"The Caribou Taste Different Now": Inuit Elders Observe Climate Change

By edited by José Gérin-Lajoie, Alain Cuerrier, and Laura Siegwart Collier
Nunavut Arctic College Media, November 30, 2015, $39.95

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Between 2007 and 2010, researchers and community partners interviewed nearly 150 Elders and knowledge holders from Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut, about their observations of environmental changes across six broad categories: berries, other plants, animals, seasons, climate/weather, and impacts on traditional ways of life.

The Caribou Taste Different Now”: Inuit Elders Observe Climate Change presents the findings from these interviews as well as direct quotations from those interviewed and offers an important and seldom-heard perspective on an issue of global concern.

Please read an excerpt from The Caribou Taste Different Now which discusses the communities observations of the significant changes in their local environment and highlights their direct reactions.

Part I: Cross-Community Summary of Environmental Change

Our interviews found that Elders and residents from Canadian Arctic communities are observing significant changes in their local environment. The changes are not uniform across all communities; however, there are many important similarities. Of the six environmental categories addressed in the questionnaire, the most frequent observations of change were related to changes in climate and weather, followed by changes in vegetation. Generally speaking, some communities are experiencing important changes across all aspects of their natural environment. This includes the two most easterly and sub-Arctic communities of Nain (Nunatsiavut) and Kangiqsualujjuaq (Ungava Bay, Nunavik), where half or more of interviewees identified changes in every category of our questionnaire. Alternatively, the most northerly communities, Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet (Baffin Island, Nunavut), and the most southerly community, Umiujaq (Hudson Bay, Nunavik), demonstrated the fewest observations of environmental change.


When asked about changes in specific aspects of the weather, Elders in Kangiqsualujjuaq described experiencing warmer weather throughout the year, whereas Elders in Nain are experiencing cooler weather in spring and summer. Six out of eight communities identified changes in the wind, such as shifts in direction, as well as greater intensity and frequency. Rainfall appears to vary regionally. The two most westerly communities, Kugluktuk and Baker Lake, noted less rainfall, whereas the two most easterly communities, Nain and Kangiqsualujjuaq, noted more rainfall. The majority of communities observed a decrease in snow abundance. Exceptions include the most northerly communities (Pond Inlet and Pangnirtung), where consensus was not achieved, and the most southerly community (Umiujaq), where a majority of interviewees observed no change in snow abundance. Residents of Kangiqsujuaq and Kangiqsualujjuaq further noted they are experiencing earlier snowmelt. Participants noted that observed wind changes have affected snow deposition patterns, thus influencing the accessibility of traditional travelling routes. A majority of interviewees observed hydrological changes in most communities, except for the ones on Baffin Island, Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet. These changes were mostly related to lower water levels in rivers, small streams, lakes, and ponds, causing the drying of the tundra. As an example, a tundra fire has been observed in 2008 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, something the interviewees had never observed before.


Overall, the results of this comparison show that some changes, such as more shrubs, less snow, more wind, thawing permafrost, lower water levels, earlier sea ice break-up, and new plant and animal species (mostly birds and insects), are common across northern communities, as seen by more than half of the communities surveyed. Other changes seem to be more locally driven, such as declines in berry abundance and quality in Nain and fewer black flies in Kugluktuk. This emphasizes the importance of consulting with numerous communities within each region, as environmental changes can be driven by both local and regional factors.


Part II: Individual Community Summaries of Environmental Change

Nunavut / Kugluktuk

“There are roads here and the sand just flies. There is dust all over the ground. […] The roads are muddy. […] We used to pick berries around here. There used to be no houses along the shore. We would just go up there to pick berries, but now we can’t go because [it’s] too dusty.”

—Agnes Kokak

“A long time ago I used to pick a lot [of cottongrass]. There used to be really a lot. Sometimes I would pick them up to make pillows and other things to fill. I haven’t seen that in years.”

—Laura Kohoktak

“There used to be lots of people travelling, and the only thing we would feed our dogs was caribou meat. Nowadays they are telling people not to feed their dogs with caribou meat. […] You hear that the caribou are becoming fewer and fewer every year, but that was the sort of meat we used to feed our dogs.”

—Lena Allukpik

“Sometimes there are black bears around this area. We never used to get black bears in this area, but now they are everywhere. It used to be only polar bears.”

—Kate Inuktalik

“Some years it’s really hard to find caribou; the hunters have to go really far. […] Sometimes it’s really hard in the winter when the caribou go far.”

—Mona Tiktalek

“It was like we were [in] May in April last month. It’s like every year it changes by the shore. There will be no more ice, like long ago.”

—Agnes Kokak

“I’m worried about the seasons. I’m worried about our community. […] I’m worried about how the weather is and what is going on in other communities and around the world.”

—Alice Ayalik

“It’s thawing really early, before the time for it to melt. A long time ago there used to be a lot of snow in July. Now it melts too early. […] It’s even taking longer to freeze up.”

—Lena Allukpik

“We’re having early breakup because of the ice. It doesn’t get very [thick] anymore. […] The ice sometimes takes forever to freeze. The ice is too thin. It’s easier to melt. It’s really early this year. […] We get more winds from the south; that’s why the breakup is early. We keep getting this warm weather from the south. It’s a lot warmer, too, in the summertime. I think the winters are getting shorter. […] Too warm. It’s getting warmer.”

—Joseph Niptanatiak

“We notice even our spring, summer, winter, and fall, they are not the same anymore. We know how our days and years are. The stars, the moon, the sun. We notice the difference now in the changes.”

—Mamie Oniak

“The water is not as cold, too, and it’s taking forever to freeze up. […] Even when we have the ice freeze-up it doesn’t get thick anymore. It’s just not too thick. […] A long time ago the ice would freeze right away and it would be really thick. Now it’s really thin in some places.”

—Roy Inuktalik

“I remember a long time ago there used to be so much snow. Nowadays, hardly any snow. I think our world is changing, I guess. It wasn’t so bad many years ago but nowadays the wind is stronger. We have more cold winds. […] We don’t get very many thunderstorms now, either. I remember when I used to be inland, there was lots of lightning and lots of thunder.”

—John Ohokak

“The permafrost is thawing. The people in Tuktoyaktuk [in the Northwest Territories] are kind of afraid—the people who have houses—for the permafrost is starting to thaw. It’s probably getting to be like that in other places, too.”

—Joseph Niptanatiak

“Not very much water; the level of the water has gone down. Even on the mountains over here, we just have little ponds and little places where there’s going to be water. We don’t see that anymore. Even on the little hills and steep places […] sometimes you could get water for tea. We never see that anymore.”

—Mary Kellogok

“So many years ago there was a lot of snow; [the young people] used to go behind the island to build igluit [igloos] with the snow, but not anymore. Not enough snow.”

—Alice Ayalik

“The seasons changed. […] It blows so much that you can’t get very much snow. Before, there used to be lots of snow and it was good for travelling [by dog team].”

—Mark and Martha Taletok