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Adapting to climate change

BOULDER, Colo. – Polar bears clinging helplessly to dwindling ice floes form a vivid image in the collective mind as it contemplates global warming.

One expert, Ilkoo Angutikjuak, Inuit, of Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River), Nunavut, a lifelong hunter in his community, believes otherwise.

“Polar bears are very resourceful,” he said in an interview Sept. 24. “We feel they will adapt, and now they are often on the land. They have been known to eat narwhals – they feed on the carcass together.”

Angutikjuak was in Boulder in connection with an exhibit titled “Silavut” (“our climate” or “our weather” in Inuktitut), which he helped to prepare for the University of Colorado – Boulder’s Museum of Natural History and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

His visit coincided with data from the center and NASA that Arctic sea ice this summer was at its second-lowest level on record, with predictions that within five to 10 years the Arctic could be free of sea ice in summer.

Regardless, it is human beings – not polar bears and other animals – who may be slow to change, he said.

“With the change in the climate, I feel we also need to learn to adapt to the changes. Polar bears and seals will be more on shore instead of on the ice. People should learn to adapt to the changes, too.”

Climate change can make a difference in the north, but “many times, what people interpret as climate change can be a longer cycle,” he said. There seem to be fewer caribou now, but they have changed migration routes and “sometime in the near future” they may come closer to the community.

Angutikjuak, who is known as a keen weather forecaster as well as a hunter, said there have been some changes. Among them is that the snow is harder because the wind is stronger and, as a result, is more difficult to carve the snow for igloos. (Although few people now live in igloos, he said, sometimes people who used to live in them build them to recreate that experience.)

Another change is that “seals don’t seem to get new fur as much as before” through a shedding process of rubbing against now-scarcer ice, leaving patchy pelts that are less desirable for working into utilitarian or craft items.

Ice is now breaking up in June when it used to break up in August, he said.

“Some of the birds we see were not seen before, [as well as] marine mammals,” Angutikjuak said. He saw a dolphin for the first time, and birds whose names he did not know. Robins were reported at a town some distance south of Clyde River.

Angutikjuak’s observations are in the context of a lifetime in close contact with the animal world. He killed his first polar bear at age 4 with help from his father. Then, as was appropriate for the first kill, it was shared with the community and nothing was left to go to waste.

Hunting, however, was and is a form of subsistence in the north, rather than a sport (although Angutikjuak is now a hunting guide, at times); and he disapproves of stressing animals by running them down with snowmobiles or helicopters. “It’s not good to disrespect animals,” he said. “We can’t run them or their lungs won’t be so good anymore.”

He has seen other kinds of changes as well.

“There are more ships,” said Angutikjuak, who is a member of the civil Canadian Rangers, enlisted by the Canadian government as observers to perform regular patrols as part of a Canadian presence in the far north.

Although they still go on foot to hunt caribou, snowmobiles have largely replaced dogsleds for other hunting.

A food supply ship comes once a year and there is a store to supplement subsistence food, he said. But the Canadian government only subsidizes the high cost of healthy food, not snack food like soda pop or potato chips; a case of soda pop that might be as much as $6 here compares to one can for $7 there, particularly just before the supply ship arrives and everyone is low on items like snack foods or cigarettes.

Angutikjuak is from the last generation that lived off the land, having moved from an igloo into the Clyde River community in about 1960 as a young man with mixed feelings.

Angutikjuak speaks little English and is accompanied by his interpreter, Geela Tigullaraq. Shari Gearheard, a researcher with the National Snow and Ice Data Center, accompanied them to Boulder in connection with the museum exhibit. Gearheard lives in Clyde River and primarily telecommutes, an arrangement made possible by high-speed Internet in the remote community, where most people – including elders – use the computer.

Gearheard noted that a decline in polar bear sport hunting due to the bears’ listing as an endangered species meant people could not bring polar bear products into the U.S., leading to a “huge economic impact” on the area. Angutikjuak said it was “not a very good thing” for residents, who used to come together annually to decide how many polar bears could go to sport hunting.