IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

15.6 Case studies

15.6.1 Case study: traditional knowledge for adaptation

Among Arctic peoples, the selection pressures for the evolution of an effective knowledge base have been exceptionally strong, driven by the need to survive off highly variable natural resources in the remote, harsh Arctic environment. In response, they have developed a strong knowledge base concerning weather, snow and ice conditions as they relate to hunting and travel, and natural resource availability (Krupnik and Jolly, 2002). These systems of knowledge, belief and practice have been developed through experience and culturally transmitted among members and across generations (Huntington, 1998; Berkes, 1999). This Arctic indigenous knowledge offers detailed information that adds to conventional science and environmental observations, as well as to a holistic understanding of environment, natural resources and culture (Huntington et al., 2004). There is an increasing awareness of the value of Arctic indigenous knowledge and a growing collaborative effort to document it. In addition, this knowledge is an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change. Finally, local knowledge is essential for understanding the effects of climate change on indigenous communities (Riedlinger and Berkes, 2001; Krupnik and Jolly, 2002) and how, for example, some communities have absorbed change through flexibility in traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices.

The generation and application of this knowledge is evidenced in the ability of Inuit hunters to navigate new travel and hunting routes despite decreasing ice stability and safety (e.g., Lafortune et al., 2004); in the ability of many indigenous groups to locate and hunt species such as geese and caribou that have shifted their migration times and routes and to begin to locate and hunt alternative species moving into the region (e.g., Krupnik and Jolly, 2002; Nickels et al., 2002; Huntington et al., 2005); the ability to detect safe sea ice and weather conditions in an environment with increasingly uncharacteristic weather (George et al., 2004); or the knowledge and skills required to hunt marine species in open water later in the year under different sea ice conditions (Community of Arctic Bay, 2005).

Although Arctic peoples show great resilience and adaptability, some traditional responses to environmental change have already been compromised by recent socio-political changes. Their ability to cope with substantial climatic change in future, without a fundamental threat to their cultures and lifestyles, cannot be considered as unlimited. The generation and application of traditional knowledge requires active engagement with the environment, close social networks in communities, and respect for and recognition of the value of this form of knowledge and understanding. Current social, economic and cultural trends, in some communities and predominantly among younger generations, towards a more western lifestyle has the potential to erode the cycle of traditional knowledge generation and transfer, and hence its contribution to adaptive capacity.