17 Mar 2016: Report

Food Insecurity: Arctic Heat
Is Threatening Indigenous Life

Subsistence hunters in the Arctic have long taken to the sea ice to hunt seals, whales, and polar bears. But now, as the ice disappears and soaring temperatures alter the life cycles and abundance of their prey, a growing number of indigenous communities are facing food shortages.

by ed struzik

An Inuit hunter pulls one of his dogs from a crack in the ice. View gallery.
Photo: Ed Struzik
The decades-long trend of extreme Arctic warming hit new heights this winter, as a mass of exceptionally warm air invaded the region, raising temperatures by almost 50 degrees Fahrenheit above average in some areas and driving temperatures above the freezing mark at the North Pole in late December. Arctic Ocean ice cover reached a new record winter low last month, putting even more stress on sea-ice-dependent seals and polar bears. Other wildlife populations, including caribou and some seabirds, are declining as species struggle to adapt to a swiftly changing polar ecosystem.

All these changes are also making it more difficult for Arctic people to put food on the table. The big Arctic melt is having a profoundly negative impact on many indigenous hunters, who for millennia have relied on the pursuit of whales, seals, fish, and land mammals such as caribou to feed their families. Even today, in an era of greater government support of far northern Native communities, indigenous people across the Arctic — from the Inuit of Canada and Greenland to the Yupik and Dene of Alaska — still depend heavily on subsistence hunting.

Now, as sea ice becomes an increasingly unreliable hunting platform and soaring temperatures alter the life cycles and abundance of prey species, some indigenous communities are facing worsening food shortages and a lack of proper nutrition. Last year, the U.S. government had to ship in frozen fish to Alaska communities whose walrus hunts had failed.
More than one-third of households in the vast Arctic territory of Nunavut lack access to safe and healthy food.
In northern Greenland, where hunters often use sled dogs, some owners have been forced to kill the animals because it is too costly to continue feeding them given the paucity of prey on their hunts.

According to several recent Canadian studies, one-third to two-thirds of the households in the vast Arctic territory of Nunavut lack access to safe and healthy food. In some places in northern Quebec, soup kitchens are having trouble keeping up with the demand, and food scarcity has been linked to the slow growth of many Inuit children.

Food shortages have always been a challenge for the Inuit and other aboriginal people in the Arctic, as dependence on subsistence hunting and fishing has meant that life is often lived on the edge. Engaging in a rugged life on the land and sea also has been problematic for a new generation of Inuit who tend to identify more with southern cultural values than the ones their parents and grandparents held.

The current food shortages, however, are something quite different, because along with skyrocketing food prices — milk often costs $15 a gallon and steak more than $25 a pound — climate change has made subsistence hunting less reliable and more dangerous. Once-stable sea ice is now breaking apart under the feet of indigenous hunters and their sled dog teams.

“In the 1980s, we could expect three to five feet of ice in early March,” says Inupiaq elder Austin Swan, 68, who lives in the small community of Kivalina on the north slope of Alaska. “Today [in mid-March], we have open water in some places and very thin sea ice elsewhere. Weeks of minus-40 weather seem to never come, as they did in the 1980s.” He says the decline in sea ice makes it difficult to hunt bearded seals and almost impossible to hunt beluga and bowheads.

View gallery
Inuit hunters

Ed Struzik
Inuit hunters are traveling longer distances to get around open water.

“It’s too dangerous,” says Swan. “It’s the same with caribou on land. They’ve really declined.”

Swan is one of 146 Alaskans representing 81 villages who contributed to a report on food security published by the Alaska Chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) in December. In addition to citing climate change, rising fuel and food prices, and resource development as causes of the problem, the report calls for a complete reevaluation of how wildlife and resources are managed in the Arctic during a time of rapid change. This reassessment would involve an examination, for example, of how oil, gas, and mineral development might negatively impact caribou herds.

Arctic food security, or “insecurity” as some call it, became a hot-button issue in 2012 when Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations’ Right-to-Food envoy, publicly criticized the Canadian government for failing to address the growing problem of hunger among the Inuit and indigenous people of Canada. At the time, Leona Aglukkaq, the Inuit minister in charge of Canada’s Environment Department for the ruling Conservative Party, dismissed De Schutter’s criticism, insisting that the Inuit were doing well feeding themselves with food they harvested from the land and the sea.

This controversy inspired the Canadian Council of Academies — an independent group that supports scientific research — to study the issue. In 2014, the 15 experts who contributed to the report sided with the UN envoy.

“A significant body of research has confirmed that access to wild foods can help in significant ways to mitigate conditions of indigenous food insecurity,” David Natcher, senior research chair with the Global Institute for Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan and a contributor to the report, said in an email interview. “Climate change is just one of a number of factors that make it difficult for the Inuit and other Northern indigenous people to put food on the table. But it’s a big one that’s going to get a lot worse.

“Changing ice conditions have increased the time and cost of harvesting. Changing environmental conditions have also made it more difficult for Inuit elders to share their predictive knowledge of the weather. This has contributed to growing uncertainty among younger harvesters to access the land, sea, and ice. There was no doubt in our mind that this is having a direct bearing on indigenous food security in northern Canada.”

The implication of all this came into sharp focus in 2013 when then-Alaska Governor Sean Parnell declared two Inuit communities — Gambell and Savoonga — economic disaster areas after changing weather patterns in the Bering Sea forced hunters to abort their annual bowhead whale and walrus hunts. The disaster declaration opened the region to state assistance funds.

The state did not fly in food, but the following year the communities did need emergency food assistance. After a second year of low sea ice led to another failure of the walrus hunt, Vera Metcalf, director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, asked for help. The U.S. Coast Guard shipped in 10,000 pounds of halibut to the communities of Gambell, Savoonga, Diomede, and Wales. The halibut was supplied by SeaShare, a Washington state-based food bank that specializes in providing seafood to communities in need.

Speaking of his own Alaskan community of Kivalina, Swan said, “Most people here are related, so they share as much as they can, just as they did in the old days. But sooner or later, it’s not going to be enough, if this continues. Welfare checks help, but they are not the answer.”

Carolina Behe, indigenous knowledge and science adviser for ICC-Alaska, says that climate change and food security are more than just a matter of calories and nutrition; they’re also a matter of culture. “People here are identified by their ability to hunt and provide food for those who need it,” she says. “This identity is threatened when it becomes unsafe to go out on the ice to hunt, or too expensive to travel the long distances that are now needed to track down animals on land.”

Many Inuit leaders were heartened by this month’s joint pledge by U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to protect the Arctic from overfishing, shipping, resource development, and the impacts of climate change.
People here are identified by their ability to hunt and provide food for those who need it," says one indigenous leader.
But ICC president Jim Stotts is dismayed that the Inuit were not consulted beforehand about the agreement between the two leaders.

“The attention to the Arctic and issues that matter to Inuit is appreciated,” he says. “But the United States Arctic policy requires consultation with Inuit. Moving forward, we must be meaningfully engaged in decisions that affect us.”

Indigenous leaders in Nunavut were outraged recently when a Canadian regulatory review board gave the green light to two mining companies that want to drill for minerals on the calving grounds of the Bathurst caribou herd, which straddles the border between Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Like many of the world’s 24 major migrating caribou herds, the Bathurst herd is not faring well. In 1986, scientists estimated there were as many as 450,000 animals in the herd. Today, there are roughly 20,000.

A growing number of roads, pipelines, and mines threaten to destroy caribou habitat and interfere with migration. But global warming is taking a heavy toll on the animals. More biting flies and parasites, for example, sap the caribou’s energy reserves.


Oil Drilling in Arctic Ocean:
A Push into Uncharted Waters

Oil Drilling in Arctic Ocean: A Push into Uncharted Waters
As the U.S. and Russia take the first steps to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, experts say the harsh climate, icy seas, and lack of infrastructure means a sizeable oil spill would be very difficult to clean up and could cause extensive environmental damage.
More frequent winter rains and sleet freeze snow cover and make it harder for caribou to paw up nutritious lichen below. Earlier spring blooms no longer coincide with the birth of animals on the Arctic coast.

Aboriginal hunters in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are angry that they have been banned from hunting Bathurst caribou, even as potentially harmful mining activities in the herd’s territory are being approved. Inuit and Dene hunters are struggling with, and in some cases vowing to defy, hunting bans in their territories.

“There is this impression in government and in some circles that jobs, jobs, jobs will fuel the economy,” says Ross Thompson, the executive director of the Beverly Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board, which helps manage two caribou herds that migrate across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. “What they don't realize is that in many communities the caribou are the economy.”

Some economists agree. One 2008 study, which was updated in 2013, pinned the economic value of the Beverly Qamanirjuaq caribou herds at $20 million annually. To each hunter in Nunavut, one caribou was worth $1,720 in income, the study said. To replace that caribou with high grade beef, the study stated, would cost hunters three to five times more.

Swan is hopeful that governments will finally appreciate what climate change and resource development are doing to fish and wildlife in the Arctic and to villages such as his, which are sliding into the sea due to melting sea ice, rising sea levels, and thawing permafrost.

“We’ve always been able to adapt to natural change in the environment,” he says. “But what’s happening up here now is not natural. It’s making it difficult to put food on the table.”

[Homepage photo: Jerry Hollens/Flickr]

POSTED ON 17 Mar 2016 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Science & Technology Sustainability Antarctica and the Arctic Europe North America 


To dig deeper beyond the great melt, I recommend
that interested readers watch the documentary,
"People of a Feather" which explains that the
continual expansions of hydroelectric dams across
the NE Arctic region to power NYC are causing
changes in the ice which are affecting the hunting
seasons for the Inuit people. The resulting brittle
ice containing less salt freezes faster. The Inuits
have a unique relationship with the Eider duck,
which no longer has open water in which to land
and spend time during winter months. It also
explains how their culture is changing due to
government policies, adding oil powered
transportation, and, due to youth leaving.

Posted by Kay McDonald on 17 Mar 2016

I think we need to ask ourselves alot of questions.
is the world self sustaining?
do we need all these developments if at all they are causing environmental problems?
is it not high time we gave enviromet priority in whatever we do?
is capitalism GOOD for us?

Posted by joseph kabute on 08 May 2016


Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Email address 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.

Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing on the Arctic for three decades. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has reported on shrinking snowpack and glaciers in the Rockies and the tar sands industry's proposed Arctic export route.



The Methane Riddle: What Is
Causing the Rise in Emissions?

The cause of the rapid increase in methane emissions since 2007 has puzzled scientists. But new research finds some surprising culprits in the methane surge and shows that fossil-fuel sources have played a much larger role over time than previously estimated.

Natural Aquaculture: Can We
Save Oceans by Farming Them?

A small but growing number of entrepreneurs are creating sea-farming operations that cultivate shellfish together with kelp and seaweed, a combination they contend can restore ecosystems and mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification.

As Arctic Ocean Ice Disappears,
Global Climate Impacts Intensify

The top of the world is turning from white to blue in summer as the ice that has long covered the north polar seas melts away. This monumental change is triggering a cascade of effects that will amplify global warming and could destabilize the global climate system.

What’s Killing Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?

Biologist Eben Paxton is sounding the alarm about the catastrophic collapse of native bird populations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. His group's research has uncovered the culprit: disease-carrying mosquitoes that have invaded the birds' mountain habitat.

Why We Need a Carbon Tax,
And Why It Won’t Be Enough

Putting a price on carbon is an idea whose time has come, with even Big Oil signaling it may drop its long-standing opposition to a carbon tax. But the question is, has it come too late?


MORE IN Reports

For European Wind Industry,
Offshore Projects Are Booming

by christian schwägerl
As Europe’s wind energy production rises dramatically, offshore turbines are proliferating from the Irish Sea to the Baltic Sea. It’s all part of the European Union’s strong push away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.

In New Ozone Alert, A Warning
Of Harm to Plants and to People

by jim robbins
Scientists are still trying to unravel the damaging effects of ground-level ozone on life on earth. But as the world warms, their concerns about the impact of this highly toxic, pollution-caused gas are growing.

The Rising Environmental Toll
Of China’s Offshore Island Grab

by mike ives
To stake its claim in the strategic South China Sea, China is building airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs. Scientists say the activities are destroying key coral reef ecosystems and will heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.

Natural Aquaculture: Can We
Save Oceans by Farming Them?

by richard schiffman
A small but growing number of entrepreneurs are creating sea-farming operations that cultivate shellfish together with kelp and seaweed, a combination they contend can restore ecosystems and mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification.

High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

by nicola jones
Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.

For China’s Polluted Megacities,
A Focus on Slashing Emissions

by mike ives
The booming industrial center of Shenzhen is a showcase for Chinese efforts to cut CO2 emissions and make the nation's burgeoning cities more livable. But it remains to be seen whether China's runaway industrial development can give way to a low-carbon future.

Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge
Confronts Its Radioactive Past

by fred pearce
The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.

Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

by marc gunther
Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

The New Green Grid: Utilities
Deploy ‘Virtual Power Plants’

by maria gallucci
By linking together networks of energy-efficient buildings, solar installations, and batteries, a growing number of companies in the U.S. and Europe are helping utilities reduce energy demand at peak hours and supply targeted areas with renewably generated electricity.

Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs
Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown

by joel stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive challenge: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.