Climate change-caused arctic animal migration is affecting Inuit communities

2021-06-11

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

Migration sustains both humans and animals, especially in the Arctic. The Arctic is the fastest-warming region in the world, impacting populations who rely on changing seasons to guide their migration. 

How does climate change impact arctic animals and their migration? 

Temperature influences the movement of animals through the region. As the average temperature warms, rain in the winter is becoming a more frequent phenomenon. Rain forms ice over vegetation and snow, preventing animals from reaching their food sources. 

As terrestrial animals lose access to resources, population sizes change significantly. 

Pink-footed geese, which migrate to northern arctic regions for breeding, have increased reproduction success due to reduced snow cover. As a result, the goose population nearly doubled from 2003 to 2014. This might seem like a good consequence, but geese are herbivores, and a heavy increase in their population size means less vegetation is available for other herbivores in the area. 

During the summer, caribou, which are a vulnerable species, migrate to the Arctic tundra to feed on grasses and plants. However, with rain-on-snow weather events and higher populations of geese and other animals, caribou have a harder time finding vegetation. 

The patterns of migration are shifting and the consequences are already being felt.

Reindeer migration is shifting one day earlier every year. This new pattern is exposing newborn calves to extreme weather events and stormy conditions. Reindeer migrate to breed, and their numbers are declining faster than usual with the impacts of climate change.

A study examining data from 1991 to 2019 found that the golden eagle is migrating north a half-day earlier every year. The migration patterns of adult eagles are shifting significantly more than juvenile eagles. Juveniles may not be mating early enough, and adults could be migrating before there are enough food sources in the Arctic. The study’s comparison of the adaptation of predators and prey found that those two groups are also shifting their migration differently.

How are humans being impacted?

Inuit communities living in Canadian Arctic regions, known collectively as Inuit Nunangat, rely on healthy populations of fish, birds, and mammals for food, clothing, money, and art. The diet of many Inuit is primarily made up of meat from animals that are rich in nutrients. Blubber (maktaaq) from beluga whales, narwhals, ringed seals, walruses, and bowhead whales provides vitamin A, vitamin C, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are especially important in regions that do not often have access to affordable fresh fruit. Caribou and seal meat are high in iron and protein. Oil for lamp fuel, skins for clothing and income, bones and antlers for home goods and tools, and leather for boots and art are all necessary resources for Inuit communities. With some animal populations in decline, these resources and the cultures, lives and incomes they support are under threat. 

Animal migration is connected to human migration, and many Inuit communities move with their resources. Inuit depend on strong sea ice to support hunting routes and living areas. Sea ice is thinning due to changing temperatures, making many hunting grounds less accessible during the warm season. Some communities rely on barges for a supply of resources, but melting ice has eroded many barge sites, forcing either village relocation or the construction of new barge sites

How can we solve this problem?

Inuit have experience and knowledge of the patterns and changes happening in the Arctic, and have advocated extensively for support and government action. The Inuit Tapiritt Kanatami organization released a climate action plan that states: “…we require an ‘ice lens’ to be applied to climate policies, investments, and decision making in Inuit Nunangut to allow our unique adaptation needs to be met in the face of our changing ice conditions.” These changes threaten a disconnect between the land and Inuit, especially youth, increasing the risk of declined mental and physical health. The income of many Inuit relies on healthy populations of animals, as documented in the 2016 film “Angry Inuk”, directed by Althea Arnaquq-Baril. Inuit must be supported, and their actions, knowledge, and rights are respected, to mitigate the impacts of climate change on communities in the Arctic.

Some scientists are trying to engineer a solution to lessen the impacts of Arctic climate change. The organization Ice911 developed small beads made from silica, which are scattered over rapidly warming areas. The beads insulate ice and protect it from melting by reflecting direct sunlight. The Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative, created by the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, collected experts on migratory birds to develop a plan of action. The plan identifies four main actions, including assessing the causes of shifting migration and beginning conservation efforts in non-Arctic countries. 

The Arctic depends on biodiversity and healthy communities. In very few places are the impacts of climate change so apparent over one lifetime. Arctic migration is changing, and our climate policies, actions, and programs must ensure safe destinations.