National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

Using indigenous knowledge for studying climate change

By Daniel Grossman in Copenhagen

Temperatures dropped and big, unseasonal flakes of snow swirled in the breeze earlier this week in Copenhagen, turning skies gray and streets slippery. But the change discussed in conversations wherever you go in this ornately decorated city is not the week’s weather but the coming century’s climate. Nowhere does climate change feel more ominous than at the North Atlantic House, a cultural center in central Copenhagen celebrating the Arctic peoples of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. An artist from Greenland turned the North Atlantic House building into a massive art installation symbolizing global warming. The front of the 250-year-old former warehouse shimmers with what appears like a 6-story iceberg popping out of its façade, but it’s literally only the tip of the iceberg. Inside, several exhibitions document changes brought to the Arctic by global warming, and forecast the more dramatic transformations expected in the future.

One prominent feature of the far north, the vast Arctic ice sheet, expands each winter to cover the entire top of the world, about twice the area of the continental United States. The ice sheet shrinks each summer by about 60 percent then bounces back, like an animal breathing in and out. Native people and their prey travel, hunt and fish on this vital platform. Ringed and harp seals give birth on sea ice. But global warming heats the Arctic faster than almost anywhere else on Earth, causing unmistakable changes in this ice. The size of the sea-ice cap at its minimum each September contracted by about 21 percent between 1979 and 2006. Then, in 2006, the minimum size the of vast ice sheet shrunk by 28 percent in a single season, a decline that shocked ice researchers. Some scientists think the ice sheet has gone terminal and that the Arctic could be ice-free summertime in a decade or two.

Shari Gearheard, a slender scientist with wavy blond hair and an infectious smile met me in an exhibition hall on the second floor of the North Atlantic House. She sat comfortably on the ledge of a display a few inches in front of a stuffed juvenile polar bear. She wore a sealskin brooch. Icebergs peeled off a glacier with explosive retorts on a floor-to-ceiling video display a short distance across the room. Gearheard is a geographer and a researcher at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. I had wanted to meet Gearheard for several years, since she helped me by phone and email with arrangements for a visit I made to the Inuit community Igloolik, high in the Canadian Arctic. Gearheard lives in an Inuit village on Baffin Island, a base camp from where she studies indigenous perceptions and wisdom about climate change. She meets regularly with a group of hunters, who she peppers with questions about the conditions they’ve experienced. She also spends much time learning by doing, “going out hunting with the guys.”

In 15 years of research in Greenland and northern Canada Gearheard has proven that native hunters, keen observers of weather and ice, have much knowledge useful to researchers. She says natives have made important observations about changes in sea ice and wind direction. She says Inuit are peripatetic travelers, even in winter, logging in their heads observations over a much finer scale than most scientists normally make. The natives also sometimes notice changed ice and weather patterns that scientists have not yet even thought to study. For example, she say that hunters she interviewed complained about seals sinking, rather than bobbing to the surface as in the past, when speared. At first she couldn’t imagine what change could cause seals to sink. Then she realized that the seal hunters had discovered changes in the salinity, the saltiness, of water just below their perches on sea ice, caused by melting freshwater glaciers. The fresher, less bouyant seawater can no longer float the dead animals. These are the “light-bulb moments,” says Gearheard, when “you realize that it is worth all the effort working together.”

DanielGrossman.jpg

Daniel Grossman has been a print journalist and radio and web producer for 20 years. He has reported from all seven continents including from within 800 miles of both the south and north poles. He has produced radio stories and documentaries on science and the environment for National Public Radio’s show Weekend Edition; Public Radio International’s show on the environment Living on Earth and news magazine, The World and many other international broadcasters. Among others, he has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Audubon and Scientific American.