How rising temperatures affect Inuit health

Starting around the mid 1900s, Canada’s northern and Arctic areas have seen some of the largest temperature increases in the world — up to 4 C in some cases.

As climate change turns up the heat in the North, Indigenous populations, particularly Inuit, are grappling with significant health effects, says the University of Guelph’s Sherilee Harper, an eco-health researcher who works with Indigenous communities.

Iqaluit, Nunavut hugs a rocky shore. (Allan Gordon)

Iqaluit, Nunavut hugs a rocky shore. (Allan Gordon)

“A one degree temperature change can mean the difference between stable and unstable ice,” says Harper. “That’s important for people’s ability to hunt for food, which affects their physical and mental health.”

Harper says while the consequences are significant, her research suggests communities have a built-in resilience that is too often ignored.

“Climate change will have an impact everywhere,” says Harper. “It’s already affecting the North and we can learn a lot from Inuit wisdom as they adapt. Their ingenuity is amazing.”

Location, location, location

Most Inuit communities in the Arctic are located along the coast on small, rocky outcrops of land surrounded by vast amounts of water. In the summer, people use boats as their main source of transportation. In the winter, when the water turns to ice it forms a highway that links often road-less communities together, while also shaping new hunting grounds.

But the “in-between time” can be dangerous travelling. That’s when water is a slushy combination of solid and liquid, and people can’t trust its stability. Rising temperatures in the North mean these conditions are more common than ever before.

Forced to stay put, Inuit are physically inactive and have less access to food, says Harper.  Grocery stores — where a turkey no bigger than a soccer ball can cost more than $200 — are few and far between.

Those who do venture out when the ice is unstable do so at their own risk. The possibility of drowning or injury not only affects their own physical and mental health, but the mental health of those left at home to worry over their loved one’s safety, says Harper.

“There have always been safety concerns, ” she says. “But in the last 20 years, changes in temperature have been bigger and more difficult to predict.”

Word of mouth

In an effort to deal with this uncertainty, some Inuit communities have begun posting online photos and videos of unsafe parts of established routes. “They are building on their oral culture and increasing the availability of information,” says Harper.

 In fact, oral traditions that highlight information-sharing are a crucial part of climate change adaptation in the North, says Harper.

That became clear while her team searched for solutions to repetitive problems that were identified during a study she conducted with Inuit in Nunatsiavut, Labrador. The team found heavy rainfall and snowmelt — a more common occurrence as temperatures rise — are followed by significant increases in visits to the local clinic for diarrhea.

The connection is fairly simple, says Harper: “Heavy rainfall and snowmelt washes E. coli and other bacteria into the water. If people drink brook water after it rains, it can make them sick.”

The answer, developed by local high school students, was also simple: radio ads warning people not to drink brook water after heavy rain or snowmelt. While people in the community follow a longstanding tradition of drinking fresh brook water, students urged them to temporarily turn to treated tap water.

“Inuit are natural adaptors,” says Harper. “Sure climate change is a huge challenge, but they are resilient.”

Tagged: Arts & Culture, Building Community, Environment & Sustainability, Health & Wellbeing, Technology, Blog, Stories

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