Scientists estimate that, within a decade, the Inupiaq village of Shishmaref, located on the barrier island of Sarichef off the coast of Alaska, will be swallowed by rising seas. In October 2001, a severe fall storm caused the shoreline near the village to move inland by 125 feet. The Inupiaq people have lived here for over 4,000 years but will now be forced to relocate to higher ground at a projected cost of almost $200 million.1,2 And along the coast of Greenland, the once year-round sea ice is gone for most of the late spring, summer, and early fall, making the traditional dog-sled transportation—which for centuries sustained the hunter-gatherer lifestyle—impossible. According to local Inuits, some villages have killed their sled dogs rather than see them starve, because they can no longer hunt for the seal meat to feed them.

For millennia, the indigenous peoples of Russia, northern Scandinavia, and North America—the Inuits, Aleuts, Athabaskans, and Gwich’in, among others—have endured environmental and climatic change. But recent anthropogenic climate change may be their most formidable challenge of all. In the past few decades, Arctic average temperatures have risen at almost twice the rate as in the rest of the world (and in some areas, like Alaska, annual average temperatures are rising at five times the global rates). Sea level is rising, the ice is thinning, and the ranges and availability of the seals, whales, caribou, and fish that have sustained northern cultures are changing.

For Arctic peoples, flexibility and innovation have long been key to adapting to environmental change.3 Historically, the reindeer herding communities across Russia and northern Scandinavia have moved their homes (their tent-like lavvu) with their herds to summer pastures, then back to higher ground for the winter, and then back again. However, today many Arctic peoples cannot simply relocate or change resource use as they could in the past. Most now live in permanent, planned settlements, and their hunting and herding activities are governed by land-use laws, landownership regulations, and resource management regimes.3 Climate change comes at a time when the indigenous peoples of the Arctic are already struggling to maintain their cultures in an increasingly regulated world.


Robert Corell
A fishing boat off the west coast of Greenland.

Empowering indigenous peoples through self-government and co-management arrangements—giving them more power and more flexibility—is key to helping them respond to the challenges posed by climate change.4,5 As noted by Mark Nuttall and colleagues, adaptation to climate change predominantly occurs at the local level, so it is important to build institutions and agreements that incorporate indigenous perspectives and knowledge and to let indigenous societies decide for themselves how to understand and address the risks associated with climate change.6 Arctic peoples now more than ever need to prepare themselves, their societies, and their governments for change. What they will need is the best available adaptation knowledge—both the expertise of the scientific community and, essentially, their own on-the-ground and historical experience.

Since the 1970s, there has been a greater degree of local involvement in the management of natural resources. An important example is the success of the Inuvialuit people of the Canadian Beaufort Sea region. The Inuvialuit Final Agreement of 1984 is a comprehensive Native land-claims agreement that recognizes Native rights to landownership, cooperative management, and economic development.4 The agreement evolved new governance mechanisms that, by contributing to self-organization, help the Inuvialuit people manage the effects of change.3,7 While the agreement is an important example of increased self-governance and greater local decision-making power, Claudia Notzke and others have noted that there remains considerable unfinished work.8,9

At the international level, the Arctic Council provides indigenous peoples with a policy venue for addressing their interdependence in cross-boundary matters.10 The council is made up of the eight countries of the Arctic region: Canada, Denmark, Greenland, Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, and the United States; along with six permanent participants: the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Raipon, and the Saami Council. The Arctic Council aims to enable full participation by these groups, including providing a funding mechanism to cover the costs of such participation.


Robert Corell
An Inuit family just outside the town of Ilulissat, Greenland.

In addition, innovative co-management regimes allow indigenous peoples to share the responsibility for resource management with the state.3 The Inupiaq and Siberian Yupik Eskimos in northern and western Alaska have hunted the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) for thousands of years. But in the 1970s, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned Alaskan Eskimos from subsistence harvest of bowhead whales. The ban was later modified to allow a limited quota for certain Alaskan villages. In 2008, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) signed an agreement with the U.S. government (through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA) to protect both the bowhead whale and Eskimo culture. The agreement promotes scientific investigation of the bowhead whale and enforces the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Whaling Convention Act, and the Endangered Species Act as they relate to aboriginal subsistence whaling.11

The AEWC—led by ten commissioners elected by whaling captains from each village—now helps regulate the Eskimo harvest of the bowhead whale. Through the AEWC, whaling captains and villagers are also given a forum to speak about issues affecting their subsistence whaling at meetings with the U.S. commissioner to the IWC, NOAA personnel, the mayor of the North Slope Borough, staff of the borough’s Department of Wildlife Management, and cooperating scientists.12

The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission agreement, signed in 1992 by Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands, also explores new approaches to international cooperation on conservation and management. At the cornerstone of the commission’s strategy is a commitment to use reliable scientific and indigenous knowledge as the basis for resource management.

Educational institutions of the North must be equipped to prepare indigenous youth for leadership roles within their communities. In the coming years, many more indigenous people will need to serve as members on local boards, for example, to ensure that their culture and extensive indigenous knowledge are part of the policies that will shape their future. Much needs to be done at local and national levels to meet this educational challenge. The University of the Arctic13 has made substantial progress in this area: it offers degree programs designed to provide northern residents with opportunities for research and for exploring sustainable practices in the North. Graduates have an in-depth understanding of the problems and concerns facing Arctic indigenous groups. They also develop the tools needed to sustainably maintain or develop the Arctic as well as the skills and the knowledge to actively participate in Arctic issues.


Robert Corell
In some areas of Greenland, melting sea ice has made traditional dog-sled transportation impossible.

In 2003, I met with 15 Saami reindeer herders in northern Norway to talk about climate change. At one point, one of the men stood up, visibly moved, and said that his people have sustained their way of life for centuries, but that his generation will likely be the last to herd reindeer in their ancestral lands. Arctic Native peoples have shown themselves to be incredibly innovative and resilient in the face of change. But in today’s modern and increasingly prescribed world, adaptation alone is not enough. Native peoples must be involved in decision making and resource management; they must be given the power and flexibility to weather climate change. When institutions enabling such involvement are in place, indigenous communities, scientists, and policymakers can work together to keep up with a changing Arctic.

NCSE_logo108x42.gifThis article is in part derived from the 11th Annual National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment: Our Changing Oceans hosted by the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE).


Robert W. Corell

Robert W. Corell is a Principal for the Global Environment & Technology Foundation and University Professor II at both the University of the Arctic’s Institute for Circumpolar Reindeer Husbandry...

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