Ask the Locals

Shari Gearheard (left) and her long time friend and researh partner IlKoo Angutikjuak, an elder from Clyde River. Credit:

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.

Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, Canada, photo courtesy of Chris McNeave

“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.

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.

Small is Beautiful

On the Tibetan Plateau, temperatures are rising and glaciers are melting faster than climate scientists would expect based on global warming alone. A recent study of ice cores from five Tibetan glaciers by NASA and Chinese scientists confirmed the likely culprit: rapid increases in black soot concentrations since the 1990s, mostly from air pollution sources over Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent. Credit: NASA

It’s easy to get caught up in the promise of geoengineering. No sacrifice required, no real change in the way we do business. It becomes easy to overlook reachable efforts when a technology fix is all that’s considered needed. But one reachable effort that has no discernibly negative effects deserves more attention: cooking stoves. They’re certainly not as sexy as giant reflectors orbiting the Earth, or pumping CO2 deep underground, but we pretty much know that stoves will work.

Much of the developing world — some 2 billion people — do their cooking on smoky fires that burn available biomass like dried dung, wood, brush, and crop residues. All the carbon goes immediately up in the atmosphere and also creates black carbon, the result of incomplete combustion. The dark particulate matter warms the atmosphere by absorbing sunlight and then settles back to Earth where it creates a darkening, warming effect on surfaces.

Recent research has summarized that black carbon is the No. 2 culprit to rising temperatures, responsible for nearly 20 percent of global warming. Black carbon has largely been controlled in the West, through regulations on emission sources like vehicles and coal-fired power plants. But, of course, the massive daily burning of fuels in the developing world has no restraint. In population centers around the Himalayan Mountains, black soot from hundreds of millions of burning fires is contributing directly to glacial melt, as the soot settles onto snow and ice and warms it.

A recent study by NASA and Chinese scientists explored why temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau are rising faster and glaciers melting faster than expected. They found that rapid increases in back soot concentrations since the 1990s from surrounding countries was the culprit. In this false-color image, black carbon appears as lighter, whitish areas around the Himalayan glaciers.

This image shows the location associated with the NASA Satellite image above. Credit: NASA

NASA climate scientist and study co-author Jim Hansen said: “Continued, ‘business-as-usual’ emissions of greenhouse gases and black soot will result in the loss of most Himalayan glaciers this century, with devastating effects on fresh water supplies in dry seasons.”

Reducing black carbon would have an immediate effect because unlike CO2, which stays in the atmosphere for 100 years, soot falls out within a matter of weeks. Lighten the Earth’s load on black carbon, and the benefits are immediate. Speaking of benefits, getting rid of these smoky stoves would improve the health of women and children, reducing premature deaths by about 17 percent annually, according to a November study published in The Lancet.

There’s no good reason to delay getting better stoves into the hands of the world’s poor. A lot of non-profits are already working on the matter, setting women up with $20 clean combustion stoves that improve burning efficiency. A United Nations pilot project launched in December to provide 150,000 efficient stoves to vulnerable women in Sudan and Uganda as a way to prevent the physical assault they face while collecting firewood, the idea being that less collecting is needed with more efficient stoves. The co-benefit, of course, is the climate.

But a larger scale, coordinated effort is probably required to have the kind of massive impact that’s needed. Implementing simple solutions to climate change, like cooking stoves — and not technological wizardry — seems way more sensible.