Changing access to ice, land and water in Arctic communities

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Arctic climate change has the potential to affect access to semi-permanent trails on land, water and sea ice, which are the main forms of transport for communities in many circumpolar regions. Focusing on Inuit Nunangat (the Inuit homeland in northern Canada), trail access models were developed drawing upon a participatory process that connects Indigenous knowledge and science. We identified general thresholds for weather and sea ice variables that define boundaries that determine trail access, then applied these thresholds to instrumental data on weather and sea ice conditions to model daily trail accessibility from 1985 to 2016 for 16 communities. We find that overall trail access has been minimally affected by >2 °C warming in the past three decades, increasing by 1.38–1.96 days, differing by trail type. Across models, the knowledge, equipment and risk tolerance of trail users were substantially more influential in determining trail access than changing climatic conditions.

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Fig. 1: Numerous climatic conditions are important for individuals travelling over land, water and sea ice across Canada’s Inuit communities.

Photographs, D. Clark

Fig. 2: Modelled trail use has changed across the Inuit Nunangat over the past 30 years, although changes in the number of good days have been relatively small in comparison to the range in access available to travellers if they are among the most skilled and have access to high-quality equipment.
Fig. 3: Seasonal and decadal patterns of trail access were observed across the study region.

Data availability

The full data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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All work was conducted under a Nunavut Research Institute License, Aurora Research Institute Scientific Research License, Human Research Ethics Approval form McGill University and the University of Guelph. The work was funded by SSHRC, CIHR, ArcticNet, MEOPAR, NSERC and Transport Canada. We thank all community members who were involved in this research, including those in Arviat, Arctic Bay, Pangnirtung, Pond Inlet, Whale Cove, Iqaluit, Ulukhaktok, Paulatuk and Sachs Harbour. We thank the Canadian Ice Service, A. Tivy and F. Delaney for assistance with historical sea ice data.

Author information

J.F. designed the study, helped analyse data and wrote the paper. D.C. collected and analysed data and helped write the paper. T.P., L.B.F., L.C., J.D., M.N. and S.L.H. assisted with study design, analysis and write-up.

Correspondence to J. D. Ford.

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Journal peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Claudio Aporta, Yukari Hori, Henry Huntington and Carla Roncoli for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Ford, J.D., Clark, D., Pearce, T. et al. Changing access to ice, land and water in Arctic communities. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 335–339 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0435-7

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