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Information about International Polar Year activities in Nunavut

IPY Update

Version Inuktitut

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Table of Contents


Study links climate change and polar bear diet

An IPY study in Nunavut shows that earlier sea-ice breakup is changing the feeding ecology of western Hudson Bay polar bears and increasing the concentrations of contaminants in bears. Researchers found that changes in the timing of the annual sea ice breakup have led polar bears to prey on different seal species. It’s the first study to directly link climate change and contamination of wildlife by persistent organic pollutants (POPs), both important global environmental issues.

Over two years, researchers gathered scientific and Inuit knowledge about changes in polar bear and their environment. Local communities were involved in several ways. Elizabeth Peacock, Nunavut government's polar-bear biologist and principal investigator for the study, said she often relied on local residents and their knowledge of polar bear behaviour. Researchers also worked with hunters to obtain fat, liver and muscle samples collected from 120 bears over a two-year period.

From previous research, scientists knew that bears feed on ice-associated seals (Ringed and Bearded) and open water-associated seals (Harbour and Harp). Their findings show that in years of earlier sea-ice breakup, bears consume more water-associated seals. This shift in diet is important because Harbour and Harp seals eat higher on the food chain and therefore accumulate more contaminants. Climate change is directly affecting the Arctic and its wildlife, and the new research directly links changes in sea ice with the accumulation of contaminants in polar bears.

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Monitoring caribou at home and around the Arctic

Canada’s remote Arctic geography presents many barriers to research — a key reason why International Polar Year has been critical to the success of many northern science projects. IPY helped researchers and communities in distant lands to work together on questions of shared scientific and cultural interest. Few projects show this connectedness better than the IPY caribou and reindeer global change project involving researchers and communities in eight circumpolar nations.

This international alliance of caribou and reindeer (Rangifer), managers and community members has been developing tools and approaches for monitoring the impacts of global change on about 20 circumarctic herds of wild caribou. “We’re trying to understand the factors that influence population cycles in caribou herds, most of which are currently in decline,” says Don Russell, the Yukon-based coordinator of CARMA, the CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network.  

Research aside, the act of working together has led to standard ways of doing things and better communication. “Different researchers have their own ways of measuring things, and countries do things differently. The goal is to get everyone monitoring animals in the same way,” says Russell. For example, CARMA developed manuals, kits and training videos for communities and researchers across the Arctic to help them record information about body condition, caribou health, herd size, birth and death rates, and environmental changes that affect caribou.

Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers have found that many things—habitat, harvest, predators, diseases, industrial development, weather, climate change, pollution—may be interacting to influence caribou abundance. At this point, they think nutrition (abundance and quality of caribou food) may be very important in regulating the size of large herds.

Many northern communities rely on reindeer and caribou economically, socially and culturally. So in addition to studying the well-being of caribou in a changing world, IPY research projects also focused on how communities can sustain harvesting under conditions of change. “Given how vital wild caribou and reindeer are for many northern people, it's important to figure out how to protect the caribou during their vulnerable periods,” adds Russell.

Researcher Ryan Brooke is involved in a hands-on project in Nunavut with scientists, First Nations people and photographers who are working together on a caribou atlas. “The Rangifer Anatomy Atlas will have a positive impact on caribou health, sustainability and how people use caribou because it’s creating an exchange of scientific and traditional knowledge, as well as reaching a common understanding of terminology and anatomy,” says Brooke. “In the past, differences in language and understanding made it difficult to share information about what parts of the caribou are valued or used, how those parts are used for food, medicine, clothing or research.”

To build the atlas, research teams joined community caribou hunts, did scientific dissections in the lab and interviewed elders and hunters. In addition to a caribou anatomy book, they are producing a book for grade 10 Nunavut students, creating a poster series and developing online resources like a virtual dissection.

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Killer whales on the move in the Arctic

Life for arctic marine mammals is changing faster than anyone predicted, according to a Canadian-led IPY project called Global Warming and Arctic Marine Mammals.

The project’s scientific team, led by Dr. Steve Ferguson of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Freshwater Institute, has combined forces with Inuit elders and hunters in the Hudson Bay area with the goal of understanding how seals, whales, and polar bears will—or won’t—adapt to the effects of climate change. Among the project’s legacies is an ongoing community-based monitoring program.

One of the first surprising bits of information northerners reported to the scientists was the increase in killer whale numbers. Killer whales don’t cope well with ice. It can injure their large dorsal fins, and they don’t generally have the experience to avoid getting trapped without breathing holes.

However, ice is becoming less and less of a problem in the Arctic. Only a few years ago, scientists were predicting that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer within a century. But change is happening fast, and Ferguson says that now some predictions are for an ice-free summer in as little as five years.

That is an open invitation to killer whales, but it makes life hard for ice-based predators such as polar bears and Inuit hunters. The Hudson Bay marine ecosystem might be shifting, Ferguson says, from a polar bear-seal system with Inuit hunters at the top to a system dominated by whales, with killer whales at the top—a shift with serious consequences for the traditional Inuit diet and culture.

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Training, Communications and Outreach

Students explore Baffin Island by ship

In August 2010, 77 students and 45 scientists, teachers, artists and mentors joined Students on Ice, an Arctic expedition aboard the Polar Ambassador through northern Nunavik and southern Baffin. One-third of the students were aboriginal youth, some of whom came from communities that hosted the ship on its two week tour.

The jam-packed research and education program involved community visits, shore landings, workshops, research, and more. The opportunity for hands-on learning and new friendships made a lifelong impression on students. Highlights included Nunavik Research Centre in Kuujjuaq, Cape Dorset, Pangnirtung, Auyuittuq National Park, and sightings of seabirds, walrus, polar bears and bowhead whales.

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People and Communities

Mapping Inuit use of sea ice

Sea ice is an important feature of the Arctic environment. For most of the year northern communities occupy the ice for travel, hunting and recreation. Yet most maps usually show land features, and water bodies are left blank without showing the state and shape of the sea ice, which is so important to Inuit people. Also, in recent years Inuit and scientists have detected changes in arctic sea ice that are connected to changes in the climate. Working closely with several Inuit communities and building on previous sea ice research in Nunavut and Nunavik, IPY researchers have been documenting and mapping the way Inuit people use sea ice and what they know about the ice.

“We mapped the topography (a detailed description of a place or region) of the ice that Inuit hunters know, for instance ice ridges, ice leads, open water, areas that are risky, safety concerns,” says Carleton University researcher Claudio Aporta, the project’s lead investigator. “We went to the ice with knowledgeable hunters and we asked questions. We took GPS units with us and mapped important significant features.”

“We also had mapping sessions – we brought people and put maps on the table and we asked them to tell us what they knew about the ice,” he adds. “We had Inuit researchers in each community who helped collect the data.” Participating Nunavut communities were Cape Dorset, Clyde River, Igloolik and Pangnirtung.

Researchers collected different kinds of information about sea ice like seasonal conditions, the extent of use, sea ice hazards, hunting areas, routes, place names and changes in use due to social or climate change. They also developed new technologies to map and monitor the dynamic sea ice environment. For example, mapping engineers from the University of Calgary collaborated with Inuit hunters in Clyde River to develop a new snow-machine-mounted GPS systems.

“We're very concerned about leaving the data and making our research available and useful to a community,” says Aporta. “Geographic data, recordings with elders, video tapes, photographs, audio clips and written material went into this atlas. It has the potential to be an important educational tool.” Each community was involved in deciding about what information they wanted to make public or not, such as sensitive information about animal locations.

“The Inuit have astounding knowledge about sea ice. Hunters could tell you where a particular block of ice or a particular field of icebergs came from, even if it came from a strait hundreds of kilometres away,” he says. “They have such a deep understanding of the landscape and the environment, and this is one of the things we tried to emphasize in our research project.”

An online interactive atlas of sea ice was a main product of the Inuit Sea Ice Use and Occupancy project  .

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A yarn from long ago

More than a decade ago, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland of the Canadian Museum of Civilization spotted an oddity among some artifacts from a thousand-year-old Dorset settlement on northern Baffin Island: a couple of lengths of Norse yarn. The yarn, spun from the fur of arctic hare, was the first clue that the peoples of arctic North America had a much longer history of contact with the rest of the world than had been believed.

“The Arctic has traditionally been thought of as a very marginal and isolated region, a part of the world that was only penetrated by southerners in recent centuries,” Sutherland says. Archaeologists and historians assumed that arctic aboriginal societies developed in isolation, and that environmental change was the major factor producing changes in the Inuit way of life.

However, Sutherland was finding more and more evidence of active contact and trade between the Dorset and Inuit peoples and the Norse settlers in Greenland over as much as several centuries. The International Polar Year gave Sutherland an opportunity to expand that picture, through a multidisciplinary project called Inuit History: Climate Change and Historical Connections in Arctic Canada, AD 1000–1900.

During the IPY, Sutherland and her archaeology crew sifted through ancient arctic settlements to reconstruct human history from approximately 1000 to 1500. At the same time, collaborators Marianne Douglas of the University of Alberta and John Smol of Queen’s University sampled sediment in ponds near the settlements, looking for clues to past environments and climates, and historians scoured both Euro-Canadian historical records and Inuit oral history to put together the story of interaction between Inuit and European cultures from 1500 to 1900.  

Among the artifacts Sutherland has identified are more lengths of yarn spun in the Norse style, pieces of distinctive bar-shaped whet stones used for sharpening metal tools, and fragments of tally sticks like those used by the Norse to record trade transactions. The bits and pieces of the past don’t look like trade goods, she says. They look more like the refuse from a settlement.

“Did the medieval Norse establish shore stations in Arctic Canada, perhaps in order to engage in exchange with the Dorset people? Walrus ivory, narwhal tusks, walrus hide, and bear skins were extremely valuable items in the Norse Greenlanders’ commerce with Europe during the mediaeval period.”

That question hasn’t been fully answered yet, but it seems less and less likely that the Inuit’s ancestors were a simple hunting culture influenced mainly by environmental change.

“Instead, they now seem more likely to have been an entrepreneurial society of people who were capable of long-distance travel, undertaken in order to participate in the global economy of the day, and who may have been partners in this economy ever since,” Sutherland says.

Understanding the true nature of past Inuit culture is important, Sutherland says: “This project is based on the idea that an understanding of present-day arctic societies requires a recognition that their pasts were richer, more complex and interconnected than previously assumed.”

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Some fats are better than others

Eating foods that will keep you healthy isn’t always easy—especially in the North, where choices are limited and, often, expensive. One IPY project set out to learn more about some of the foods available to Inuit in Canada’s Eastern Arctic and about how people choose their foods.

The foods in question are fats, from both traditional and modern sources. And the IPY project is called Urqsuk: The Changing Nature of Arctic Fats and the Inuit Diet. While much of the project’s work was devoted to identifying what fats are available and their impacts on human health, researchers—and the people of two northern communities—also took a close look at what influences food choice.

Fats are important for a couple of reasons. One is health-related: the kinds of fat found in fish and marine mammals help to protect the body from heart- and blood-related problems. The other reason is linked with the environment: many Inuit report seeing changes in the fat of important country food animals, along with changes in the environment.

The first community to undertake a study of local food choices was Nain, Nunatsiavut. After the study techniques were worked out in Nain, the study was also carried out in Clyde River, Nunavut.

The first step in both communities was to conduct focus groups to get a preliminary overview of attitudes and concerns. Then teams of local surveyors were trained. The surveyors asked a set of questions about people’s attitudes to fat and country foods, and about what they were observing on the land. The Clyde River results are still being analyzed, but the Nain results are in.

In Nain, the researchers found that 20 percent of people surveyed were concerned about levels of fat in their diets, mainly because of potential links to weight gain, diabetes, or heart disease. Another 45 percent were not at all concerned about dietary fat.

On the subject of wild foods, 83 percent agreed that wild food fats are healthier than store food fats. However, most of those surveyed said that young people eat more store food fats, and 42 percent said they, themselves, eat less wild food fats than in the past. Most people like eating wild foods, but getting them is difficult, partly because of the high cost of hunting and lack of transportation for hunting. Obtaining store food fats is much easier.

People were also asked about their observations of fat in animals hunted for food. Many reported changes in the texture, thickness, and amount of fat, particularly in caribou. Such observations might be an effective way for communities to monitor local environmental change.

Urqsuk’s scientific studies of the fats in wild foods confirm their health benefits. However, scientific studies don’t necessarily translate into better nutrition. Communicating the information to people so they can make healthy choices is a major part of the IPY project.

The project participants are working on ways to deliver the results of the study to community members, health decision makers, and healthcare providers. Reports and community meetings are part of the plan. So is a film documentary called Urqsuk, The Changing Nature of Arctic Fats and the Inuit Diet—coming soon!

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Clyde River plans for adapting to a changing environment

International Polar Year brought researchers together from around the world to work on questions of shared scientific interest. One of these IPY groups consisted of partners from eight Arctic nations who were interested in exploring how Arctic communities are affected by changing environmental and social conditions. Community Adaptation and Vulnerability in Arctic Regions (CAVIAR) was an international project that developed comparable case studies across the Arctic. Their goal was to better understand community vulnerabilities and changes in order to help them develop response plans and strategies.

Clyde River was among the case studies. Trevor Bell, a researcher from Memorial University, worked with the community to identify stresses and vulnerabilities to changes in its environment, assess its experience dealing with change, and develop coping strategies. Through workshops, interviews, analysis and other research, they developed a strategy for Clyde River.

A range of landscape hazards constrain community planning and undermine infrastructure, such as buildings and roads in Clyde River. These include coastal flooding and erosion, permafrost degradation, drainage network disruptions and slope instability. Researchers worked with the community to assess the landscape constraints on their infrastructure and include them in a community adaptation plan.

In general CAVIAR researchers found that vulnerabilities vary between communities around the circumpolar North. At the same time, many Arctic communities share histories of strongly fluctuating social, economic and environmental changes. Responses to change occurred at different levels. For example, individuals usually responded to local concerns related to food and livelihoods. Communities often identified research needs and local and higher-level governments usually took action on infrastructure risks.

Did you know?

The next big IPY event, an international conference called From Knowledge to Action  , will take place in Montréal April 22-27, 2012. It will bring together polar researchers, policy makers, analysts, community members, industry representatives, non-governmental organizations and other interested groups to discuss the next steps.

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Major study assesses Inuit health

Nunavummiut are interested in health information that can help them make decisions and respond to changes affecting their communities. During IPY, McGill University researcher Grace Egeland led a health research project in Nunavut, with support from other organizations including Government of Nunavut and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. The goal of the Inuit Health Survey was to gain an overview of the health status and living conditions of Inuit living in Nunavut.

In 2007 and 2008 the research team surveyed 1,374 households and 1,923 individuals 18 years of age or older in 25 Nunavut communities. They looked at general indicators of health, diet, risk for heart disease and diabetes, and mental health. A similar survey was done in Nunavik in 2004, and the IPY study was also conducted in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and Nunatsiavut, so we now have a current picture of Inuit health across the Canadian Arctic.

Households were randomly selected and all Inuit 18 years of age and older could participate.  Participants had a clinical appointment aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen when it visited their community. Questionnaires asked about household crowding, food security, nutrition, country food, eating habits, mental health, community wellness and medical history. Clinical tests aboard the ship included a range of tests to check blood pressure, pulse, blood glucose and diabetes risk, body measurements, nutrient status and contaminants exposure. Researchers also did a Child Inuit Health Survey in Nunavut to look at children aged 3 to 5. The study focused on nutritional health, healthy growth and bones, vision and medical history.

Some results from the Nunavut Inuit Health Survey of adults:

  • 75% of participants lived in public housing. Many homes were in need of major repairs. Families with children experienced household crowding.
  • The average household had 4.6 people. In other Canadian households the number is 2.5.
  • Inuktitut was the main language spoken in Nunavut homes, followed by English.
  • 90% of households had smokers, with an average of two smokers per home.
  • Food insecurity was a problem. Unemployment, low income and high food costs were the main reasons for food insecurity.
  • Participants preferred to eat country food but the high cost of obtaining it made it difficult.
  • More than 75% of households shared their country food with others in their community.
  • Over 70% of participants reported their health to be good, very good or excellent.
  • Diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and high cholesterol were common health problems.
  • In the week prior to the survey, 84% of participants walked on 5 days for at least 20 minutes.
  • Most participants were classified as overweight or obese.
  • Most women had an “at‐risk” waist circumference.
  • Older participants (over 40) ate more country food than younger participants (under 40).
  • Almost 80% of adults drank pop in the month before the survey and they reported drinking 2 to 3 cans of soft drink per day.
  • The majority of Inuit need more vitamin D.
  • Parasitic diseases are not common in Nunavut.

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Land and Freshwater Ecosystems

Baffin communities engage in permafrost monitoring

Baffin region communities are playing a key role in tracking changes to permafrost in the Arctic. And changes are happening. During the International Polar Year, scientists involved in an international project called The Thermal State of Permafrost took the temperature of frozen ground all around the world. Their findings?

“The patient has a bit of a fever,” says Antoni Lewkowicz, a permafrost researcher from the University of Ottawa. “It’s getting warmer.”

One of the best long permafrost records in Canada comes from Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert on northern Ellesmere Island, says Canadian project co-leader Sharon Smith of the Geological Survey of Canada. “The record for CFS Alert is over 30 years long and indicates that the cold permafrost (-12 to -15°C) has warmed, especially since the 1990s, at rates of about 0.1°C per year.”

Now, with the collaboration of the Nunavut Government and communities in the Baffin, Alert is part of a network that includes six new community-based permafrost monitoring sites. As part of the IPY project, Baffin communities participated in choosing and setting up the new monitoring sites. They’ll also continue to be involved in operating them. The addition of the new sites, tied in with the existing site at Alert, has created a north-south line of monitoring stations in the eastern Arctic that stretches from northern Quebec to northern Ellesmere Island.

Information generated from these sites will be used for engineering design and in development of climate change adaptation plans, as well as to track the state of permafrost around the globe, Smith says.

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Communities are key players in research project

One of the most commonly predicted consequences of climate change is the northward movement of treeline. But will it happen? Is it happening already? The IPY project, PPS Arctic Canada, set out to tackle those questions. PPS stands for Present processes, Past changes, Spatio-temporal variability in the Arctic delimitation zone and means, basically, things that influence the shift from forest to tundra.

In Nunavut, PPS Arctic Canada got help from a community-based project called Photos and Plants Through Time (PPTT), which looked at the impacts of a changing treeline on the health and well‐being of northerners. PPTT involved plenty of hands-on research, plus both western science and local knowledge.

From 2007 to 2010, residents of Sanikiluaq and Kinngait (Cape Dorset), along with southern researchers, collected and interpreted local landscape photographs and plants. Data was documented and stored, and the information was shared with community members using various formats, such as information packages distributed to schools, community workshops, and a multi‐day on‐the‐land camp.

In Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), IPY outreach involved sharing and distributing PPTT information, resources, and equipment so that residents could engage in a similar process of collecting and identifying local plant specimens and landscape photographs.

In Nunavut, and elsewhere in the Canadian North, what is happening to the treeline is complicated and not entirely dependent on climate, says project leader Karen Harper of Dalhousie University. In some places, the boundary area where forest gives way to tundra is moving. Elsewhere, there’s no sign of change, despite increasing temperatures.

“Our key finding continues to be the large amount of variability.”

Did you know?

The most northerly permafrost monitoring sites in the world are five boreholes that have been in operation for 30 years at Canadian Forces Station Alert in Nunavut.

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Logistics and Licensing

Search and rescue upgraded for IPY

Thanks to International Polar Year support funding from the federal government, Nunavut has received a major upgrade to its search and rescue capacity: 12 new all-terrain vehicles for use in difficult snow and ice conditions.

The Argo Avengers can navigate over snow and muskeg, and they float well enough to cross small lakes and streams. They’re particularly useful in spring, when both boats and snowmobiles are impractical. That’s when about 40 percent of search and rescue operations take place, says Ed Zebedee, manager of Nunavut’s Protection Services branch.

The vehicles are stationed at Arviat, Cambridge Bay, Iglulik, Pond Inlet, Taloyoak, Rankin Inlet, Sanikiluaq, Pangnirtung, Kugluktuk, Iqaluit, Repulse Bay and Baker Lake.

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Supporting safe travel for IPY researchers

When it became clear that International Polar Year was going to bring large numbers of researchers to the Arctic, organizations like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Coast Guard Auxiliary started to get ready. Since 2007 hundreds of scientists involved in dozens of IPY projects have been working across Nunavut. Most come and go without incident, but they are supported by a network of community-based emergency response teams.

“Thanks to IPY funding, we were able to equip each Coast Guard Auxiliary unit in the Arctic with core search and rescue gear including a laptop, floater suits, satellite phones and GPS units,” says Jack Kruger, search and rescue coordinator for the RCMP. In addition, the RCMP delivered communications training in communities. The Coast Guard Auxiliary maintains 5 boats at units in Pangnirtung, Cambridge Bay and Rankin Inlet.

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