Inuits are sure the world is getting warmer, no matter what scientists say

Posted: Wednesday, November 15, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- While governments and scientists still debate climate change, Inuit tribal members on Banks Island in the far northern Canadian Arctic are already convinced the world is getting warmer.

The evidence is in the land and ice that surrounds them, they say: The permafrost is thawing, there are fewer seals and polar bears to hunt because of thinning sea-ice, and warmer weather has brought more mosquitos that stay longer. In the fall, it's freezing up later and later every year.

''We can't read the weather like we used to,'' said Rosemarie Kuptana, an activist among the 130 Inuit people who live in Sachs Harbor, the only community on the island that covers 28,000 square miles in northwestern Canada.

It is a land where temperatures can occasionally plummet to 50 degrees below zero on winter nights, but Kuptana and her neighbors -- trappers, hunters and subsistence fishermen -- are convinced a warming trend is changing their lives.

The Inuits' experiences -- recorded in interviews by researchers during four visits to the island last year -- are the focus of a study being presented this week at a climate conference in the Netherlands.

There has been growing evidence of an Arctic thawing, from receding glaciers in Alaska to reports of an accelerated melting of Greenland's ice sheet. Computer models indicate that if the earth is warming, the amount of warming likely would be greatest in the higher latitudes such as the Arctic region.

But scientists have yet to determine whether the changes observed in the Arctic reflect the early stages of a permanent warming due to manmade, heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere or a natural, cyclical climate blip.

Still, the Inuit people who live along the southwestern coast of Banks Island are convinced their climate is changing.

''It provides strong support for the conclusion that climate change is not just a theory,'' insisted Graham Ashford, who headed the Inuit research project for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

The private group, based in Ottawa, Canada, espouses a broad range of sustainable development activities and research programs. It gets both private and government funding, although much of its Inuit project was funded by the Climate Change Action Fund, an environmental advocacy group.

Kuptana, 47, who grew up in Sachs Harbor and raised three children there, served as liaison between the researchers and the tribal elders and others in the community, and she is certain that global warming is already having an impact.

In interviews with researchers, she and some of the other Sachs Harbor residents described how their environment has changed.

Autumn freezes now occur a month later than the once did and spring thaws come later. The winters, although harshly cold are not as cold as they once were. One community member said there was a time when it was not unusual for temperatures to reach well below minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit; now such temperatures are rare.

Species of animals and birds that once never came to the island can now be seen regularly: birds such as robins and barn swallows, as well as salmon and herring. There are more beetles and sand flies and mosquitoes are staying longer in the summer months.

''The permafrost is melting at an alarming rate,'' said Kuptana in a telephone interview. She described foundations of homes cracking and shifting. She also said she is worried that the community itself may one day slide into the Beaufort Sea because of moving mud that once stayed frozen solid.

Inuit hunters complained to the researchers that a thinning of the sea ice has made it more difficult to harvest seals and hunt polar bears because both have now migrated farther away. Kuptana said the thinner ice and thawing land has made it more difficult -- and dangerous -- for hunters and trappers to move about.

''What's scary is the uncertainty,'' she said. ''We don't know when to travel on the ice and our food sources are getting farther and farther away.''

She is not swayed by the scientific uncertainties.

The Inuit people have lived in the region for centuries, she said, adding: ''The weather, the animals, the migration patterns, the changes that we've seen is knowledge. ... It's our scientific knowledge.''

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