ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Summer 2010

Indigenous Knowledge and Science

Inuit forecasters with generations of environmental knowledge help scientists understand Arctic weather

An Inuk living in the Canadian Arctic looks to the sky and can tell by the way the wind scatters a cloud whether a storm is coming or if it’s safe to go on a hunt. Thousands of miles away in a Boulder laboratory, scientists collect data and use computer models to predict weather. They are two practices serving the same purpose, living in separate worlds.

But in the past 20 years, something’s run amok with Inuit forecasting. Old weather signals don’t mean what they used to. The cloud that scatters could signal a storm that comes in an hour, instead of a day. And now a melding of indigenous environmental knowledge with modern science is helping researchers learn something new about what’s happening to the Arctic climate.

Researchers had heard reports of unpredictable weather coming in from Arctic communities. But their stories didn’t seem to match up with the numbers. By scientific measurement, weather around the world appeared to be growing more persistent with less variation. The disparity left scientists—including ESRL’s Betsy Weatherhead (Global Systems Division and CIRES), who has long been interested in the issue—scratching their heads.

She contacted Shari Gearheard, a scientist with CIRES’ National Snow and Ice Data Center, who lives in Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada, an Inuit community on eastern Baffin Island. For the past 10 years, Gearheard has been working with Inuit hunters and elders to document their knowledge of the environment and environmental change. Gearheard meticulously collects the stories told to her by the Inuit and makes systematic records of indigenous environmental knowledge. Through this, patterns begin to emerge, leading Weatherhead and colleague Roger Barry, a CIRES Fellow, to focus their analysis on patterns of weather “persistence” in the springtime.

Statistical analysis of day-to-day temperatures at Baker Lake, Nunavut, showed that in May to June, the persistence of temperature has recently declined, matching Inuit reports of greater unpredictability for that season.

The scientific story matched what people were witnessing on the ground. Weather along the Arctic latitudes was behaving more unpredictably than in other parts of the world. “That’s an incredibly important parameter to care about, incredibly important,” said Weatherhead. “The way I try to describe it to some people, if we get an inch of rain out at my house in the month of July, I don’t need to turn on the sprinklers. But if we get an inch of rain on July 1, and no rain after that, my lawn is dead.”

“Ecosystems have evolved under a certain type of pattern. So if that is changing, that could be just as important as a small increase in temperature or some of the other changes we’re talking about,”  Weatherhead continued.

The study helps refine and test climate models, while also providing these models with a new category of information to consider. And Gearheard’s work with the Inuit is demonstrating the value of indigenous environmental knowledge to modern climate science. 

“When we first started talking about this, indigenous knowledge didn’t have the place it does now in research,” Gearheard added. “It’s growing. People are becoming more familiar with it, more respectful of it.”

—Morgan Heim, CIRES

More, including a podcast interview with the paper authors:

Photo courtesy of Sherri Gearheard, CIRES NSIDC