Climate change is about to topple all of this.
“It will be a loss of culture,” says Holwell. “They will identify as Inuit, and so will their children, but they will not have the same experiences.”
With droughts lasting longer and heat waves, floods and storms increasing in an increasingly warm world, the Inuit are doing what they have always done: adapting.
For the past three years, Holwell (47) has been involved in a sea ice monitoring program for the Inuit. Unlike other climate data, this program is completely focused on the needs of the local community. Called SmartICE, the program combines traditional Inuit knowledge with buoys and electromagnetic sensors to provide northern communities with real-time measurements of sea ice thickness along their “highways” via a website, a downloadable phone app or Facebook. It marks areas of thicker ice and areas of thinner ice.
SmartICE is used by more than 30 Inuit communities. The idea is to use technology to fill in where climate change has made traditional knowledge less reliable or created conditions that the Inuit have never faced before.
Holwell believes that tools like SmartICE can extend the time the Inuit have left on the sea ice before it disappears. A new analysis published in August in Nature Communications Earth and Environment shows that between 1979 and 2021, the Arctic warmed nearly four times the global average—much faster than the two or three times the global average commonly cited. .
Separate models by experts in Britain, Canada and the United States show that Arctic sea ice could fall to less than 1 million square kilometers per summer as early as 2035. Scientists recorded this year’s sea ice minimum on September 18, the tenth lowest on record.
The Inuit are practical when it comes to new technology. They use GPS, but still teach their kids how the prevailing winds tip the snowblowers and show the way home when the device’s batteries die. Skidoos, also known as snowmobiles, have mostly replaced dog sleds and condensed the week’s hunt into a day trip. Guns have replaced harpoons.
SmartICE is another tool. And so, with a black and red skidoo, a rifle and an electromagnetic sensor, Holwell offers a vision of survival that unites the old and the new.
“We have to adapt to climate change,” he says. “We’re going to need more tools like SmartICE.”
FOOD AND FREEDOM
In good weather, a 19-passenger Twin Otter plane flies to Holwell’s home town of Nain. Hand luggage is not allowed. If a bag weighs more than 23 kg, it can be left on the next flight, or the flight after if the planes are too heavy. There are no deicers in Nain – or in any of the coastal Inuit communities in Labrador – so the planes are often grounded. An elderly couple trapped in Goose Bay in mid-April say they had to wait the longest for a flight: three weeks. The delays are especially bad in the spring, when the fog can be thick and unpredictable, they say.
In Nain, cars and trucks line the snow-covered gardens, while skidoos drive through the muddy streets, picking up children from school and taking adults to work. There is only one hotel in town – Atsanik Hotel – which is also the only restaurant in town. Toilet paper, in bundles of 30 rolls, costs C$40 ($29).
More than Nain itself, the landscape around it is a home, says Jim Anderson.
“That’s one thing people don’t understand,” says Anderson, 70. “We get a culture shock as soon as we go outside. We get lost. (We’re) not used to seeing all the houses — houses after each other with no open spaces. ”
For C$60 in gas, a hunter can kill a seal and feed a family for three or four days, plus make mittens, boots and other clothing from the animal’s skin. Shipping the same amount of food from the store costs $300, and clothing is not included. The sea ice makes life more bearable.
The sea ice also means freedom. Most people can’t afford a boat, so in the summer their world literally becomes smaller and inhospitable to insects. But in winter and spring, when the sea ice is frozen, people can fish, hunt, collect wood and visit their cabins.
Maria Merkuratsuk, who grew up in a cabin north of Nain, says that she feels like she is “tingling” when she is on the ice. “I feel calm, I can breathe… if I have a lot on my mind, my body can take over… I (can) just drive and drive and drive and think about things,” she says.
Isaac Kohlmeister, one of the last two people in Nain to lead a dog sled team, says standing on the ice helped him on the ground.
“When the dogs run, you can feel everything,” he says. “You can even feel the fish under the ice.”
The Inuit communities that Holwell works with for SmartICE have begun compiling their own lists of Inuktitut words for different types of sea ice. In Nain they have found 37, which they will publish in a booklet next year.
BENDS AND SLACKS
The SmartICE program consists of two parts. The first are 2.75 meter high “SmartBUOYs” that are placed in holes in the sea ice at the beginning of the season and removed again at the end of the season. The buoys are filled with thermistors, which can measure temperature and record data at specific locations. The thickness of the sea ice is calculated from the difference in temperature between the atmosphere, snow, ice and salt water.
The second part of the program is “SmartKAMUTIK” sleds that are pulled behind the ski box. The sled carries a plywood box with an electromagnetic sensor. As the skidoo pulls the sled, the sensor sends electromagnetic pulses to generate a current and measure the thickness of the snow and ice. Holwell usually takes a SmartKAMUTIK trip once a week to check the thickness of the “highways” of the Nains sea ice.
The technology the Inuit use is the same as some climate scientists use, but the questions are different. The researchers mainly ask system-level questions, such as what will happen to the planet next; the Inuit are more concerned about the short term, such as whether they will sink through the ice when hunting or visiting friends and family. The Inuit need more detailed data and sampling sites that may differ from those scientists would choose. Increasingly, however, it is projects that deal with both scales of care that receive support.
Katie Winters, 54, who lives in Nain and helped translate the Inuit Land Claims Agreement in Labrador, says that while sea ice has thickened this year, it has been one of the worst years people have suffered from ice loss . She immediately mentions five people and two ski boxes that have fallen through the ice this year, but says that there are more. Fortunately, no one died.
A community management committee tells Holwell where to get the SmartBUOYs, and as temperatures warm in the spring, he uses SmartKAMUTIK to carefully monitor locations known to be dangerous.
Holwell trains anyone interested in doing the SmartKAMUTIK races and teaches teenagers how to build SmartBUOYs during the summer season. The team will post each race on the programme’s SIKU website and app as well as on Facebook. It’s not clear how many people in the community rely on the data, but they “like” and comment on the posts.
For those without an Internet connection, Holwell prints out maps with ice thickness measurements, and when everyone is hunting, he marks the maps with symbols where animals have been seen or harvested.
SmartICE received C$400,000 ($293,000) in seed funding from the Arctic Inspiration Prize, the largest annual prize in Canada. It has also won other awards and is slowly gaining international recognition.
Holwell is clearly proud of the project. “We are a manufacturing facility in Inuit land where Inuit people build the technology for other Inuit,” he says.
FLAT LINE HOT
Ask anyone in Nain about the sea ice and they say they are experiencing the effects of climate change. Previously, the sea ice was 1.5 to 2.1 meters thick, hard and covered by a thick layer of snow. Now it’s 3 to 4 feet thick and soft, says Ron Webb, 65.
The snow is sugary with a glittery coating – “crappy snow”, Webb calls it. The huge blue lumps of perennial ice that used to float down from the north are gone, and the summers are stronger, he says.
Last year, Webb drove his skidoo on 2 meters of sea ice. It felt good, but he stuck a stick in it to be sure, and the stick went through the open water.
“Many years ago you didn’t have that. It’s a bit scary, because while the thickness is there, the hardness isn’t there,” he says.
Webb laughs. The Inuit in Nain call themselves “Sikumiut,” or “people of the sea ice,” but he jokes that they should make another adaptation — switch to using hovercraft — to navigate sea ice too dangerous for a skidoo.
Spring is the best time to be on the sea ice. The days are longer, but the nights are still cold enough to freeze. In April, for example, the temperature usually drops to minus 10 and minus 15 Celsius (5 to 14 Fahrenheit) at night – but this year the temperature hovered around zero.
“Mostly it’s like a heart monitoring machine — up and down — but it’s been flat-out hot all April,” said Joey Angnatok, former SmartICE program coordinator.
Freshwater lakes and rivers in northern Canada have raised questions about SmartICE. Holwell says Sami reindeer herders and others in Sweden, Finland, Iceland and England have also inquired about the technology.
“We’re needed, Team Canada, we’re needed,” Holwell says. Then, like a small town auctioneer or a politician during a speech, he tells his story: “We want Joe in Tuktoyaktuk to be a SmartICE champion.”
Moments later he sets off on his skidoo and flies over the sea ice like a giant tundra in the short subarctic spring – merry, free, no doubt about his place in the world.
He opens the throttle and flies to the horizon where the geese and seals are, deeply convinced that his little Inuit town on the edge of the sea ice matters and that the rest of the world now knows it too.
Note: Melissa Renwick is one of the winners of the Reuters Yannis Behrakis Photojournalism Grants.