The Hot Zone

Ask the locals

Posted by Alison Hawkes on April 8, 2010
Category : The man made climate

Know that old legend that Eskimos have umpteen words for snow? It appears that scientists are beginning to study native weather observations, and not just from an anthropological standpoint.

The Inuit have been saying for years — way before climate change models could sufficiently back them up — that the weather was getting weird in the Arctic. “Unpredictable,” was the way they put it. Somewhat vague but meaningful to a people whose life depended on reading the weather tea leaves to know when the next storm would hit, or where and when the ice would thin.

We all know of similar Farmer’s Almanac-type folk lore — like achy bones before a rain storm. We even have an informal national day of weather observance based on a groundhog’s shadow. But with advanced meteorological sensors and models, Americans have for the most part long lost their sensitivity to environmental cues. And with such technology on our side we have up until recently pretty much ignored anything anecdotal.

But researchers led by Elizabeth Weatherhead at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences have turned to the Inuit to help them fill in their knowledge gaps. Scientist Shari Gearheard lives among the Inuit of Baffin Island and for a decade has been documenting local knowledge of environmental change.

Photo, courtsey of

“Inuit and their ancestors have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years,” says Gearheard in an interview on “Inuit and scientists can help each other in the quest to understand how the Arctic is changing. They use different knowledge and different tools, but both contribute very important information.

For example, she says that scientists using satellite data often have the perspective of large scale snow and ice patterns, while the Inuit have a boots on the ground resolution of Arctic change. Already, the new perspective has improved the science. By looking at day-to-day temperatures, the researchers saw that their data matched Inuit reports from the field on less persistence in temperature in the May and June springtime.

An organization called the Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic has been set up to help facilitate studies and communication between international researchers and the Sanikiluaq community in southeastern Hudson Bay. They even publish their sea ice data online for everyone to use.

Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, Canada, photo courtesy of Chris McNeave

Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, Canada, photo courtesy of Chris McNeave

Combining indigenous environmental knowledge with modern climate science is a potentially powerful approach to studying climate change. It’s great to see that the very people who are often most affected by the dramatic changes underway could take part in crucial efforts to better our understanding and response.

–Alison Hawkes

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