Learning about Arctic Regime Shifts

Science magazine has an interesting question and answer interview with Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist from the USA’s Smithsonian Institution, who has a worked with indigenous communities in Alaska and northern Russia. They talk about learning about local ecological knowledge and Arctic regime shifts.

Q: What are some of the biggest differences in how indigenous people and scientists look for change or perceive change in the environment?

I.K.: I wouldn’t put it like “indigenous people” and “scientists.” It’s a difference between someone who lives in the environment daily, and someone who studies it [at a distance]. If you wake up every morning and your day depends upon the weather, if your life depends upon going out and coming back safe, and bringing food and traveling, then you’re naturally much more attentive and in tune to the environment.

The difference between indigenous people and nonindigenous residents is that indigenous people have the advantage of multigenerational knowledge, and traditional knowledge of language, classification, and nomenclature that they learn from parents, grandparents, and other elders. If you’re just a resident scientist, you depend upon what you may watch in the environment on your own.

Q: What’s the relationship between knowledge and language in how it’s transmitted?

I.K.: We’ve always thought that a lot of information is stored and passed via language. We recently tried to document indigenous terminologies for sea ice, as one of the goals of a project during the International Polar Year [2007-2008]. Altogether, we have documented 30 terminologies from different parts of the Arctic. People are using between 60 and more than 100 terms for different types of ice, and their classifications are very different from those used by scientists. Their terminology is always very local, very different from place to place; the richness of the vocabulary is different. It’s not like there’s an “Eskimo terminology” for ice or for snow. There are a dozens of different terminologies.

Q: In your talk, you mentioned the Sea Ice Knowledge and Use (SIKU) Project, where you asked indigenous people to record observations of sea ice change. What were some of the most striking observations that came out of this project?

I.K.: [Indigenous] people keep saying that change has happened before, that we are now documenting an already changed environment. I’m increasingly hearing, “Igor, you’re late. That changed between 1999 and 2000, or 2001.” Probably they are pointing to what biologists and oceanographers call “regime shift” [when ecosystems rapidly change from one relatively stable state to another], which means that the regime shift happened before we started [the project]. Whether it was really an abrupt regime shift or a more gradual one, we don’t know, but we will learn.

4 thoughts on “Learning about Arctic Regime Shifts”

  1. Intrigued by the fact that the SIKU atlas was developed at Carleton University’s Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre, I just checked it out (www.sikuatlas.ca/indexhtml) and it seems to be a very cool example of researcher – community collaboration. If you click the ‘terminology’ link under Cape Dorset there is a language map of ice terms with audio that to me highlights both the physical complexity of the sea-ice landscape as well as the learning opportunities created by engaging with traditional knowledge.

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