Near Puvirnituq, Nunavik. Photo: L. Koperqualuk / ICC
Near Puvirnituq, Nunavik. Photo: L. Koperqualuk / ICC

Disappearing sea ice, changing diet

Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)

More in this series

Sea ice and diet

Our changing home

Thawing permafrost

Our changing home

Protect the Arctic, protect the planet

Inuit call for action on climate change

ICC Canada

Jim Stotts
President of the Alaskan chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)

We live right by the coast, we basically are looking more towards the sea than looking inland. Fish, marine mammals, sea birds are a big part of the hunting activities that we are engaged in. We have a great knowledge about ice and ice conditions because we go out on the ice for big parts of the year to hunt seals, walrus, whales, and polar bears. So, we are very interested in maintaining the cleanliness and pristine nature of our part of the world.

I recall, when I was a little boy, growing up at the coast, it was a much cleaner place. There was a lot more wildlife, in particular a lot more shorebirds. There were a couple of species that I haven’t seen for years. In Barrow, Utqiaġvik, the main cultural and social event is our annual bowhead whale hunting activity. If successful, it results in a big community feast down at the beach with a dance, sharing of food and fellowship. These are the things that we grew up with and that we would like to keep. That is why, when we talk about the environment and biodiversity, we are talking about keeping things as they used to be. But, it has changed.1

Lisa Koperqualuk
ICC Canada, Vice-President (International)

Our livelihoods and well-being remain closely tied to the sea ice. Our people travel on the sea ice to support their families and community with locally harvested fresh foods that are essential to our health and our culture. In my community of Puvirnituq in Nunavik (Northern Quebec in Canada) we used to go out on the ice by the end of October, or early November at the latest. Now our hunters and fishers are left waiting later into the year for safe conditions. As time passes and they wait to get out on the ice, not only does this mean less food but also fewer opportunities to pass on their knowledge to our youth. With fewer opportunities for our young hunters to learn specialized Arctic survival skills, the risks for them going out on the land are greater than ever before.2

Inuit call for the tools needed to protect the Arctic Inuit Circumpolar Council 3

A Message to the World at COP 26

Make space for Inuit in climate governance to protect the Arctic and protect the planet.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) is an Indigenous peoples’ organization, founded in 1977 to promote and celebrate the unity of 180,000 Inuit from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka. ICC works to promote Inuit rights, safeguard the Arctic environment, and protect and promote the Inuit way of life. As the international voice of Inuit, ICC is calling upon global leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland to listen, support, and act upon climate issues identified by Inuit and other Indigenous Peoples.

Inuit call on global leaders at UNFCCC’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland to:

  1. Make unprecedented and massive efforts to cap global temperature rise.
  2. Value Indigenous Knowledge and leadership on climate action and support Indigenous participation in climate governance.
  3. Recognize the oceans and cryosphere as critical ecosystems that must be protected through partnership with Inuit.

From the ICC COP 26 Position Paper3

Inuit are facing an existential threat and are experiencing a violation of our fundamental human right to a safe and healthy environment. For over 30 years, Inuit have witnessed an Arctic environment eroded by climate change. Our communities and our culture cannot function or thrive as they once did. We hold an intimate knowledge and connection with the land, waters, and sea ice developed over thousands of years of Inuit use and occupancy of the Arctic coast and marine regions. As Inuit Nunaat (our homeland) transforms before us, we have painstakingly documented the changes we see in our Arctic homes - changes in weather and ice patterns, changes in distribution and abundance of wildlife, new species, stressed infrastructure, and the cultural and social impacts of these changes.

Words of warning have come true

In 2009 at COP15, Inuit advocate Sheila Watt-Cloutier spoke of the Arctic as a barometer for the rest of the world. At that time, the Arctic was already in a dire state and her words were words of warning. But they were also words of guidance: if we protect the Arctic, we protect the planet.

For decades now, the barometer readings have been alarming. Inuit have devoted much time, energy, and resources to alerting the world to the reality of climate change and the need for international action to halt the pace and scale of change before the rest of the planet begins to feel impacts as the Arctic has felt and continues to feel.

There is no doubt that Inuit knowledge and advocacy have strengthened the resolve of the international community to make serious efforts to restrict the emissions of greenhouse gases. However, resolve is not action and the Arctic as we have known it for thousands of years is slipping away as permafrost thaws and sea ice melts. Our home is becoming unrecognizable. The icepack is melting. We have been calling for the adaptation and mitigation strategies necessary for our survival and the integrity of our communities, from relocation to infrastructure to protection in place.

Living with climate change has been our reality for many years. The rest of the world is now experiencing what it means to live with climate change. In 2021, people were hit by floods in Europe and Asia, fires in Canada, Russia, and the United States, and droughts in Brazil and Madagascar. This year’s report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was unequivocal: climate change is real; it is happening now and has already locked in irreversible changes. It is up to us to decide how much worse it will get.

Inuit take no satisfaction that we were among the first to sound the alarm bell as we observed our homelands beginning to change. We recognize that our existential threat and the violation of our rights are shared by many others. That is why we continue to show up, to advocate alongside our Indigenous colleagues and friends, and to continue sounding alarm bells and calling for action.

From the AMAP Climate Change Update 2019:

The Arctic is rapidly shifting into a new state, driven by rising temperatures caused by increases in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Trends over the next few decades are largely determined by past, present, and near-future emissions, requiring planning for adaptation at local and global scales.

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the coming years can limit the extent of Arctic climate change, especially after mid-century, but the Arctic of the future will certainly be very different regardless of the emissions scenario.

A life linked to the ice

Stephanie Gauvreau / ICC

“With few exceptions, Inuit settlements are located on coasts or on major waterways with easy access to the sea. This clearly reflects the importance of the sea to our Inuit way of life. Whether thickly frozen or open for the summer, the sea is our primary means of transportation and, historically, of communication. […]

Today, in summer, this travel is normally by boat and, in the winter, by snowmobile over the ice. Travel between Inuit villages is often dependent on these forms of maritime transportation. Many Inuit communities are even situated in such a way as to make them wholly reliant on the sea for egress. Many communities sit on islands, while others are surrounded by mountains or rough terrain or skirt an ice shelf. In such cases, residents wishing to visit neighbouring villages must travel by boat or over solid ice.

Inuit have lived in intimate association with the Arctic environment for millennia, developing sophisticated environmental adaptations that have enabled us to thrive. To us, the ice is a place for travel. It is also a place for habitation. We are a maritime culture, and our culture, economy and identity depend upon our environment of ice and snow.”

- Circumpolar Inuit Reflections on Sea Ice Use and Shipping in Inuit Nunaat, from the ICC report: “The Sea Ice Never Stops – Circumpolar Inuit Reflections on Sea Ice Use and Shipping in Inuit Nunaat”(2014).

Effects of retreating sea ice in the homeland of the Inuit

Lloyd Pikok / Arctic Council

An eroding coastline

“Environmentally, everybody knows, there’s much less ice than there used to be. The ice, actually, acts as a barrier in the fall time and protects the coastline from erosion from storms. The ice will pile up on the beach and when the big waves come it keeps them from washing on shore. That’s a big change. We have tremendous erosions along the Arctic coast these days.“

Jim Stotts, president of the Alaskan chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)

Impacts on subsistence hunting and food security

“The hunting for marine mammals was also better in the past, there were more animals. Ice floes used to move North from the Bering Street to my part of the Arctic. Today, there’s not as much ice as there used to be. The ice used to bring up walruses that come from quite a bit South of Utqiaġvik. It’s very hard to find walruses now as there’s no ice for them to travel on. Oddly enough, bowhead whale hunting is better now than it was in the past. It seems that the bowhead whale is one of the few species that is actually enjoying climate change. It has expanded its range and there’s more to eat. Bowhead whales are the only true Arctic whales, they do not go down South, they stay in the Arctic waters year-round.”

Jim Stotts, president of the Alaskan chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)

From the AMAP Human Health in the Arctic report:

Climate change also contributes to food insecurity in some regions as increasingly unreliable sea ice conditions make it more difficult to hunt for traditional/country and local foods7.

A polluted diet

Alain Rambault / Arctic Council
[A] poisoned Inuk child, a poisoned Arctic, and a poisoned planet are all one and the same. Sheila Watt-Cloutier at the first negotiation session in Montreal in June 1998

What role could climate change play in the release and distribution of mercury?

"We are seeing the effects of climate change on the environmental behaviour of mercury in the Arctic, although large uncertainties remain regarding the long-term implications for the exposure of wildlife and people to mercury. The clearest evidence of the effects of climate change relate to the release of mercury from thawing permafrost and melting glaciers. Changes to the distribution of species is also changing mercury exposure in food webs."

2021 AMAP Mercury Assessment8

Besides being in the forefront of efforts to bring world attention to the effects of climate change no their homeland, Inuit have played a critical role in Arctic research and in contributing to the development of global agreements on contaminants such as the Minamata Convention on Mercury and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

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Inuit are also particularly vulnerable as the pollutants and chemicals build up in their traditional foods such as seal and whale blubber. By consuming some types of these foods—particularly certain parts of certain species of marine mammals—Arctic peoples are exposed to a variety of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and harmful metals, such as mercury.4

The AMAP Human Health in the Arctic 20218 report states: “Despite being regulated widely across the globe, levels of POPs are still high in some Arctic populations—such as those in Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Nunavik—compared with those in many other regions outside of the Arctic. For example, PCB-153 levels in Arctic populations are on the high end of the range reported worldwide. In a comparative study of mercury levels in pregnant women across seven Arctic countries, the highest mean levels were observed in Greenland and Nunavik. A global assessment reported higher levels of mercury in adults and children in Nunavik, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands compared with those in non-Arctic countries.”

Exposure to these contaminants is associated with negative health impacts. Dietary exposure to mercury for example can have negative impacts on the brain and immune system, increase the risk of childhood obesity, increase the risk of type 2 diabetes later in life, and negatively affect fetal growth and development.7

Adapting to change

Inuit are adaptable and strong. Inuit have been adapting to the extreme conditions and fluctuations in the Arctic our entire history. We are clearly a strong people or we would not have survived the rigors of the North for so many millennia. In these days, Inuit are adjusting to changes in sea ice conditions and migration patterns of the living resources. This is a challenge that we have dealt with successfully thus far, though we do have concerns, especially related to safety out on the ice and sea. Key finding from the ICC report: “The Sea Ice Never Stops – Circumpolar Inuit Reflections on Sea Ice Use and Shipping in Inuit Nunaat” (2014)4.
Inuit are a very adaptable and resilient people. We are learning to live with ever-changing conditions and adapting to the immense and constant change that is transforming our land, our home. Inuit are designing and developing practical measures to assist in keeping our communities safe. For instance, there is an initiative in one of our communities where anyone who goes out on the land can use an app to report on ice and other environmental features. If a hunter comes across unsafe ice conditions, they can log it on the app and warn others who may pass that way. This project is called SIKU and is one of many examples of Inuit innovation and adaptability in the face of change. Lisa Koperqualuk 2021. Siku (sea ice), Sacred Spaces and Inuit.

Marine protected areas - a tool for conserving species, habitats and ecosystems

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are an important tool for conserving species, habitats and ecosystems, and provide social and economic benefits to Arctic communities. Under the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD), Aichi Target 11 called for the protection of 10% of coastal and ocean waters by 2020, with a focus on areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services. In 2016, 4.7% of marine waters in the Arctic and 7.4% globally were protected.

CASE STUDY Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area (Canada)10

Canada’s Tuvaijuittuq, meaning “the place where the ice never melts” in Inuktut, has some of the oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic Ocean—ice that is expected to last the longest in the face of climate change. This makes the area unique and potentially important as a future summer habitat for ice-dependent species, including walrus, polar bears, bowhead whales, narwhals, belugas, bearded and ringed seals. However, a possible increase in Arctic activities, particularly ice breaking, could negatively impact the multi-year ice environment.

In August 2019, Tuvaijuittuq became the first MPA designated for interim protection for up to five years while Qikiqtani Inuit Association, the Government of Nunavut and the Government of Canada work with Inuit and northern partners to explore the feasibility of longer-term protection. The potential ecological, economic, social and cultural benefits of designation are expected to outweigh costs through research support, ecosystem and biodiversity maintenance, and its intrinsic value.

The extent of Arctic sea ice has declined by in September between 1979 and 2019. Sea-ice cover also continues to be younger and thinner than during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.6
3 months
Hunters in northwest Greenland report that the period when travel by dogsled on sea ice is possible has decreased from 5 to 3 months.6
Emissions of mercury to the atmosphere were estimated to be around 20% higher in 2015 than in 2010.8
The factor by which mercury levels in the Arctic have increased over the last 150 years – although some trends have become more variable in the past three decades.10

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References and resources

  1. The original interview with Jim Stotts was conducted in fall 2020 as part of the Arctic Council’s meeting series on marine issues.
  2. Lisa Koperqualuk 2021. Siku (sea ice), Sacred Spaces and Inuit. (to be published on the Royal Scottish Geographical Society website)
  3. ICC 2021. Inuit call for the tools needed to protect the Arctic Inuit Circumpolar Council UNFCCC COP 26 Position Paper.
    This paper is ICC’s independent statement and it is neither endorsed by the Council nor does it necessarily reflect the views of the Arctic States and other Permanent Participants
  4. Inuit Circumpolar Council 2014. The Sea Ice Never Stops – Circumpolar Inuit Reflections on Sea Ice Use and Shipping in Inuit Nunaat.
  5. Lisa Koperqualuk 2021. Siku (sea ice), Sacred Spaces and Inuit. (to be published on the Royal Scottish Geographical Society website)
  6. AMAP, 2021. Arctic Climate Change Update 2021: Key Trends and Impacts. Summary for Policy-makers. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Tromsø, Norway. 16 pp
  7. AMAP, 2021. Human Health in the Arctic 2021. Summary for Policy-makers. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Tromsø, Norway. 16 pp
  8. AMAP, 2021. 2021 AMAP Mercury Assessment. Summary for Policy-makers. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Tromsø, Norway. 16 pp
  9. Indigenous Food Security in the Arctic – PAME Information brief 2021
  10. Marine Protected Areas in a Changing Arctic – PAME Information brief 2021