Climate change is the biggest challenge and the biggest threat to the Arctic and its inhabitants. Arctic communities everywhere have to adapt and to overcome hurdles to deal with the effects of climate change. A research study led by a team of scientists from Canadian McGill University have identified some of these hurdles. They conclude that Arctic communities have the innate capacity to deal with a changing climate, but the non-climate factors are much bigger hurdles to overcome. What is more, these factors vary from society to society.

Thousands of years of adaption have given Arctic communities the skills and capabilities to inherently deal with changing environments. However, aspects of modern life like hunting bans or slow and inflexible administration still form obstacles in their everyday life and thus hinder people to properly adapt to the increasing environmental changes.
Thousands of years of adaption have given Arctic communities the skills and capabilities to inherently deal with changing environments. However, aspects of modern life like hunting bans or slow and inflexible administration still form obstacles in their everyday life and thus hinder people to properly adapt to the increasing environmental changes.

The researchers reached these surprising conclusions after reviewing a large number of scholarly works (135 articles) about climate change adaptation, resilience and vulnerability in Arctic societies around the globe. But, despite the scale and speed of climate change in the north, the researchers believe that if policies and practices change in various ways, these communities are inherently well-equipped to adapt to many, if not all, projected changes in climate. "Arctic populations are often identified as being highly vulnerable people, but that's not necessarily what the research shows," says James Ford of McGill University's Geography Department and the lead author of an article on the subject that was recently published in Nature Climate Change. "People in these communities already tend to see the Arctic environment as being unpredictable and in a constant state of flux. They have repeatedly adapted to environmental changes in the past by being flexible in their use of resources. But their ability to exploit opportunities, such as the lengthening shipping seasons, or new harvesting opportunities, is challenged by various outside pressures and constraints."

The problems faced by small Arctic communities like Ittoqqortoormiit in East Greenland are not natural but man-made, according to the results of the study. Picture: Michael Wenger
The problems faced by small Arctic communities like Ittoqqortoormiit in East Greenland are not natural but man-made, according to the results of the study. Picture: Michael Wenger

The researchers discovered that depending on the region, the situations of northern communities varied significantly, based on the interaction between the speed of climate change and various non-climatic factors such as resources, local political leadership, flexibility of institutions, and the history of colonisation with its economic, health and educational issues. "Not all forms of institutions necessarily inhibit adaptation," says Ford. "Institutions can act as pathways for knowledge development. In northern Canada and Alaska, for instance, co-management practices integrate science, traditional knowledge and local needs into the management of wildlife stocks such as the beluga in the Beaufort Sea. There is some evidence that this kind of management can help speed up the exchange of information and reduce conflict about resource management, but this success has not been uniformly seen. In some cases the conflict between the role of science and traditional knowledge has been difficult to resolve, and there is a worry that discourse about adaptation may be used selectively by powerful stakeholders to advance particular pathways and political agendas."

Regional differences result in different stages of development of Arctic communities. For example, Canadian communities are better connected to the outside and within the state and thus fare better than those that are in more remote areas. Picture: Michael Wenger
Regional differences result in different stages of development of Arctic communities. For example, Canadian communities are better connected to the outside and within the state and thus fare better than those that are in more remote areas. Picture: Michael Wenger

The researchers believe that the Arctic is not only a bell-wether of climate change to come at lower latitudes, but can provide us with an understanding of the challenges to come in adapting to climate change. They suggest that further studies are necessary to increase the understanding of why some communities have been able to successfully adapt and others have not in order to gain a better sense of the barriers and limits to adaptation.

Source: McGill University, www.mcgill.ca/newsroom