Inuit Face Tensions with Outside World as their environment melts away
With Arctic summer sea ice rapidly disappearing, the native Inuit of Canada are encountering not only unsettling changes in their subsistence way of life, but also a growing number of outsiders who will further transform their once-isolated homeland.
Sakiasiq Qanaq has seen a lot of changes on the north coast of Baffin Island in recent years as the retreat of summer sea ice has continued unabated. But the Inuit hunter has never seen anything quite like this year, when sea ice loss in the Arctic hit a record low.
First, the community's spring narwhal hunt, which usually yields roughly 60 of the tusked whales, produced only three. The sea ice was so thin that the Inuit couldn't safely stand on it and shoot the narwhal as they migrated into Arctic Bay from Greenland through channels in the ice. Then an unprecedented number of killer whales, or orcas — rarely seen in heavy ice — showed up in the largely ice-free water, with Inuit hunters in nearby Pond Inlet observing three pods of orcas that reportedly killed some of the narwhals and scared off the others.
But the final, and most startling, change was the one Qanaq found in his fishing nets. In addition to the Arctic char that he routinely catches, he and other fishermen were pulling in Pacific salmon — a fish not normally seen in the Arctic east of Alaska, and one that is known to dominate and sometimes drive out char in circumstances when the two overlap. "I don’t know what to think," he told me. "I really don't. This is all very strange."
The rapid retreat of the sea ice that has defined the Arctic ecosystem for thousands of years is threatening the existence and movements of Some Inuit feel they are losing control of a homeland whose ice-covered expanses had long acted as a barrier to the outside world. creatures that have long been at the heart of Inuit subsistence culture — whales, seals, polar bears, and fish. And the transformation to a largely ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer — Arctic sea ice extent last month hit a stunning new low of 1.3 million square miles, a 50 percent decline from the 1979 to 2000 average — also has meant a new and at times threatening influx of human outsiders to the region.
Eskimo image via Shutterstock.
Read more at Yale Environment360.