Community-based Monitoring and the Changing Arctic

Henry Huntington, Arctic science director for The Pew Charitable Trusts, traveled to Canada's western Arctic in November for a meeting about community-based monitoring, a program that engages local residents in collecting data and observations about the environment.

Cambridge Bay, Nunavut—Edmonton was icy and snowy, so our flight left an hour late after de-icing. We flew a couple of hours north to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, changed planes, and traveled another two hours northeast, past the tree line and over the waters of the Northwest Passage to Victoria Island and Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a town of 1,500 people in the middle of the Canadian Arctic. I was one of three dozen people who made the journey last month to attend a workshop about community-based monitoring, organized by Oceans North Canada, a collaborative effort of Pew and Ducks Unlimited. In a village where the sun just barely cleared the horizon at noon and would soon vanish altogether until January, we gathered to discuss the ways local residents can help assess how climate change affects the melting Arctic.

Flying over that much territory with no visible sign of human presence, I was reminded of the vastness of the Arctic. There are few places to land an airplane, ship traffic is limited by sea ice, and winter darkness can limit travel and activity. Yet the Arctic environment is rapidly changing—and as it becomes more accessible, interest in mineral and petroleum development, shipping, and industrial-scale fishing is increasing every bit as fast. So how can we track these rapid shifts?

One answer is community-based monitoring. People who live in the Arctic spend a lot of time on the land and sea throughout the year, and they already know a great deal about these ecosystems. Employing their talents can deepen knowledge of the environment through observations and interpretation. This information can also be an important tool to better understand and predict the potential impact of Arctic development on Inuit and northern communities.

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Does a new road affect caribou migration patterns? Ask the hunters who have been there for countless generations.

Does warmer weather mean animals are ranging farther north? Ask the people who have watched and named all the animals around their homes.

Is sea ice forming later in fall? Ask those who travel on it all winter, paying close attention to thin ice and other hazards.

Questions like these have many implications for safety and livelihoods, as well as for conservation. Getting people involved in answering such questions—and providing specific ways for them to report what they are often already observing and monitoring—is a proven path toward more responsive conservation.

Among those who participated in the Cambridge Bay workshop was Finn Danielsen, a Danish researcher with worldwide experience. His work demonstrates that community-based monitoring leads to more rapid results than other tracking systems, in large part because local people have a strong stake in both the research and what is done with their findings.

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Vigorous discussions took place during the three-day workshop, and interest was high. Five participants from the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories spoke movingly about their efforts to set up a regional monitoring program linking their six communities, a project supported by Oceans North Canada. As Frank Pokiak, chairman of the Inuvialuit Game Council, said, “With their help, we are monitoring what we want to monitor.”

His statement highlights how community-based monitoring helps build relationships with Inuit, provides work that is meaningful to Arctic residents, and results in data that can be used for conservation. Without local support, little conservation would take place in this region, but with community participation, a great deal is possible.

Workshop participants from Alaska, Nunavut, Labrador, and Greenland expressed similar sentiments about the local importance of community-based monitoring. Many such efforts are underway, and much can be learned from them. Everyone agreed, for example, that it is essential to have a coordinator to sustain the monitoring effort, answer questions, and connect monitors with each other or with scientists.

It is also clear that Arctic residents have a lot they want to say. Perhaps more importantly, they want to be partners in what happens in the Arctic, not just participants in something designed and run by others. Many workshop attendees spoke with pride about the monitoring activities they are already engaged in, projects that are helping to assess and track the effects of industrial development and climate change.

Oceans North Canada began its work in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region almost five years ago by supporting a precautionary fisheries management plan to protect the Beaufort Sea. That collaboration with the Inuvialuit led to the community-based monitoring effort, as well as our engagement in evaluating offshore oil and gas activities in their region.

As we digest what we discussed and learned in Cambridge Bay, Pew's Oceans North Canada team will be thinking about ways we can extend our support for community-based monitoring, building on the successes that the Inuvialuit have already had. And we'll fondly remember our conversations with new friends from across the North and the delicious meals of Arctic char and caribou that we shared.

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