I did not know what it meant to be cold until I stepped off the plane.
As I have learned over the past year, Iowa winters provide little preparation for Arctic conditions. It was 9:30 p.m., five hours since the sun had set and 15 hours since I had left my apartment in Montreal. Rolling to a stop, the deafening whirr of a propeller outside my window began to quiet. It was my second time in Arviat, Nunavut, a community of nearly 3,000 people located on the western shore of Hudson Bay. Stepping onto the gravel landing strip, I looked up at the October sky and blew a breath of fog towards the stars. A sparkling stream of green Aurora Borealis drifted aimlessly across the southern horizon.
This came to stark contrast with memories of disembarking from planes on sizzling tarmacs in Uganda and Tanzania where I had spent each summer during my undergraduate at Iowa State University. During each trip to East Africa, I spent numerous afternoons under the shade of baobab trees or tin roofs talking with farmers about their crops, food security, and health.
Those conversations opened my eyes to the powerful relationships between environment, food and health. Relationships that are not only pervasive in East Africa, but also in Iowa and, as I have seen in the past year, in the Arctic. These experiences spurred questions, like, “In what ways can the environment affect our health, and what will the future look like with climate change and population pressures?”
Over the past century, Arctic land temperatures have risen by around five degrees Celsius, providing an unfortunate initial case study for the impacts of climate change and drawing much scientific attention — including my own. After graduating from Iowa State University in 2014, I traded my antimalarial pills for extra-thick gloves, a bulky coat and an awkward amount of wool socks, moving to Montreal to begin a master’s program with James Ford and the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group in the Department of Geography at McGill University to do work in climate change and health.
Throughout the past few decades, climate science has largely focused on modeling regional precipitation and temperature changes based on greenhouse gas emission projections. And, while continued work is needed to increase model accuracy and improve spatial detail, there is widespread agreement among models regarding temperature and precipitation changes by world region. We are, however, just beginning to understand how climate change will impact societies, or the human dimensions of climate change. These are the questions that my colleagues and I are exploring.
Waiting for my baggage to be offloaded from the plane, I spotted a friend I had met on a previous trip, and made my way over to catch up. Like many airports across the Arctic, the Arviat airport is composed of one large room for passengers, an office that serves as the control tower and a large garage for packages and shipments that come up in the airplane. All 25 communities in Nunavut — a territory the size of Mexico — are accessible only by air, and sea during the few summer months. I asked my friend if any polar bears had been around town recently, gauging the risk of walking a half mile from the airport to a trailer I would be staying in. Polar bears had been spotted the day before around the town dump; I decided to go with the backup plan of taking a cab. The trailer I stay in when in Arviat has three bedrooms connected by a common kitchen and living room. Crowded in summer at the peak of Arctic research season, the trailer was empty when I arrived. Encroaching darkness and cold aside, it was a good time of the year for hunting, and that is exactly why I was there.
Inuit food, health and identity is still largely tied to the land, similar to our economic and culturally dependence on the rich soil, predictable spring rains and summer swelters in Iowa.
Indigenous populations across the north, however, have experienced both dramatic social and physical environmental change over the past half century. Driven by force, access to health care and economy, Inuit have transitioned from living largely on the land to residing mostly in permanent hamlets. Bans on seal and whale trade have diminished earning potential from hunting. Residential schools continue to have lasting psychological and generational effects.
Dogsleds have been widely replaced by snowmobiles so hunters can access the game their fathers and grandfathers lived closer to. Mining and government jobs have brought in a new sources of income, and living has become costlier.
Over the past year, I have been researching how Inuit hunters and land users are currently vulnerable to injury on the land and how they may be impacted by future effects of climate change. The most obvious example of this is a hunter falling through thin ice on a snowmobile, however, as I have found during interviews and observation, the impacts of climate change on hunter safety is far more complex.
I woke up early the morning after I arrived in Arviat. Temperatures had been hovering around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chill for the past week. It was a stark contrast to my previous visit in June when temperatures were in the mid 40s and a red halo of dusk lasted for hours before ending around 1 am. During the spring, I had been on a seal hunt and fishing trips, observing how individuals read the weather, planned for outings and navigated thawing sea ice. I was back in the fall to learn how hazards changed in the now snow-covered landscape, observe caribou hunting, and to follow up with community members. After putting on three layers of clothes, I plunged my feet into a pair of boots, swallowed a cup of coffee, and walked over to David’s house.
A herd of caribou had been seen the day before near Arviat. David, like many men in town, often hunted caribou and seal, occasionally fishing for Arctic Char or tracking down a wolverine or narwhal. He owned a snowmobile and an ATV, a value of near $40,000 and a near necessity for hunting year-round. We hitched a qamutik (large toboggan) to David’s snowmobile, filled it with our gear and were off. At the edge of town, David hit the throttle and pointed us due north. It was not long before the cold penetrated my coats as I bounced in the sled across the tundra and was blasted by a 40 mph wind.
I was thankful that I had David with me in the foreign environment; he had a deep knowledge of the land and safety. Whenever I go out on the land, I do everything possible to make sure I do not become a number in my injury database. This past year, there were more than 240 search-and-rescue incidents across the territory. That is nearly one search per 1,000 people; the rate has doubled since 2006. No matter how short the trip, I take a satellite phone and enough gear to spend a cold night on the land if I am stranded. I am lucky though — most individuals cannot afford a $1,000 satellite phone and monthly plan. When money is tight, they might not be able to take as much gasoline with them. When a machine breaks, it is often cheaper and quicker to jerry-rig a fix yourself than to order the part to be flown up from the south.
We rode around for a few hours searching for signs of caribou, only finding a few antlers. The herd had moved. It was still a learning experience though. Feeling the cold, appreciating the importance that indigenous knowledge played in safety and food security, observing how the social and physical environment impact our health. I would have many more opportunities to go out on the land after all.
The impacts that climate change will have on individuals, communities and countries are not simple to predict. Societies and individuals are constantly adapting to the world around them.
As I have learned from interviews and observing hunters such as David, many Inuit land users are increasingly taking GPS devices and satellite distress beacons with them on the land. The community of Arviat has after-school programs that helps youth develop land knowledge. And, the community actively collaborates with researchers like myself to better understand what the future holds. However, within each community, region or country, there are more vulnerable populations that lack the capacity to adequately adapt due to policies, economic status or other means of marginalization. Within my research, it is often individuals who have less money in their household that are not able to afford adaptive behaviors and are most vulnerable. It is youth who do not have access to machines and mentors for hunting. It is communities that have weaker economies and struggle to organize volunteers to go out on searches.
While the cultural and physical environments of Iowa and the Arctic are vastly different, there are important lessons that we can garner about climate change impacts on health and society in the Arctic. It is important to understand how climate change will impact Iowans, and who will be most affected. It is likely that the most vulnerable are those already marginalized economically and socially. Populations that do not have the capacity to adapt. Think for example about who is most directly impacted by flooding in Ames and Des Moines where lower income housing is in low-lying areas.
The United Nations Paris conference that took place in November highlighted the need for adaptation and building resilience. Daunting to think of at a global scale, there are easier steps that can be taken at the community level. The hidden bonus is that building resilience to climate change often parallels improving income equality and health care access.
Dylan Clark is a Rotary Global Scholar and National Geographic Young explorer, currently working on his masters in Geography at McGill University. Dylan graduated from Ames High School in 2010, and has a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State in global resource systems and environmental Studies. He is a certified critical care paramedic in the state of Iowa and volunteered with Mary Greeley Medical Center and the Kelley Volunteer Fire Department while he lived in Ames. After completing his master’s degree this spring, he is planning to continue to research how climate change is impacting health and security. Dylan is the son of Jim Clark and Lisa Barnes and brother of Austin Clark.
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