Nature Climate Change | Climate Feedback

AMS2010: Let us see

Olive Heffernan

I entered a session here at AMS this morning at a pivotal moment: Barry Smit, a self-confessed ‘integrated scientist’, was singing – rather loudly – a rewritten version of the Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’. Smit’s version ‘Let Us See’ was about using indigenous knowledge to gain insight for dealing with climate change, the topic of the session I had just joined. His message was that if we use the knowledge that’s already part of these communities, perhaps we’ll be better able to see how they can cope with, and adapt to, climate change rather than forcing of own view of adaptation upon them. Having listened to many dry science talks, I found his approach refreshing.

Smit’s own research in based in the Canadian high Arctic, in places such as Nunavet and Nunatsiavet, where Inuit people are already adjusting to changes in their environment, and have been doing so throughout their history.

The Inuit communities that Smit works with are currently experiencing one especially difficult change. The ice is retreating. Where the ice ends is an especially important place for these communities, because that’s where narwhals feed on fish, and where locals can hunt. Although a retreat in the ice might at first glance seem like a good thing for hunters, who now have shorter distances to travel, the distinct disadvantage is that thin ice breaks off in chunks. So hunters have been finding themselves adrift in the open ocean.

“It can be an inconvenience. You’re drifting off to Greenland and that’s not where you live”, says Smit. Locals have devised a clever way of dealing with the problem though; they now hunt from boats even when they are on solid ice, so that if the ice floats free they can safely return to shore.

It’s imperative to know of these sorts of adaptive strategies, says Smit. Otherwise, we risk imposing our view of the world that assumes the extent to which people can adapt to change, and the residual impacts that they will have to cope with.

Following the joviality of Smit’s presentation, things heated up in the session, with social and physical scientists disputing when and where it’s appropriate to use local knowledge to inform estimates of future change.


Igor Krupnik, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. presented results from a project named SIKU, which stands for Sea Ice Knowledge and Use, and is also a word that means sea ice in the Inuit language. During the project, which ran from 2006 to 2009, indigenous people in the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska took daily records of the state of the sea ice. The locals’ records reflected their intimate knowledge of their environment, and tracked changes in the sea ice in unprecedented detail.

Krupnik pointed out that there is nothing like this level of detail in scientific models of changes in the sea ice, and ended his talk with a call to the scientific community to incorporate indigenous knowledge into projections of how the environment is likely to change in the future.

Then Ralph Kahn, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, asked whether there are any examples where the temporal and spatial coverage of local records is good enough to use in climate models, or whether all of this information is ‘anecdotal’. Kahn pointed out that social scientists really need to identify key variables and to have locals collect data on these that are then justifiable, repeatable and verifiable, if they are to be accepted by physical scientists for use in their models.

Krupnik retorted saying that “people are not automated instrument monitors”, but acknowledged that to get adequate coverage social scientists studying these communities need to do ten times more than they have been able to do up until now. Krupnik pointed out that meteorologists were once too in this position, albeit a long time ago. One novel suggestion for data collection was that Inuits could tweet their observations on sea ice condition, with data on the time and location.

The session highlighted two key issues: the need to legitimize native observations, and the need to find a systematic way of recording them such that they can be of use to the physical science community. A bigger issue, of course, is the need for mutual respect to develop between these research communities, which traditionally have taken very different approaches to gathering information.

Integration of these fields may be far from complete, but it has also come a long way. Seven years ago, Krupnik presented a poster at AMS on the issue of indigenous knowledge. Not only was he the only person presenting on that topic, he said he felt as though his was the only poster that no-one approached. This was the first time AMS has hosted this topic its own session, and it was one of the liveliest sessions I’ve been to here. Let’s see how this evolves in the coming years.

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