AFTER THE ICE Science at the new Arctic frontier nature.com/arcticfrontier

In April 1995, I sat with a group of nine Iñupiaq and Yupik elders in the community centre in Koyuk, Alaska, documenting information that they had acquired — from experience, observation and previous generations — about beluga whales. At one point, the conversation took a surprising turn — from whales to beavers. I must have looked confused. One of the elders smiled and explained that a growing beaver population was damming streams in which fish spawn, affecting the belugas' food source1. The connection was clear when spelled out, but it was not one that most whale researchers would have anticipated.

The concept of scientists using indigenous, or traditional, knowledge in their research has received increasing attention over the past few decades. This is particularly true in the Arctic, where the potential global effects of changes such as permafrost thaw and ice melt have created an urgent need to understand how climate change is affecting the region. Historical physical data about the region are lacking, but indigenous cultures there have retained practices and knowledge acquired over countless generations.

Sami herder Mattis Sara (right) helps Nicholas Tyler take a reindeer blood sample in Karasjok, Norway. Credit: B&C ALEXANDER/ARCTICPHOTO

More and more, scientists are finding value in collaborating with these populations. And growing political awareness and activism by indigenous peoples have led to increased recognition of their knowledge and ideas.

Yet there is still far to go. In 2007, for example, although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included discussions of traditional knowledge in its sections on Africa and Polar regions2, it did not consider the topic for other parts of the world. And in these two cases, discussions focused on societal adaptation to climate change rather than on sharing observational data.

In July 2011, a handful of organizations, including the United Nations University and the IPCC, convened a workshop in Mexico City in an effort to overcome the language and sociocultural barriers preventing inclusion of traditional knowledge in the research literature. But not all scientists are yet convinced of the value of this approach, nor do those who appreciate it always know how to pursue it.

Sea change

I first encountered traditional knowledge in the early 1990s while working for the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in Barrow. Whenever I visited a village, I would open a map and ask the local whalers to introduce me to the area, so I would know the places they described when they called me later in the season to report their hunting activities. The maps always caused an excited stir among them as they showed me where the sea ice was in spring, where the whales swam and other details of local geography and ecology that were largely undocumented in the scientific literature. I was hooked.

Getting funding for a formal project to document traditional knowledge was a different story — in part because funding agencies were just beginning to recognize the legitimacy of the topic, and in part because I needed to learn how to frame such a project.

In 1994, after a failed proposal, I went to Anchorage, Alaska, to work for the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an organization that works to promote the value of indigenous knowledge to sympathetic-yet-sceptical scientists and managers. While there, I received funding from the US National Science Foundation. My research subject had switched from bowhead whales to beluga whales, but the basic idea remained the same.

A sea change was coming. Groups such as the ICC became more vocal, and scientists who spent time with indigenous peoples grew increasingly appreciative of what they had to say.

Today, there are many collaborations between scientists and Arctic residents. For example, Sami reindeer-herders in Sweden and Norway have worked with scientists to document snow conditions and their implications for herding practices, now and in future climatological scenarios3.

In Canada, climatologists and Inuit have uncovered subtle changes in weather patterns over the past few decades by supporting qualitative observations with statistical correlations4 and identifying places to install weather instruments to capture locally relevant data. Sea-ice scientists and Iñupiaq whaling captains have combined their perspectives to give a fuller view of ice patterns, dynamics and trends5. Marine mammalogists followed up on Iñupiaq observations to discover that bowheads, unlike most other whales, have a sense of smell6.

The rhetoric among scientists and funding institutions has shifted from polite rejection to bemused tolerance and, increasingly, openness. In 2007, the North Pacific Research Board in Anchorage allocated US$1 million to traditional-knowledge research as part of its$14.7-million contribution to the 5-year, multi-agency Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Project.

And yet, there is much still to be done.

Strong foundations

First, natural scientists must do more to engage with the topic. Social scientists, myself included, have done much to bring traditional knowledge to wider attention and develop appropriate methods for documentation and collaboration7,8. But experts in other fields need to join the conversation.

In 2010, I attended a meeting in northern Quebec, Canada, at which Peter Kattuk, an Inuit hunter from Sanikiluaq in Hudson Bay, noted that the seals he had caught that winter had shrimps instead of fish in their stomachs, and tended to sink rather than float in the water. I felt the observation was important, but I lacked the knowledge to see why.

Iñupiaq elder Warren Matumeak (left) and glaciologist Andy Mahoney examine sea-ice data. Credit: H. HUNTINGTON

A few days later, I mentioned Kattuk's observations to Eddy Carmack, an oceanographer at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Victoria, British Columbia. He recognized them as early warning signs of a food-web 'flip' in Hudson Bay, which might otherwise have taken years to detect. Once Kattuk and Carmack made contact, the real exchange began. We need to foster more of these interactions.

Scientists should, however, do some preparation before reaching out to local populations. Insensitivity to local concerns and misunderstandings about data ownership have caused projects to be cancelled or undermined. In the spring of 2002, for example, researchers had to make last-minute changes to the cruise plan for an icebreaker heading to northern Alaska because they had assumed (wrongly) that the lack of communication from locals about the voyage was a sign of consent.

Second, researchers should scrutinize traditional knowledge and its sources more carefully. Under the banner of political correctness, some scientists are slow to critique what is said by people from other cultures, which can undermine the reliability of information and the credibility of the field.

In the late 1990s, for example, beluga whales in Cook Inlet in southern Alaska were in the midst of a sharp population decline. Some self-professed local experts (perhaps seeking attention, perhaps to avoid hunting restrictions) claimed that there were 50,000 whales in the Gulf of Alaska, but only a few hundred of them came into Cook Inlet at a time, creating a false impression of a crisis. Despite the lack of any corroborating information, few scientists, fishermen or recognized local experts were willing to challenge these claims publicly.

Indigenous cultures have ways of establishing credibility, such as being careful to include the source and format of any information they pass on. Researchers need to be similarly diligent.

Third, researchers and locals should collaborate to establish new ways of gathering traditional knowledge. In 2008, hunters in Nunavut, Canada, began carrying Global Positioning System units to record phenomena as they travelled their usual routes9.

The technique was so successful that the researchers and the Inuit now plan to travel in 2012 to Nepal, to share the method with residents of the Tsum Valley, which has lately seen increases in glacial retreat and other signs of climate change. The Inuvialuit in northwestern Canada are developing a monitoring programme for their region, addressing local interests as well as topics identified by visiting scientists. An important element of such projects is that participants are paid for their work, recognizing the importance of their contributions and providing for greater stability in personnel.

These forward-looking approaches add another dimension to the typically retrospective documentation of traditional knowledge, and should be supported by the same agencies that fund other scientific endeavours.

Finally, we need to develop better ways of managing this information. Videos, maps and songs are better-suited than spreadsheets for recording traditional knowledge, but those formats are difficult to search or make accessible. Researchers at the Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge in the Arctic (http://www.eloka-arctic.org) in Boulder, Colorado, are among those who are developing solutions — using advances in multimedia and data-tagging schemes to better represent knowledge.

The question of ownership is another issue. In 1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, hunters and fishermen in the area had mixed responses to outsiders seeking their knowledge. Some saw benefits for all in collaborating; others expected a cut of future revenue in return for sharing their knowledge; still others worried about sensitive cultural information becoming public.

As a result, many research projects were delayed and proposals abandoned as protocols were debated. In 2010, in contrast, Yupik elders on Nelson Island in southwestern Alaska made public their database of local land-use patterns and environmental conditions, on the principle that sharing was of paramount value.

Data-sharing practices should acknowledge cultural sensitivities and work in both directions. Researchers should feed information back to hunters, elders and other locals, so that they can join the conversation and see for themselves how their observations connect with other data. At its heart, the greater engagement of scientists with traditional knowledge is really about the greater engagement of people, sharing information about what matters most to them.