Maintaining culture in the face of climate change

Mar 25th, 2015

Janet Harron

Maintaining culture in the face of climate change

The Labrador Inuit communities of Rigolet and North West River are located on the shores of Lake Melville in south-central Labrador, where sea ice forms an integral part of local Inuit t culture and wellbeing. During the cold season it provides access to food and acts as critical travel structure. However concern over changing sea ice has recently increased among the local Inuit population.

Enter geography masters student Merren Smith. Ms Smith is originally from the Yukon and has been fascinated by Labrador for years.

It was while engaged in climate change work in the Yukon after completing her undergraduate degree, that Ms. Smith came to know of Memorial’s Dr. Trevor Bell who participated in a permafrost workshop she helped organize and was a committee member on a project back home.

Now he is her supervisor, along with Dr. Joel Finnis, on a community-based project in Rigolet looking at sea ice change on Lake Melville and the potential impacts on the Labrador Inuit.

“Merran’s project is part of a Nunatsiavut Government-Memorial University led project called Lake Melville: Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut (Our Environment, Our Health),” explained Dr. Bell. “The project goals are to establish baseline conditions and develop the necessary monitoring science for the downstream effects of hydroelectric development in Lake Melville, prior to Lower Churchill development.” 

“Our main focus is around impacts on Inuit health, community wellbeing and ecosystem function/integrity,” Dr. Bell emphasizes. “These impacts will occur, however, against a backdrop of ongoing climate variability and change, which is also affecting Lake Melville communities and ecosystem.”

One hundred and forty kilometres long and over 3,000 kilometres square, Lake Melville is one of the largest estuaries in Newfoundland and Labrador and drains approximately 55 billion cubic meters of water annually from the Ungava-Labrador plateau.

It also plays a key role in the lives of several communities, including Happy Valley-Goose Bay, North West River, Sheshatshiu and Rigolet.

Throughout winter, Inuit travel over sea to hunt seals and harvest other country foods, visit cabins and family in other communities, and collect firewood from the surrounding forests to heat homes.

“Wood is a major heating source for many of the North Coast populations,” explains Ms. Smith. “A community might have little to no wood in their own bay and will have to travel up to 75 kilometres to access good firewood. Ice is much easier than land for transporting wood in these areas.”

Ms. Smith will use Canadian Ice Service ice concentration data and Environmental Canada weather data to investigate the climate sensitivity and drivers of these recent sea ice changes.

Although climate change is likely a major contributing factor to sea ice change in Lake Melville, 40 years of the Upper Churchill hydroelectric development has also contributed to local alterations of the hydrological cycle, which in turn affects sea ice conditions.

“Freshwater input from reservoirs, for example, can affect northern estuaries depending on a variety of factors,” explains Ms. Smith. “The freshwater coming in is typically warmer than the saltwater and may maintain little or no ice at outflows. Yet freshwater also freezes at slightly higher temperatures than saltwater, so ice can sometimes form more readily in the less saline surface waters of the estuary.” 

Sometimes patches of open water in the ice, known as polynyas, are created from the interaction of currents and wind. While these areas can be good for harvesting country foods, as many animals congregate there, they can also be quite dangerous for travels and hunters.

Ms. Smith will spend much of the next eight months analyzing scientific data and collecting local knowledge on sea ice use and change through interviews. She plans to begin interviewing community members in Rigolet about their past and current experiences with sea ice on Lake Melville. One of the data collection tools she will use is the map biography approach, which entails recording a person’s observations and experiences on a map during an interview.

“Throughout the interviews, I’ll use a map so that Rigolet Inuit can show me places they go and routes they take and where things are that they’ve witnessed,” she says.  “I hope this will help identify spatial and temporal trends in sea ice change and how Inuit have adapted to these changes in maintaining their livelihoods and culture.”

Ms. Smith’s goal is that her research will help make sense of Lake Meville’s recent sea ice history, including any impacts resulting from hydroelective development climate change. The intent is that it will also help Labrador Inuit develop future adaptation strategies regarding ice variability and change, which in turn will help inform decisions by Inuit across the North.