“We call it ‘nuna,’” says Mia Otokiak, gesturing to the ground covered in inch-high willow and moss. Nuna means “land” in Inuinnaqtun, and yet it means so much more in Inuit communities across Canada’s North. The nuna is where Inuit like Mia hunt, travel, and reconnect with their roots. In summer, when the nuna becomes soft and fragrant, Mia likes sitting in it and breathing it in. “That smell for me is peaceful,” she says. “It’s what makes me think back to my ancestors.”
Today, nuna is changing. Global warming is driving up temperatures, but nowhere is this happening faster than in the Arctic. At the top of the world, temperatures are increasing at double the global average. What does this mean for Inuit, who have wedded their culture to the cold over thousands of years?
Mia is 21 years old, but she’s witnessed worrying changes herself in the community of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. This past August, temperatures soared to 20° Celsius and people walked the gravel streets in T-shirts and shorts at a time when the first snow is usually dusting the ground.
When Mia drove to a nearby cove, she noticed the land ripping apart. “There were so many cracks,” she says, “because permafrost is melting. They’re getting so bad that we have to completely go around them.”
The details change from place to place, but a pattern is emerging across the Arctic Archipelago. Winters are shorter. Summers are longer. The softening land is sucking homes into the earth. Southern species, like grizzly bears, are making the occasional appearance when they never used to. “I think there’s going to be salmon here now and there’s never been any salmon here, ever,” says Candice Pedersen, also in Cambridge Bay. “Last year, there was three caught in nets.”
As a hunter, Candice pays close attention to wildlife. She wonders why caribou numbers are down and snow geese numbers are up. She worries about animals like the muskox that wear heavy coats intended for cold climates. “If the ice and snow come later and go away sooner, then that’s going to affect everything,” she adds.
Sea ice is the foundation for all life in the Arctic, from ice algae to polar bears, and Inuit are no exception. When the sea freezes solid each fall, people head out to hunt or fish through holes they cut in the ice. The sea ice is also the most visible sign of change. For the third recording-breaking winter in a row, Arctic sea ice shrunk to its smallest extent yet. It’s also thinner and more unpredictable than ever.
In Pond Inlet, over 1,000 kilometres north of Cambridge Bay, 32-year-old Andrew Arreak remembers how people travelled over ice until late July when he was a teenager. “And today, 2017, the ice started breaking up the first week of July,” he says.
The ice cycle is an integral part of Inuit traditional knowledge, passed down through the generations. In Gjoa Haven, 82-year-old Saul Qirngnirq says he’s losing his ability to navigate the changing environment, and his identity with it. “The ice doesn’t open in May, but it’s always open now,” he says, “and I don’t know why. That’s why I don’t know anything about myself anymore, or where I’m going. The ice has never been like that.”
All the changes are forcing Inuit to adapt, revising traditions in big and small ways to survive. But there are some changes they can’t make on their own. Canada’s Arctic is one of the most sparsely populated territories on the planet. Some 38,000 people are scattered across the nearly two-million-square kilometres of Nunavut, compared to 6.5 million people in Toronto, Canada’s largest city.
“We can make changes to our daily life, and try to bring down emissions,” says Candice, back in Cambridge Bay “but it’s so few people in Nunavut, compared to Toronto or Ottawa.”
This irony is something Inuit share with millions, from the floodplains of Bangladesh to the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean: those who have contributed the least to climate change are paying the steepest price.