In September 1999, a powerful storm in Canada’s western Arctic created a wall of sea water that swept over low-lying land in the Mackenzie Delta. The gale was one of the most intense on record, and resulted in the highest measured water levels at the delta front. When the water receded, a “dead zone” of at least 110 km2 in the Mackenzie Delta developed where vegetation died because of the salt left behind.
Storms like this are becoming more and more frequent, as Arctic Ocean ice disappears and waves build over ever-larger stretches of open water, driving storm surges onto the land and into freshwater river deltas.
Striking changes in vegetation and wildlife were first noticed by local Inuvialuit several years before the significance was recognized by scientists and regulators: “Elders from across the Delta knew about the dead zone … they knew it happened about eight years before … the ground froze and so the salts didn’t wash away. A salty storm surge killing plants and willows over large areas is not normal. Land users noticed that there have been less geese in these areas because of the loss of vegetation,” said Doug Esagok, from the Inuvik Hunters and Trappers Committee.
By 2009, there had been minimal ecological recovery. However, Inuvialuit convinced scientists that the surge was having lasting effects on the Mackenzie Delta ecosystem. The scientists realized that studies of the area would be vital to regional ecosystem planning, and to the assessment and monitoring of the cumulative impacts of development and climate change.
Funding from the NWT Cumulative Impacts Monitoring Program (CIMP) enabled researchers from the University of Victoria (Bennett and Lantz) and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) (Marchildon) to work with the Hunters and Trappers Committees of Inuvik, Aklavik, and Tuktoyaktuk on several community-based monitoring initiatives.
In the summer of 2010, Trevor Bennett, a Masters student at the University of Victoria, accompanied Inuvialuit elders and youth out on the land. Armed with digital cameras and hand-held GPS units, they participated in a monitoring exercise to record their observations of environmental conditions.
Participants documented environmental changes, including; shifts in wildlife and vegetation (range and distribution), drained lakes, thaw slumping, landslides, river bank erosion, increased run-off, increased overflows, changes in permafrost, as well as increasingly hazardous travel conditions. They also observed damage to infrastructure (roads, cabins, camps, buildings), important historical sites (traditionally used camps, travel routes, grave sites), and areas important for food harvesting.
The resulting photographs and videos were used as a basis for interviews about the observations. The detailed narratives recorded in these interviews, along with geo-referenced photos and video were organized into a web-based map . Developing the monitoring protocol and testing the utility of the method with a variety of stakeholders formed the basis of Bennett’s Master’s thesis.
The rapidly changing environment will impact northern communities in ways that are difficult to predict. The researchers concluded in their report that this pilot project shows that community-based monitoring can make a significant contribution to local planning that will increase community resilience in the face of changes brought about by climate change and other cumulative impacts of development: “In some areas, changes in land cover are occurring so rapidly that maintaining an accurate inventory is problematic. In this context of environmental change and uncertainty, there is critical need to draw on local knowledge and observations to inform decision-making. In the MDR, Inuvialuit hunters and trappers are in a unique position to assess ongoing changes in the regional environment and to inventory cumulative impacts. ” (Bennett, T.D., Lantz, T.C., and Esagok, D. in “Community-based Environmental Monitoring in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region”)
But it is the way in which the project was conducted that made it successful. By incorporating photography (the visual medium), photo-interviews (story-telling), time on the land traveling and observing, and the pairing of local youth and local experts, the project created a shared “language” between science and traditional knowledge. This, in turn, created a joint understanding of climate change processes that can be directly applied to strategies for community adaptation.
Research suggests these types of community-based monitoring efforts will significantly improve the capacity to quickly detect environmental changes that impact northern communities. Communities have a tool to share knowledge among themselves, across northern networks, and in meetings with researchers, regulators and decision-makers.
Although IPY funding for similar research initiatives ended in 2010, Canada recognizes the importance of community-based monitoring initiatives in the North, and is committed to funding monitoring projects that involve communities and address questions relevant to northerners and decision makers through the Cumulative Impacts Monitoring Program (CIMP).