Nature and Biodiversity

How vulnerable are Arctic populations?

Image: A Nenets man chops firewood at a settlement in the Tundra region, 40 km from the north Russian town of Naryan-Mar. REUTERS/Anton Golubev

Katherine Gombay
Senior Communications Officer, McGill University
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People in the Arctic appear to have an inherent ability to adapt to climate change, perhaps because they are so used to accepting a climate that is changeable and uncertain.

“Arctic populations are often identified as being highly vulnerable people, but that’s not necessarily what the research shows,” says James Ford of of the geography department at McGill University.

Ford and colleagues reviewed 135 scholarly works about climate change adaptation, resilience, and vulnerability in Arctic societies around the globe.

“People in these communities already tend to see the Arctic environment as being unpredictable and in a constant state of flux. They have repeatedly adapted to environmental changes in the past by being flexible in their use of resources. But their ability to exploit opportunities, such as the lengthening shipping seasons, or new harvesting opportunities, is challenged by various outside pressures and constraints.”

The researchers found that, depending on the region, the situations of northern communities varied significantly, based on the interaction between the speed of climate change and various non-climatic factors.

1. Range and type of resources

The livelihoods of the Viliui Sakha people in Siberia who depend on cattle and horse breeding are being undermined by changing weather and snow patterns as they have few alternative livelihood options. On the other hand, the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic are altering the timing and location of traditional hunting practices with rapid changes in the sea ice.

2. Type and effectiveness of local political leadership

Northern institutions often lack the time, mandate, and funding to address climate change impacts, though emerging leaders in Canada and Alaska are proving to be an exception to this pattern.

3. Mismatch between regulations and the speed of environmental change

In northern Canada and Alaska, communities are responding rapidly to changes in observed conditions while regulatory regimes have been slow and inflexible in changing regulations to respond to current conditions.

The researchers also found that adaptation is taking place at the household or community level, but this is mainly reactive and doesn’t translate to a larger scale or to longer-term planning. The also say economic, health, and educational issues—many linked to legacies of colonization—make members of these communities more vulnerable in general.

“Not all forms of institutions necessarily inhibit adaptation,” says Ford. “Institutions can act as pathways for knowledge development. In northern Canada and Alaska, for instance, co-management practices integrate science, traditional knowledge, and local needs into the management of wildlife stocks such as the beluga in the Beaufort Sea.

“There is some evidence that this kind of management can help speed up the exchange of information and reduce conflict about resource management, but this success has not been uniformly seen.

“In some cases the conflict between the role of science and traditional knowledge has been difficult to resolve, and there is a worry that discourse about adaptation may be used selectively by powerful stakeholders to advance particular pathways and political agendas.”

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