Climate change is about to change everything.
“There will be a loss of culture,” says Holwell. “They will identify as Inuit and so will their children, but they will not have the same experiences.”
As droughts last longer and heat waves, floods and storms intensify in an increasingly warm world, the Inuit are doing what they’ve always done: adapting.
For the past three years, Holwell, 47, has helped run a sea ice monitoring program for the Inuit. Unlike other climate data efforts, this one is fully focused on the needs of the local community. The program is called SmartICE, and it combines the Inuit’s traditional knowledge of sludge data collection and electromagnetic sensors to provide northern communities with real-time measurements of the thickness of sea ice along their “highways.” It highlights areas where the ice is thickest and areas where it is thinner.
SmartICE is used by over 30 Inuit communities. The idea is to use the technology to fill in areas where climate change has made traditional knowledge less reliable or created conditions the Inuit have never faced before.
Holwell believes tools like SmartICE can extend the time Inuits stay on sea ice before it disappears. A new analysis published in Nature Communications Earth and Environment in August showed that the Arctic warmed nearly four times faster than the global average between 1979 and 2021 — much faster than two or three times the global average.
Separate modeling by experts from the UK, Canada and the US shows that by 2035 Arctic sea ice could fall below 1 million square kilometers during the summer. Scientists recorded this year’s lowest sea ice on September 18, tied with the tenth lowest on record.
The Inuit are practical when it comes to new technologies. They use GPS but still teach kids how prevailing winds tilt snowbanks and show them the way back if the device’s batteries run out. Skidoos, also known as snowmobiles, mostly replaced dog sleds and compressed week-long hunts into day trips. Rifles replaced harpoons.
SmartICE is another tool. So, with a black and red skidoo, a rifle and an electromagnetic sensor, Holwell offers a vision of survival that brings together the old and the new.
“We have to adapt to climate change,” he says. “We’re going to need more tools like SmartICE.”
FOOD AND FREEDOM
If the weather is nice, a 19-passenger Twin Otter plane flies to Nain, Holwell’s hometown. Hand luggage is not allowed. If a suitcase weighs more than 23 kg (50 pounds), it can be left behind on the next flight or the next one if the planes are overweight. There are no dwarf deicers – nor are there any of the Inuit coastal communities in Labrador – and planes are therefore often grounded. An elderly couple stranded in Goose Bay in mid-April said the longest wait for a flight was three weeks. Delays are particularly severe in spring, when fog can be thick and unpredictable, they say.
Dwarves, cars and trucks are parked in snow-covered backyards, while snowmobiles roll through the slippery streets to pick up kids from school and take adults to work. There is only one hotel in town – Hotel Atsanik – which is also the only restaurant in town. Toilet paper, which comes in packs of 30 rolls, costs C$40 (US$29).
More than Nain herself, the landscape around her is the focus, says Jim Anderson.
“It’s something people don’t understand,” said Anderson, 70. “We got culture shock as soon as we left. We got lost. We’re not used to seeing all the houses – houses together, no open space.”
For 60 Canadian dollars in gasoline, a hunter can kill a seal and feed a family for three or four days, as well as make gloves, boots and other clothing out of the animal’s skin. Shipping an equivalent amount of store-bought food costs CAN$300 and clothing is not included. Sea ice makes life more accessible.
Sea ice also means freedom. Most people can’t afford a boat, so in summer your world literally shrinks and becomes hostile to insects. But in winter and spring, when the sea ice is frozen, people can fish, hunt, gather firewood and visit their huts.
Maria Merkuratsuk, who was raised in a hut north of Nain, says she feels “tingles” when on ice. “I feel at peace, I can breathe… if I have too much on my mind, my body can take over… I (can) just drive and drive and drive and think things,” she says.
Isaac Kohlmeister, one of the last two Nain to lead a dog sledding team, says being on the ice helped him recharge.
“When the dogs are running, you can smell everything,” he says. “You can even smell the fish under the ice.”
The Inuit communities Holwell works with for SmartICE have begun compiling their own lists of Inuktitut words for different types of sea ice. Nain, they found 37, which they plan to publish in a booklet next year.
SLUDGE AND SLEIGH
The SmartICE program has two components. The first consists of 2.75 meter tall “SmartBUOYs”, implanted in holes drilled in sea ice at the start of the season and removed at the end of the season. The sludge is filled with thermistors, which measure temperature and record data at specific locations. The thickness of sea ice is calculated from the temperature difference between the atmosphere, snow, ice and salt water.
The second part of the program consists of “SmartKAMUTIK” sleds pulled behind skidoos. The sled carries a plywood box with an electromagnetic sensor. As the snowmobile pulls the sled, the sensor sends out electromagnetic pulses to induce a current and measure the thickness of the snow and ice. Holwell typically runs a SmartKAMUTIK run once a week to check the thickness of Nain’s sea ice “roads”.
The technology used by the Inuit is the same as that used by some climatologists, but the issues are different. Scientists often ask system-level questions, such as what will happen to the planet; Inuit have more immediate concerns, such as whether they will fall through the ice if they go hunting or visit friends and relatives. The Inuit need more granular data and sampling locations that may be different from what scientists would choose. But, increasingly, it is projects that address both scales of concern that are finding support.
Katie Winters, 54, who lives in Nain and helped translate the Inuit land claim settlement in Labrador, says that while the sea ice is thicker this year, it has been one of the worst years for people. She immediately names five people and two skidoos who have fallen on the ice this year, but says there are more. Fortunately, no one died.
A community management committee tells Holwell where the SmartBUOYs should go, and when temperatures warm in spring, he uses SmartKAMUTIK to carefully check locations known to be dangerous.
Holwell trains anyone interested in running SmartKAMUTIK courses and teaches teens how to build SmartBUOYs during the summer off-season. The team publishes each race on the program’s SIKU website and app, as well as on Facebook. It’s unclear how much people in the community trust the data, but they do “like” and comment on posts.
For those without an internet connection, Holwell prints maps with measurements of ice thickness and, like everyone else who hunts, marks the maps with symbols where animals have been seen or harvested.
SmartICE received C$400,000 ($293,000) in seed funding from the Arctic Inspiration Prize, Canada’s highest annual award. The project also won other awards and slowly gained international recognition.
Holwell’s pride in the project is evident. “We are a production facility on Inuit lands, with the Inuit building the technology for other Inuit,” he says.
WATER LINE HEAT
Ask any dwarf about sea ice and they’ll tell you they’re the first to see the effects of climate change. In the past, sea ice was 1.5 to 2.1 meters thick, hard and covered in a deep layer of snow. It’s now 3 to 4 feet thick and soft, says Ron Webb, 65.
The snow is sweetened with a shimmery coating – “shitty snow”, says Ron Webb. The huge blue chunks of multi-year ice that descended from the north are gone and summer pools are stronger, he says.
Last year, Webb was riding his skidoo on 3 feet of sea ice. It felt good, but he stuck a stick in it just to check and the stick crossed the open sea.
“Years ago, you wouldn’t know this. It’s pretty scary because while the thickness is there, the hardness isn’t,” he says.
Webb laughs. Nain’s Inuit call themselves “Sikumiut” or “sea ice people”, but he began joking that they would have to make another adaptation – switch to hovercraft – to navigate sea ice too dangerous for a skidoo.
Spring is the best time to hit sea ice. The days are longer, but the nights are still cold enough to freeze. In April, for example, temperatures usually drop to minus 10 and minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 to 14 Fahrenheit) overnight – but this year temperatures have hovered around zero.
“It’s usually like a machine watching the heart – ups and downs – but it’s been hot all April,” said Joey Angnatok, former coordinator of the SmartICE program.
Communities living in freshwater lakes and rivers in northern Canada have started to learn about SmartICE. Holwell says Sami caribou herders and others in Sweden, Finland, Iceland and England have also asked about the technology.
“We are needed, Team Canada, we are needed,” Holwell said. Then, like a small-town auctioneer or politician in the middle of a speech, he delivers his speech: “We want Joe, Tuktoyaktuk, to become a SmartICE champion.”
A little later, he sets off on his snowmobile, soaring over the sea ice like a tundra-gloved drone in the brief subarctic spring—joyful, free, not questioning his place in the world.
Pressing the accelerator, he accelerates toward the horizon where the geese and seals are, deeply convinced that his small Inuit town on the edge of the ice floe matters, and that now the rest of the world knows it too.
Note: Melissa Renwick is one of the winners of the Reuters Yannis Behrakis Photojournalism Fellowship.