International Polar Year: The social pole?

As change in the Arctic accelerates, scientists and indigenous peoples have pressing reasons to work together, reports Richard Monastersky.

Scientists and native hunters are working together. Credit: J. MCCONNELL

Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have long complained that the weather doesn't behave the way it used to. Climate scientists have by and large ignored them — until a few researchers looked into the data and found hints that the locals knew what was what.

"In the high latitudes, there have been a couple of studies in the past few years that find some support for the contention that the weather is becoming more variable, less predictable," says John Walsh, a professor of climate change at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. In a 2005 study, Walsh and his colleagues uncovered evidence in the records of surface weather stations that Alaska and northern Canada experienced high-temperature extremes more frequently in the 1990s than they did from the 1950s to the 1980s (J. E. Walsh et al. Atmos. Ocean 43, 213–230; 2005). Such a change would indeed make the weather less predictable for the people who live there.

Walsh thinks that he and other scientists were too quick to write off the traditional knowledge of Arctic residents. Indigenous people have a deep understanding of their environment, and researchers must start paying more attention to what they say to catch the changes speeding through the far north, says Walsh. "We need to take a hard look [at local claims], and do the confirmation where it's feasible," he says.

Polar researchers of the past generally treated Arctic peoples as data points — or simply ignored them. Scientists would drop into a region, grab their measurements and vanish, rarely letting the residents know the results of the study. Now the relationship is getting more complex, for a raft of reasons. As well as seeing native peoples as potential collaborators and informants, scientists are also starting to see the importance of treating them as stakeholders with an interest in the results. And in some cases, governments led by indigenous people hold political power and must sign off research proposals.

In the hope of bridging the gap between scientists and the native inhabitants, countries participating in the Fourth International Polar Year (IPY), which finishes in March, supported some 30 projects that sought to tap into traditional knowledge of the Arctic. David Carlson, who heads the IPY programme office in Cambridge, UK, says that the IPY "set out with the idealistic goal of having the northern residents be partners in the science — not just subjects of study".

Such a partnership might build up research capacity among the indigenous population, advance scientific understanding of the Arctic and help native populations to adapt to climate change. Still, both scientists and native peoples say it is too soon to tell whether the IPY projects will bring much lasting change and will benefit both interest groups.

“Residents want to make their voices heard. Iver Campbell ”

Victoria Gofman is optimistic on the subject. She is the executive director of the Aleut International Association based in Anchorage, Alaska, and principal investigator on the Bering Sea Sub-Network Project, a two-year IPY project surveying more than 600 residents in six villages bordering the Bering Sea — three in Russia and three in Alaska. The project members are asking local subsistence hunters about environmental and wildlife conditions in the Bering Sea and how they are changing. The aim, Gofman says, is to find a way that local knowledge can be integrated into data sets. The US National Science Foundation is funding the work to the tune of US$600,000.

Local benefits

The project is already starting to make a difference in the 650-person village of Gambell, on St Lawrence Island, Alaska. Iver Campbell, vice-chairman of the native village council, has interviewed about 50 residents for the project; he says they appreciated the chance to share their knowledge. "They want to make their voices heard. Everybody wants to be a part of this investigation of global warming." They are also curious to learn what scientists know about the changing conditions, he says.

Branson Tungiyan, the general manager for the native village, has a different take: he says the residents are tired of being studied and that the Bering Sea study will not significantly aid locals. "We don't see much benefit for Gambell," he says. How much benefit governments get, in terms of information that scientists and officials can use, remains to be seen, as the project is still gathering and analysing its data. But Gofman argues that the project has already helped the local communities, most obviously by employing people in the villages as data collectors at various rates of pay, and defends the idea of such work as a good vehicle for transferring traditional knowledge in a time of change.

In the Canadian territory of Nunavut, a study of polar bears is yielding more obvious mutual benefits for scientists and the native inhabitants, say participants. Moshi Kotierk, a co-investigator on the project, says the IPY has helped local communities by involving indigenous residents in the work, either as research assistants or, in his case, as a project leader. He thinks that this sort of approach will build the capacity for future scientific work in these areas.

“It took me talking to a hunter to understand. Elizabeth Peacock ”

Elizabeth Peacock, the Nunavut government's polar-bear biologist and principal investigator for the study, says she often relies on local residents and their knowledge of polar-bear behaviour. Her Inuit friends and contacts can tell her the locations of polar-bear dens, for example, or explain odd behaviour. Recently, she was puzzled when a male bear with a satellite transmitter stopped moving for six weeks, acting like a female in her den rather than hunting seals as would normally be the case. An Inuit hunter solved the mystery by telling her that male bears sometimes rest if they are already fat and want to preserve their energy for the best seal season later in the winter. That's not an insight you'll find in the scientific literature. "It took me talking to a hunter to understand that," Peacock says.

Researchers think their studies could help mitigate the effects of climate change on herding societies. Credit: S. D. MATHIESEN

IPY leaders point to another successful cross-cultural collaboration, studying reindeer herders and their vulnerability to change across Eurasia. The project, known as Ealát, after the word for 'good pasture' in the Saami language spoken in Lapland and beyond, is run by Ole Henrik Magga at Saami University College in Kautokeino, Norway, and Svein Mathiesen of the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science in Oslo. Some 3 million reindeer sustain hunters and herders in more than 20 different ethnic groups across northern Eurasia. The Ealát team is interviewing herders from a number of these groups, studying the climate at local scales, and investigating the political, social and economic factors that affect herders and their ability to adapt. By amassing such data, the researchers hope to mitigate the effects of climate change on herding societies.

Because herders are so central to the research, the Ealát project has spurred an interest in science within the herding community, says Johan Mathis Turi, secretary-general of the Association of World Reindeer Herders and a herder himself. "Young reindeer herders are pursuing higher education and are being included in knowledge production in a way we haven't seen in reindeer society before," he says.

Currently, five students from herding communities are pursuing doctoral degrees as part of the Ealát project. That will help herders interact with policy-makers, says Magga. "We need to strengthen the communication between herding communities and the government."

With data from projects still flowing in, scientists cannot say how broadly, if at all, they will incorporate local knowledge into their data sets and analyses, and how much improvement they may see. Outside the polar community, there are grumblings about including traditional knowledge in scientific studies. Two Canadian researchers published a book last year challenging government policies that require resource managers in the northern territories to take such indigenous knowledge into account (F. Widdowson and A. Howard Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008).

That argument, however, does not win support within the polar-year leadership. Carlson applauds the projects that have involved native populations in scientific research, paving the way for future collaborations. "We would say our short-term success has been very high," he says, "and that the challenge remains to convert that into a long-term success."

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Richard Monastersky is a features editor for Nature in Washington DC. See pages 1072 , 1074 and Editorial, page 1057

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International Polar Year website

Reindeer Herders' Project website

Nunavut Polar Bear Project website

Bering Sea Community Based Monitoring project website

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Monastersky, R. International Polar Year: The social pole?. Nature 457, 1077–1078 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/4571077a

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