture indicate that as conditions on land and sea changed, the early peoples of the North adapted their migration and living patterns. Changes in average temperature of a few degrees C or less can be linked to major shifts in hunting modes and to occupation-abandonment cycles. However, Northern peoples have maintained cultural continuity and creativity in the face of marked environmental and social change. Indeed, the history of Arctic exploration by Europeans is replete with disasters and tragedies that might have been avoided had local environmental knowledge been taken into account.

While there are obvious difficulties in reading the lessons of the distant past, and in understanding the way early people reacted to environmental stress, we affirm that their story, when better understood, can add insight to the contemporary situation, as climatic and environmental crises loom ahead. How, for example, was cultural and ecological diversity maintained? Traditional ecological knowledge is a different way of knowing, which can contain insights of value for environmental management.

Belief systems and actions, and the way people think about nature are likely to be strongly influenced by their experience with rapid change. There are, for example, Northern traditions in which glaciers are held to be living entities and require certain behaviours towards them.

Their contemporary dependence on built structures may have increased the vulnerability of Northern peoples to climate change. Elsewhere, huge cities and fixed international borders may leave modern societies less resilient than ancient ones when faced with certain environmental hazards and risks. Many people persist in living where earthquake, volcano or flood risks are high: others return to tsunami-ravaged areas, rather than seeking safer ground. Developing a capacity to adapt to change is a complex matter, and carries its own risks.

We call upon governments and environmental authorities to ensure that:

We call upon researchers working on environmental issues, past and present, to ensure that:

We call upon university and research funding agencies to ensure that:

The above statement was approved by consensus at an international conference held in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada June 15-17, 2005. The meeting was sponsored by the International Council for Science, International Union of Geological Sciences and its Geoindicator Initiative, International Union for Quaternary Research, Canadian International Development Agency, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, Northern Climate ExChange, Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation Research Network, Canadian Quaternary Association, Yukon College, Yukon Geological Survey, and Resources, Heritage Resources Unit of the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture. About 100 people took part, representing First Nations, Artic organizations, governments and universities, and including geographers, earth scientists, ecologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and environmental philosophers. For further information see www.taiga.net/rapidchange.

This website is hosted by Memorial University with support from the Canadian Quaternary Association