Climate change means the Inuit are doing what they’ve always done: adapting

Climate change is about to change everything.

“There will be a loss of culture,” says Holwell. “They will identify as Inuit and their children will too, but they won’t have the same experiences.”

As droughts last longer and heat waves, floods and storms intensify in a warming world, the Inuit are doing what they have always done: adapt.

For the past three years, Holwell, 47, has helped run a sea ice monitoring program for the Inuit. Unlike other climate data efforts, this one is completely focused on the needs of the local community. The program is called SmartICE, and it combines traditional Inuit knowledge of data collection muds and electromagnetic sensors to provide northern communities with real-time measurements of sea ice thickness along their “roads” through a website, a downloadable phone app, or Facebook. It highlights the areas where the ice is thickest and the areas where it is thinnest.

SmartICE is used by more than 30 Inuit communities. The idea is to use technology to fill in areas where climate change has made traditional knowledge less reliable or has created conditions that Inuit have never faced before.

Holwell thinks tools like SmartICE can extend the time Inuit are left on the sea ice before it disappears. A new analysis published in Nature Communications Earth and Environment in August showed that the Arctic has warmed almost four times faster than the global average between 1979 and 2021, much faster than the usual two to three times the global average cited.

A separate model by experts from the UK, Canada and the US shows that by 2035 Arctic sea ice could fall below 1 million square kilometers during the summer. Scientists recorded this year’s sea ice minimum on September 18, tied for the 10th lowest level on record.

The Inuit are practical when it comes to new technology. They use GPS, but still teach their children how prevailing winds tilt snowbanks and show them the way back if the device’s batteries die. Skidoos, also known as snowmobiles, have mostly replaced dog sledding and compressed week-long hunts into day trips. Rifles have replaced harpoons.

SmartICE is another tool. Thus, with a black and red skidoo, a rifle and an electromagnetic sensor, Holwell offers a vision of survival that combines old and new.

“We have to adapt to climate change,” he says. “We’re going to need more tools like SmartICE.”


If the weather is nice, a 19-passenger Twin Otter plane flies to Holwell’s hometown of Nain. Hand luggage is not allowed. If a bag weighs more than 50 pounds (23 kg), it can be left behind for the next flight, or the next if planes are overweight. There are no midget de-icers, and neither are any of Labrador’s coastal Inuit communities, and thus planes are often grounded. An elderly couple stranded in Goose Bay in mid-April said the longest wait for a flight was three weeks. The delays are particularly severe in the spring, when the fog can be thick and unpredictable, they say.

Midgets, cars, and trucks are parked in snow-covered front yards, while snowmobiles zip down the slippery streets to pick up kids from school and take adults to work. There is only one hotel in the city, Hotel Atsanik, which is also the only restaurant in the city. Toilet paper, which comes in packs of 30 rolls, costs C$40 ($29).

More than Nain herself, the landscape around her is the center of attention, says Jim Anderson.

“It’s something that people don’t understand,” said Anderson, 70. “We get a culture shock as soon as we go out. We get lost. (We’re not) used to seeing all the houses, houses together, no open spaces.”

For 60 Canadian dollars in gasoline, a hunter can kill a seal and feed a family for three or four days, in addition to making gloves, boots and other clothing from the animal’s fur. Shipping an equivalent amount of store-bought food costs CAN$300 and clothing is not included. Sea ice makes life more affordable.

Sea ice also means freedom. Most people can’t afford a boat, so in the summer their world literally shrinks and becomes hostile to insects. But in winter and spring, when the sea ice freezes over, people can fish, hunt, gather firewood and visit their cabins.

Maria Merkuratsuk, who grew up in a hut north of Nain, says she feels “tingles” when she’s on the ice. “Je me sens en paix, je peux respirer… si j’ai beaucoup de choses en tte, mon corps peut prendre le dessus…. Je (peux) simply conduire et conduire et conduire et penser des choses”, dit -she.

Isaac Kohlmeister, one of the last two people from Nain to lead a dog sled team, says being on the ice has helped him recharge.

“When the dogs run, you can smell everything,” he says. “You can even smell the fish under the ice.”

The Inuit communities Holwell works with for SmartICE have begun compiling their own lists of Inuktitut words for different types of sea ice. Nain, they found 37, which they plan to publish in a brochure next year.


The SmartICE program has two components. The first consists of 9-foot (2.75 meter) tall “SmartBUOYs”, deployed in holes drilled in the sea ice at the beginning of the season and removed at the end of the season. The mud is filled with thermistors, which measure temperature and record data at specific locations. The thickness of sea ice is calculated from the temperature difference between the atmosphere, snow, ice and salt water.

The second part of the program consists of “SmartKAMUTIK” sleds pulled by skidoos. The sled carries a plywood box with an electromagnetic sensor. As the snowmobile pulls the sled, the sensor sends out electromagnetic pulses to induce a current and measure the thickness of the snow and ice. Holwell normally runs a SmartKAMUTIK run once a week to check the thickness of Nain’s sea ice “roads”.

The technology used by the Inuit is the same as that used by some climatologists, but the questions are different. Scientists mostly ask system-level questions, like what will happen to the planet; the Inuit have more immediate concerns, such as whether they will fall through the ice if they go hunting or visit friends and family. The Inuit need more granular data and sampling locations that may be different from what scientists would choose. But increasingly, it is projects that address both scales of concern that are finding support.

Katie Winters, 54, who lives in Nain and helped translate the Inuit land claims agreement in Labrador, says that although the sea ice is thicker this year, it was one of the worst years for people falling. through the ice. She immediately names five people and two skidoos that have fallen onto the ice this year, but she says there are more. Fortunately, no one died.

A community management committee tells Holwell where the SmartBUOYs should go, and when temperatures rise in the spring, he uses the SmartKAMUTIK to carefully check places known to be dangerous.

Holwell trains anyone interested in taking SmartKAMUTIK courses and teaches teens how to build SmartBUOY during the summer off-season. The team posts each race on the show’s website and SIKU app, as well as on Facebook. It’s unclear how much people in the community trust the data, but they do like and comment on posts.

For people without an Internet connection, Holwell prints maps with ice thickness measurements and, like all who hunt, marks the maps with symbols where animals have been seen or caught.

SmartICE received C$400,000 ($293,000) in seed funding from the Arctic Inspiration Prize, Canada’s largest annual award. The project also won other awards and gradually gained international recognition.

Holwell’s pride in the project is evident. “We are a production facility on Inuit land, with Inuit building the technology for other Inuit,” he says.


Ask any dwarf about sea ice and they will tell you that they are the first to see the effects of climate change. In the past, sea ice was 5 to 7 feet (1.5 to 2.1 meters) thick, hard, and covered by a deep layer of snow. Now it’s 3 to 4 feet thick and smooth, says Ron Webb, 65.

The snow is sweetened with a shiny coating: “shitty snow,” says Ron Webb. The huge blue multi-year chunks of ice that came down from the north are gone and the summer pools are stronger, he says.

Last year, Webb was riding his skidoo on 3 feet of sea ice. The feeling was good, but he stuck a stick in there just to check it out and the stick went through the open sea.

“Years ago you wouldn’t have known that. It’s pretty scary because even though the thickness is there, the hardness isn’t,” he says.

Webb laughs. Nain’s Inuit call themselves “Sikumiut” or “sea ice people,” but he began to joke that they would have to make another adaptation, switch to using hovercraft, to navigate sea ice too dangerous for a skidoo.

Spring is the best time to hit the sea ice, the days are longer but the nights are still cold enough to freeze. In April, for example, temperatures often drop to minus 10 and minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 to 14 Fahrenheit) overnight, but this year temperatures have hovered around zero degrees.

“Usually it’s like a heart-watching machine, ups and downs, but it’s been hot for the entire month of April,” said Joey Angnatok, former program coordinator for SmartICE.


Communities living on freshwater lakes and rivers in northern Canada have become familiar with SmartICE. Holwell says Sami caribou herders and others in Sweden, Finland, Iceland and England have also inquired about the technology.

“We’re needed, Team Canada, we’re needed,” Holwell said. Then, like a village auctioneer or a politician in the middle of a speech, he makes his speech: “We want Joe, Tuktoyaktuk, to become a champion of SmartICE.”

A little later, he sets off on his snowmobile, soaring over the sea ice like a tundra-glove bumblebee in the brief subarctic spring, joyful, free, not questioning his place in the world.

Stepping on the accelerator, he accelerates towards the horizon where the geese and seals are, deeply convinced that his little Inuit village on the edge of the ice floe matters, and that now the rest of the world knows it too.

Note: Melissa Renwick is one of the recipients of the Reuters Yannis Behrakis Photojournalism Fellowship.

Dennis Alvarado

"Total social media fan. Travel maven. Evil coffee nerd. Extreme zombie specialist. Wannabe baconaholic. Organizer."

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