Native Village
Youth and Education news
 MAY 1, 2010   VOLUME 1

Traditional Inuit Knowledge Combines With Science to Shape Weather Insights
Condensed by Native Village

Nunavut: Inuit living in the Arctic watch the the way the wind scatters a cloud to tell if a storm is coming or if it's safe to go on a hunt. These forecasting skills have been passed down through generations.
In Colorado's Rocky Mountains, scientists measure data and use computer models to predict weather.  

But in the past 20 years, something has changed with Inuit forecasting. Old weather signals don't mean what they used to. A scattering cloud could mean a storm is coming in an hour instead of a day.

Now the Inuit and researchers are combining traditional knowledge and modern science to learn about these changes in the Arctic climate. 

"It's interesting how the western approach is often trying to understand things without necessarily experiencing them," said Elizabeth Weatherhead from the University of Colorado at Boulder. "With the Inuit, it's much more of an experiential issue, and I think that fundamental difference brings a completely different emphasis both in defining what the important scientific questions are, and discerning how to address them."

For years, researchers heard about unpredictable weather from Arctic communities. But their measurements showed that the world's weather appeared to becoming more steady.  The disparity left scientists confused.

"I had been hearing about this problem from other environmental statisticians for a number of years," said Weatherhead, "But the Inuit used a different language than what we statisticians used, and none of us could really figure out what matched up with their observations."

Shari Gearheard, a CU-Boulder's scientist, lives in Clyde River, Nunavut. Clyde River is an Inuit community on eastern Baffin Island. For 10 years, Shari has worked with Inuit hunters and elders to document their knowledge of the environment and how it's changing.

While some Inuit members still posses these ancient prediction skills, the knowledge is dying off as their culture and climate change.  Gearheard is collecting and recording their environmental knowledge.  She
says patterns are emerging, especially during the spring and the earth is in transition.  The top layer of the snow would melt  during the day, then refreeze at night, forming a crust.

"In fact, in a lot of places, the season is named after a particular process by the Inuit," said Gearheard. "In cases like this where the Inuit are not seeing that process anymore, it is an indicator to them that something had changed."

 Weatherhead said Shari's information helps bridge indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge.

 "What was incredibly helpful was Shari's detailed description of what they were experiencing on what sort of timescales," said Weatherhead. "That really allowed us to start focusing on our statistical tests and try to find exactly what matched their observations."

Scientists' statistics of Baker Lake temperatures matches Inuit reports of greater unpredictability in that season.

"...indigenous knowledge didn't have the place it does now in research," Gearheard said. "It's growing. People are becoming more familiar with it, more respectful of it."

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