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Saturday, April 20, 2024

In a Tiny Arctic Town, Food Is Getting Harder to Come By

This story is adapted from 1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought, and Displacement From Around the World, by Devi Lockwood.


Igloolik, Nunavut, 1,400 miles south of the North Pole, is an umbrella town. The only way to get in or out is by passenger plane, dog sled, snowmobile, or—for a few weeks in summer when the sea ice melts—boat. Around 1,700 people live there. The few stop signs in town have words in both English and Inuktitut. People say yes by raising their eyebrows, and no by scrunching their noses.

When I visited in July 2018, with support from a National Geographic Early Career Grant, the sun was eternal: more than 21 hours of it. If I had arrived in June, near the solstice, the sun would never set at all—just circumambulate around us, a bright yellow juggling ball, always above the horizon. In July, there were a few hours of sunset and sunrise all at once. It never got fully dark. I learned to turn off my eyes to fall asleep.

Life in the north is expensive. Fruits and vegetables are flown in; a 2-pound bag of grapes can cost more than 20 Canadian dollars. Earlier that summer, there had been a spate of polar bear attacks in communities nearby. People were on edge.

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There were also beautiful things. I arrived to the sound of ice melting on the beach, when a few flowers were blooming. There were insects on the hillside by the cemetery. Mosquitoes: one. Spiders: two. Sheryl, my host for the first two weeks, went to collect her water as ice or frozen snow in 5-gallon orange paint buckets. She scooped the ice with a saucepan and boiled it back home for consumption.

I visited the Igloolik community radio station, Nipivut Nunatinnii “Our Voice at Home,” and had them run an announcement that I was in town and looking for stories about water and climate change. Then, I listened.

The month I spent in Nunavut was part of a five-year journey that took me to 20 countries on 6 continents. I wore a cardboard sign around my neck that said “Tell me a story about water” on one side and “Tell me a story about climate change” on the other. My goal was to put stories of climate change in dialog with each other, giving names and voices to those impacted. I wanted to humanize an issue often discussed in terms of numbers: millimeters of sea level rise or degrees of temperature change. In Igloolik, many of the stories I heard were related to hunting and food security.

Disappearing Walrus

Marie Airut, a 71-year-old elder, lives by the water. We spoke in her living room over cups of black tea. “My husband died recently,” she told me. But when he was alive, they went hunting together in every season; it was their main source of food.

“I’m not going to tell you what I don’t know. I’m going to tell you only the things that I have seen,” she said. In the 1970s and ’80s, the seal holes would open in late June, an ideal time for hunting baby seals. “But now if I try to go out hunting at the end of June, the holes are very big and the ice is really thin,” Marie told me. “The ice is melting too fast. It doesn’t melt from the top, it melts from the bottom.”

A few years ago, she went seal hunting by boat, and brought the animal onto the land to eat fresh seal meat with her family. The skin looked “really old, and it was very easy to break,” she said. She blames this on increasingly warming water temperatures. Caribou hunting has also changed. In the 1970s and ’80s, she went caribou hunting on Baffin Island in August. Back then, it was “very, very hot, with lots and lots of mosquitoes. Now it doesn’t have any mosquitoes. The water looks colder at the top, but it’s melting from the bottom. The sea is getting warmer,” she repeated.

When the water is warmer, the animals change their movement. Igloolik has always been known for its walrus hunting. But in recent years, hunters have had trouble reaching them. “I don’t think I can reach them anymore, unless you have 70 gallons of gas. They are that far now, because the ice is melting so fast,” Marie said. “It used to take us half a day to find walrus in the summer, but now if I go out with my boys, it would probably take us two days to get some walrus meat for the winter.” Marie and her family used to make fermented walrus every year, “but this year I told my sons we’re not going walrus hunting. They are too far,” she said.

“I read my Bible every day, and I know things will change. And I believe both of them are happening now, what is written and what I see with my own eyes.”

Warming Water

Theo Ikummaq has worked as a wildlife officer in Igloolik since 1982. When Theo was a child, his family was nomadic. In the wintertime they lived in a sod house. In the spring and summer, they followed the animals: caribou, narwhal, walrus. He grew up learning how to hunt and navigate. “I was brought up to care about the environment,” he told me.

When it comes to climate change, he said, “The big thing that nobody is really aware of is the temperature change of the water. That’s what is creating climate change. Not the sky. Not the land. Water,” he said. Theo pointed out to the bay and told me that the ocean floor, 15 to 20 years ago, was averaging −2 degrees or −2.5 degrees Celsius. (Salt water doesn’t freeze until roughly −2.) “Today, any time during the year, it’s above zero,” he said. “Everything at the ocean floor is thawing.”

While people in town might not notice these changes, the hunters do. New birds come to Nunavut annually, and the diversity of sea creatures is shifting, too. “Seals are scarce,” Theo said, which tells us that “the food source of the seal is somewhat diminished.” Humans, polar bears, foxes, and wolves all rely on the ringed seal for food.

“Whatever happens in the sea affects the land. Whatever happens on the land affects the sea,” Theo said. “If you look after the whole system, the whole system looks after you. That was the theory the Inuit had at one point. We’re somewhat removed from that because we had to become like the rest of the world, to a certain degree. Other cultures coming in affected our culture. The culture coming in was stronger. We had to follow it. It was forced upon us, more times than not.”

Theo described climate change by saying, “The world shifted.” He started to notice this shift in the early 2000s. One example is the wind. When he was a child, the northwest wind was predominant, and it created a pattern of distinctive ridges that people could follow in navigation. Hunters would leave camp and follow patterns created by the wind in the snow. Later, when the wind had erased their tracks, they could return to camp by following the pattern of the ridges in reverse.

But now, the winds are less predictable. Starting about 15 years ago, “when our elders were navigating by snowdrifts only, they were getting dislocated. They ended up at the wrong place. They weren’t lost. They just ended up at the wrong place and then corrected their bearing,” he said. “The youngsters, with their GPS, were getting to the place where they had to go.”

Sightings of killer whales have increased throughout the territory in recent years. “Because the ringed seals have never seen a killer whale before, they don’t look at it as a predator, the ultimate predator,” he said. “They’re not even afraid of it.” As a result, killer whales go from bay to bay, wiping out everything. “It’s one killing machine that’s coming into our neighborhood,” he added. “It’s not just the humans; the animals aren’t aware of what’s happening out there.”

Encroaching Polar Bears

Francis Piugattuk has worked for 20 years as a wildlife technician at the Igloolik Research Center, a government-owned building on top of a hill that resembles a giant white mushroom. It was built in the early 1970s as a place to bring together Inuit knowledge and Western science. As a wildlife technician, Francis processes samples of polar bear bones and tissues and produces research permits. In the lab, he analyzes fat samples, ear tags, and tattoos to help track polar bear hunting throughout the territory. Polar bear teeth, Francis told me, “have growth rings like trees,” Suctioning out a tooth and counting the lines helps age the bears.

When Francis was a child, polar bear sightings were infrequent. “Even seeing tracks was an anomaly, a cause for excitement. And if people wanted to harvest polar bears, they would have to go long, long distances,” he said. Up until 20 years ago, the only animals attracted to walrus meat caches were arctic foxes. Now, the community is setting up electric fences and trying to extract the fermenting meat before the polar bears can get to it. While the population of polar bears hasn’t technically increased, they are moving closer to human settlements as ice patterns change. About 16,000 of the 20,000 to 25,000 bears in the world’s polar regions live in Canada.

Francis acknowledges that Western science and traditional Inuit knowledge are two systems that “seem to be at odds continuously.” When he was young, his parents waited until the last day of school in June to bring him from Igloolik onto the land for the summer. Then they followed the hunt until school started again in September. His elders would pass on lessons about which water was safe to drink—free-flowing was better than still. “Even though they did not learn what they knew in school, like we did, they learned. They had years of existence to learn,” Francis said.

Elders, Francis told me, were able to live sustainably off the land by selling fox or seal pelts in exchange for rifles, boats, and other materials. Today, it’s only those in the wage economy who can afford to buy an outboard motor or ammunition. “The cost of living is so great now that it’s not even viable to try to exist as a hunter,” he explained. “Those of us that do not hunt live on pasta and macaroni, rice, soup: food that is not as nutritious. Those that are still able to afford it are now going out and acquiring country food.” Country food, I had learned, includes traditional food such as bannock, arctic char, eggs, and muktaaq; it is often shared as a gift between families and in the community.

Climate change, Francis told me, is already here. “The ice used to stay longer,” he said.

Less Country Food, More Groceries

Terry Uyarak, a hunter in his early thirties, has deep tan lines around his eyes in the shape of his sunglasses—the sign of a summer spent out on the land. He invited me into his kitchen, where we ate muktaaq, frozen pieces of whale skin and blubber, and tuktu, caribou meat. Terry’s wife, Tanya, cut the meat with an ulu, a knife with a semicircular blade and a handle that is the sole province of women. I liked the rhythm of its rocking, the rounded edges.

Every season brings something new: beluga, narwhal, caribou, arctic char, walrus. Terry works for the government of Nunavut, coordinating programs that teach hunting to youth and document elders’ hunting methods. He is a leader in his community. “Usually in early summer, there’s no wind,” he said, noting that hunting is easier when the water is calm and there is less ice. The high winds that day had prevented him from going out fishing. He also noted that when he was younger, the ocean would freeze in late September. Now, come Halloween, he can still go boating. In the past he would be driving a snowmobile in late October.

“It’s changing quite rapidly. And I’m not old at all. I’m 31, and I can tell very much how it changed,” he said. Terry told me that polar bears are also coming closer than they used to, a threat to stored food. “Now we have to be armed all the time on our camping trips,” he said. He tries to be careful, even in the winter, to observe the ice and make sure that it is not too thin.

When hunting is less reliable, his family has to buy more groceries from the stores. “It’s very expensive, very, very, very expensive for us here.” Later, I rode on the back of Terry’s Honda ATV to the place outside town where he keeps his dog team. We tossed them pieces of raw fish: arctic char, the leftovers from his most recent catch. Terry’s face looked more complete with his sunglasses on. As we watched the dogs eat, I thought about the delicious caribou meat we had shared, still fresh on my tongue. Terry had warned me that I would crave the meat later, and he was right. The animal ran through me. All I wanted was more.

Country food is very nutritious, and also expensive to harvest. Consider 10,000 Canadian dollars for an outboard engine, then add a boat, snowmobile, bullets, gun, the cost of gasoline shipped in from the south, an ATV.

Many people can no longer afford their traditional lifestyle. Sharing the bounty is the norm and a necessity. Once the meat is distributed, it is time to harvest more.

A Shorter Seal Hunt

I spoke with Leah Angutiqjuaq, age 42, in her relative’s home in Igloolik. We had just boiled water for tea. The most pronounced climate impact, for Leah, is in the timing of the seal hunt. “The weather is changing,” she told me. “We used to go out seal hunting for one to two months. It’s only three weeks now.” When she was younger, her family camped and spent time on the land. “Now it’s different, because we need money and we hardly have any dogs. We have some, but only as pets now.”

“Our older people have passed away,” Leah added. “We can only buy food now. We used to share. If we went out camping, the family would come. Now it’s different.” Without a dog team, hunting is prohibitively expensive. “They try and let young ones go out camping, but they need money,” Leah said. “Many years ago, they used to help each other without money.” In a town where many people make minimum wage, a subsistence lifestyle is often out of reach. “Too much money now, maybe,” she said.

Before I left town, Leah sold me a white ring carved from a walrus tusk. The carving was in the shape of an owl, its wings spread wide around my finger. After I paid her, Leah went straight to the grocery store, cash in hand, to buy food.

A Fraying Food Web

When we met in Igloolik in 2018, Marie-Andrée Giroux was an assistant professor of environmental sciences at Université de Moncton in New Brunswick. She first visited the island in 2011 and lived in Igloolik for two years continuously. Since then, she has returned to the Arctic for a few months each summer to conduct research. Climate change is more pronounced in the poles than it is in lower latitudes. For Marie-Andrée, melting sea ice is the most pressing concern in the circumpolar region related to climate change. In the north, sea ice isn’t just a natural element—it’s also an infrastructure used for traveling to hunting grounds. “When the sea ice melts earlier or the conditions are not as stable as usual, it’s like the roads being unstable and unpredictable. So it has a big influence on traditions,” she said.

Wildlife has the same problem. Many species, like arctic foxes, cross between islands and the mainland using sea ice. In the winter, an arctic fox can travel for thousands of kilometers across the region, often following polar bears who prey on seals. After a polar bear leaves the seal carcass behind, a fox will scavenge and eat what remains. If sea ice conditions are unpredictable or melt earlier than usual, a fox’s access to food, water, and ability to reproduce is limited.

It’s easy to think that sea ice would impact only the ocean, but there are many energy exchanges between the terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Seabirds, for example, nest on an island, forage in the water, and then come back on the land, where their guano fertilizes plants. The tundra, as a low-productivity area, relies on energy inputs from the marine environment. This means that when sea ice dynamics change, not only marine food resources but also terrestrial resources change. And because people depend on terrestrial resources, whether by picking eggs or eating caribou, what happens to the sea ice impacts the human population, too. Everything is interconnected.

Still, the specifics of climate impacts on this system are difficult to predict without further study. “Right now it’s pretty hard to predict based on all those intricate relationships which are just being described right now,” she said.

One key species that is being affected by climate change in the tundra is the lemming. Lemmings are small rodents that spend the winter under the snowpack, where it’s warm enough for them to survive and reproduce. The snowpack, in addition to insulating their food, also protects them from predators.

Climate change wreaks havoc on this delicate balance. When the melting and freezing cycles change, the snowpack that lemmings rely on becomes less predictable. In a rain-on-snow event, the water percolates through the snow and freezes the vegetation underneath, rendering the lemmings’ food supply inaccessible. Many predators in the Arctic eat or select their breeding ground based on lemming abundance, and those same predators also eat birds and bird eggs. On Igloolik, when there are more lemmings, Marie-Andrée has observed that arctic foxes and avian predators (such as long-tailed jaegers, parasitic jaegers, gulls, ravens, snowy owls, and other raptor species) are more abundant. When climate change impacts the lemming, it indirectly impacts other species in ways that are not yet fully understood.

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Marie-Andrée is most energized by climate solutions that take into account the needs and interests of different groups involved. Snow geese, which migrate to the Arctic from the United States and Canada to breed, have increased exponentially in the last four decades due to an increase in the amount of agricultural land where they feed during the winter and along their migratory path. “They have increased to a level where they are detrimental to Arctic ecosystems. When they come here to reproduce, they overbrowse the vegetation,” Marie-Andrée said. This destroys the habitat and forces predators to eat other birds at higher levels.

One approach to this problem is to implement snow goose harvesting programs—not only through a spring hunt in the south, but also by encouraging egg collection and harvesting of adults in the north at their breeding ground.

“If we can work toward supporting harvesting programs which are beneficial for conservation issues at the same time, I think that’s really good,” she said.

Sasquatch Sightings

The vast majority of Canada’s population, two out of three people, live within a hundred kilometers of the US border. In Nunavut, a territory with a population of just under 40,000 people, anyone who lives south of the Arctic Circle is considered a “southerner.” I met one of these southerners, Hunter McClain, on the street in Montreal.

Hunter is from a small town in northern British Columbia, close to the Hudson Bay Glacier. The glacier, which used to be visible on the mountain, has been receding to the point where it’s nearly invisible in summer and spring. “People who live out in the country are pretty in tune with the seasons, and we noticed changes in the wildlife,” she told me. “The wildlife has been going a bit nuts.”

One year, the bears didn’t hibernate because they couldn’t find enough food. “All the juvenile bears over the winter were running around town looking for food. You could see them losing hair, and they looked so thin,” Hunter said. “I had never seen a really skinny bear before, but when you see a skinny bear loping around and standing up, you really realize that that’s Sasquatch.” The bears on their hind legs looked like the legendary monster. Hunter was terrified, and equally “weirded out by people who live in that area who are climate change deniers.” To her, the connection to climate change was indisputable.


Adapted from 1,001 Voices on Climate Change, by Devi Lockwood. Copyright © 2021 Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Tiller Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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