Inuit Knowledge, technologies come together making communities safer

Apr 3, 2024 | Canadian News, Headlines, News

For Andrew Arreak, an Inuit from the Mittimatalik community in Nunavut, travelling from one community to another surrounded by a vast expanse of ice as far as the eye can see during the province’s dark season is just part of his daily job.

“Arctic Bay is the closest to my community, and it’s about a 12-hour drive by snowmobile with breaks in between. It does get tiring on the back,” he said.

Arreak has been a Regional Operation Lead for the Qikiqtaaluk Region, Nvt., for eight years, working at SmartICE, a community-based enterprise developing tools that integrate modern climate technologies with Indigenous Knowledge about ice, water and land.

Its activities provide Inuit communities with additional information before people travel on ice, helping them avoid hazardous areas severely affected by climate change.

The organization has collaborated with more than 30 communities scattered across Inuit Nunangat and the northern territories since 2010.

Arreak said travelling on ice is crucial for the Inuit culture, but the climate crisis makes some areas unpredictable and highly dangerous.

“The sea ice is forming a little later while breaking up a little earlier each year,” he said. “Not only is the ice melting from the top, but it’s also melting from the bottom due to warm currents.”

“It might look all the same from the top, but there might be water underneath, so that area isn’t stable at all for travel, and that’s where SmartICE comes in,” he said.

The National Inuit Climate Change Strategy reported the average increase in temperature in the Arctic has exceeded 2.2 C above the 1951-1990 average, signalling twice the global average, meaning more mobile sea ice, increasing sea ice-related hazards, and the accelerating loss of land-based ice.

The change in the Arctic climate affects the Inuit economy, hunting paths and travel, health due to unknown contaminants, and the ability to share Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, knowledge of Inuit communities, according to the report.

Some of the technologies developed by SmartICE and used by Arreak to best adapt to climate change effects include the SmartBUOYs, sensors inserted directly into the ice that measure its thickness and temperature, water, air, and snow, and the SmartQAMUTIKs that are “sensors on a qamutik,” Arreak said.

“A qamutik is a sled that is towed behind a snowmobile. I have a top pad in between my handlebars that gives me an actual number of how thick the ice is while driving,” he said.

Arreak said the results are tangible.

“The Search and Rescue operations have received fewer calls throughout the winter thanks to the real-time information provided,” he said.

SmartICE said these tools do not replace Indigenous Knowledge but implement it with additional help.

Arreak said everything starts with the communities that decide how to deploy the technology.

“Elders or local people have knowledge that they can pass down verbally,” he said. “I could show them a map, and they can point out what areas to avoid at certain times of the year.

“Younger generations really need to know that for their safety,” he said.

Sandra Aqqaq, a SmartICE Knowledge co-production coordinator for the Taloyoak community in the Kitikmeot Region, Nvt., creates maps and satellite imagery to help people travel safely due to unpredictable ice conditions.

She said what she’s witnessing in her community is worrying.

“It’s a lot hotter in the summer than it used to be. I go out hunting and fishing, so every year it’s different, but things are changing oddly and differently,” she said.

Aqqaq said she wants to share her work to make her community more aware.

“The community members and elders gave me the knowledge and I digitized it,” she said. “Not everybody has the skills or parents to teach them, so we want to make sure that everybody can get the knowledge that some of us were taught.”

She is working on a book for her Taloyoak community in which, together with safety information, she reports wind, water and ice terms in Inuktitut to keep the local language alive.

“Our language is dying and our climate is changing. Those are two big topics for Inuit that we need people to be aware of,” she said.

She said Inuktitut is dying faster in the Kitikmeot Region because people speak mostly English, while in the Kivalliq and Qikitaaluk regions, Inuktitut is spoken even by kids.

“Just practice knowledge and skills and ask elders for feedback, try to form some groups to teach young people and let the schools get more involved,” she said. “I guess working together is number one, and that’s what SmartICE is doing.”