Climate scientists need to pay more attention to what indigenous peoples have to say on climate change, said Betsy Weatherhead, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Colorado.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Vancouver on Saturday, Weatherhead said indigenous peoples in the Arctic have been documenting changes in not only temperature, but also weather patterns and changes in the ice around them for generations.

“Scientists are the last to know” about the effects of climate change, she said. Many studies are inspired by initial observations from indigenous peoples who know their environment more intimately than any weather stations or satellites ever could.

She cited the work of anthropologists like Shari Gearheard, a researcher with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre, who has spent several years in Clyde River, Nunavut gathering observations from Inuit elders on changes in the environment.

One fundamental difference between the way climate scientists and indigenous communities use their observations is in their application.

Physical scientists are more inclined to use data to make projections, and there’s rarely a consensus, said Weatherhead. Some expect that weather patterns in the polar regions will become more unpredictable. But long-term observations from Inuit elders and hunters as well as climate data have shown that there are certain indicators that can help predict weather patterns — or, at least, they can predict how predictable the weather will be.

“It’s easier to say when [hunters who travel on the ice] will be at risk,” said Weatherhead. If temperatures in May are higher than the average, for example, it is likely the weather and ice cover in the following months will be more unpredictable. If temperatures are at average or lower, then conditions will be more predictable in the following summer months.

While most hunters and elders in northern communities are eager to share their knowledge, there are also many things people do not want to say, said Weatherhead. To elders who can no longer predict weather patterns based on the clouds in the sky, “it’s painful,” she said.

Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center, has worked with indigenous communities in Alaska and said elders who have the most intimate knowledge of weather and ice patterns in the North know just how variable it can be.

“The most knowledgeable [elders] systematically refuse to make projections,” he said.
Some elders are reluctant to work with younger hunters and scientists who seek to learn from them, he adds, because they feel responsible for the community and do not want to be wrong about their predictions.

Like scientists, however, there will rarely be a consensus among northern communities on how climate change is affecting the Arctic. “There is no [single] ‘indigenous perspective’ on climate change,” said Krupnik.