Hunting Musk Oxen and Building High Tunnels in the Arctic

In the words of one Arctic native, “the earth is faster now.” Rapid changes such as melting sea ice, rising temperatures, drying lakes, and melting permafrost threaten Arctic natives’ ways of life, particularly their traditional food systems based on hunting and fishing. Environmental changes may be reinforcing broader cultural and economic shifts in Arctic communities, accelerating the transition away from traditional foods. However, recent research indicates that declines in traditional foods have not been adequately compensated for by imported store-bought foods, as indicated by rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and economic and psychological stress. Climate change may thus be contributing to declining food security and health in many native Arctic communities.

Inuit elders eating Maktaaq (bowhead whale blubber), (photo by Ansgar Walk)

Inuit elders eating Maktaaq (bowhead whale blubber), (photo by Ansgar Walk)

Food security” is defined as the ability of individuals and communities to reliably access food, and for that food to be of sufficient quantity and quality. Traditional food systems in the Arctic, largely based on hunting, rely heavily upon environmental conditions to ensure their food’s quantity, quality, and access: they are dependent upon consistent animal populations, migration patterns, and physical access to hunting grounds.

Over the last two decades, average Arctic temperatures have risen by 2-3O C, twice the rate of lower latitudes. Associated physical changes include melting sea ice, melting permafrost, and changing weather patterns. Animal populations such as caribou, whale, and fish are declining in health and quantity, and their migration patterns are shifting, affecting both food availability and food quality for Arctic communities. Access to food is also affected; in some areas hunters have greater difficulty getting to hunting grounds due to reduced sea ice or variable weather events. These changing conditions lead people to feel that they “can’t use this [traditional] knowledge now.”

Environmental changes are not the only threat to Arctic peoples’ traditional food systems. Climate change interacts with already-present cultural and economic shifts away from traditional subsistence lifestyles. Research has documented that younger generations of Arctic natives consume greater amounts of store-bought food than their parents. This trend is partly cultural and economic, but also partly driven by environmental change; some research has found that when traditional foods are scarce, Arctic communities increasingly rely upon purchased food.

Musk Oxen (photo by Hans Grobe)

Musk Oxen (photo by Hans Grobe)

The concern is that as environmental changes make traditional foods increasingly scarce, the resulting food insecurity will not be resolved by a shift to purchased foods. In remote regions of Alaska and Northern Canada, purchased foods also have unreliable access, quality, and availability. Because they are shipped long distances by air or boat, these foods are often expensive, of low nutritional quality, and environmentally costly. The transition to consuming greater quantities of purchased food has been linked to rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and nutrient deficiencies in native Arctic communities.

Imported food is also vulnerable to unpredictable disruptions and variability in supply, pricing, and quality—a reality that will only worsen as climate change increases the severity of storms, fog, and reduces sea ice further.

The shift away from traditional food systems has accompanied a loss of cultural identity, affecting community ties, traditions, gender roles, and psychological well-being. The complex relationship between food and culture indicates that strategies for improving health and food security in Native Arctic communities may require the strengthening, not the weakening, of local culture and knowledge. Efforts in this direction could include knowledge sharing between Arctic communities, increasing knowledge transfer between generations, and strengthening community health education.

High Tunnel in Homer, Alaska (photo by Eve Kilcher)

High Tunnel in Homer, Alaska (photo by Eve Kilcher)

Other adaptation strategies on the table include efforts to diversify food sources, such as shifting from hunting caribou to hunting musk oxen, and introducing greenhouse garden programs to increase the availability of fresh and affordable vegetables. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, for example, could serve as a model for expansion to native villages.

Arctic native peoples may be the proverbial canaries in the coal mine signaling how climate change disrupts human communities. Because the Arctic has warmed more rapidly than lower latitudes, the difficulties experienced by Arctic natives may indicate broader challenges for food security in a warming world. Their story suggests a dual imperative of both urgent climate change mitigation and greater attention to culturally specific adaptation processes.

—By Jessie Luna

Jessie Luna holds a Masters in Sustainable Development from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and is currently a PhD student in Environmental Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. She researches food systems and sustainable development.

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