Nature and Biodiversity

Can indigenous knowledge help combat Arctic disasters?

Chris Arsenault
Writer, The Thomson Reuters Foundation
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When tracking climate change in the Arctic, scientists rely not just on satellites and software but tap the knowledge of indigenous hunters who have lived in the frozen north for generations.

To help them understand shifts underway in parts of the far north, including the increasing frequency of disasters, NASA Emeritus Scientist Nancy Maynard and her team are working with reindeer herders in Scandinavia to track changing temperature and precipitation patterns.

“They are out on the tundra year round, so they are able to give us information on the state of the snow that we wouldn’t be able to get otherwise,” Maynard told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Such on-the-ground data allows scientists such as Maynard to calibrate satellite censors used to track weather patterns.

Indigenous people are often particularly hit by disasters and climate change, and their knowledge is becoming increasingly important in mitigating the problems, scientists and activists said.

The United Nations has designated October 13 as the International Day of Disaster Reduction, with a focus on how indigenous knowledge can complement science to boost resilience as the costs of disasters rise.

“It’s definitely a two-way street,” when it comes to data sharing in the face of climate change, Maynard said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed that view.

“In the Arctic region, we depend greatly on the local knowledge of indigenous peoples to understand the impacts of climate change,” he said in a statement.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.”

There were three times as many natural disasters from 2000 to 2009 as there were from 1980 to 1989, with much of the increase coming from “climate-related events”, according to a 2013 study from the New England Journal of Medicine.

“We have seen the destruction of communities because of the loss of sea ice, melting permafrost (and) wildfires,” said Patricia Cochran,  executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission.

“A lot of the native villages in Alaska are being literally washed into the sea,” Cochran said, citing rising water levels and the melting of Arctic ice floes.

“The best information and solutions come from the sharing of information from people closest to the land,” she added.

More than 30 communities in Alaska alone need to be moved as a result of rising sea levels, melting ice and other factors, Maynard noted.

Various levels of government are struggling with how to finance the moves, along with other practical considerations such as who should be moved first, she said.

Providing resources for communities to adapt to these sorts of changes should be a focus for national governments and the United Nations, Maynard said.

This article is published in collaboration with (Thomson Reuters Foundation). Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Chris Arsenault covers global food security and agricultural politics for the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Image: Eureka Sound on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic is seen in a NASA Operation. REUTERS/NASA/Michael Studinger. 

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