Indigenous hunter Jim Antoine has watched the decline of caribou herds with alarm, convinced that global warming is at least partially responsible for the crisis in Canada’s far north.
An important food source for the Dene people, an indigenous group living in the northern boreal and Arctic regions of Canada, as well as for other northern communities, the caribou population has crashed in recent years. Scientists, hunters and government officials say there are several possible causes for the fall in numbers of the woodland caribou that prefer cooler conditions, but climate change is likely a significant driver.
In parts of the Northwest Territories, average annual temperatures have already risen more than three degrees over the past two decades, a local politician said, impacting everything from housing and transportation to the local caribou population. This comes amid rising fears that the world is not on track to limit greenhouse gas emissions to keep temperatures within a U.N. goal of two degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial times, which will be debated at a global conference in December.
“We live with (climate change) every day,” Antoine said at his home in Fort Simpson, a mostly Dene community of about 1,200 residents just over 500 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. Piles of moose meat from a recent hunt sit on a table in his garage. A large man with thinning silver hair and wry smile, Antoine led the Northwest Territories as Premier in the late 1990s, giving him a front row seat on the changes taking place in the north.
“In the old days, it stayed cold for a longer time and there was more water on the land … all of that will impact the animals,” Antoine said between bites of moose meat and sips of tea during a late night interview in his comfortable, suburban-style home.
The caribou crisis is one manifestation of climate change facing residents in a region considered the “canary in the coal mine” by environmentalists, as global warming is felt here first and often with more intensity than other areas. The Arctic ecosystems, Greenland ice sheet, and tropical coral reefs are systems earmarked as particularly vulnerable to increased temperatures.
Scientists fear the vast, frigid Arctic region is warming at twice the rate of other parts of the globe, which threatens traditional communities even as it opens up new sea lanes and vast oil and mineral resources.
Wildlife are particularly affected by the changes. The number of breeding females in one major caribou herd, a key population indicator, dropped by half between 2015 and 2012, the territorial government said in late September.
In 1986, the herd was approximately 470,000 strong. Now it’s down to about 16,000.
As warming continues across the once frozen north, residents worry the situation will get worse. With hunted meat drying above the stove, a roaring wood fire keeping the place warm, and massive hunting dogs roaming around, Joseph Antoine, a relative of Jim’s with decades of experience on the land, worries about the future. “This decline of the caribou is not going to stop,” Joseph said. “Certain areas had a huge amount of caribou at one time.”
While indigenous hunters are feeling the effects of climate change first, the problems they have faced over the past two decades with increasing ferocity will invariably impact larger populations further south, scientists said.
Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the global average, according to a Cambridge University study released in September. As permafrost melts due to rising temperatures, long buried carbon dioxide and methane seep from the ground, creating a potentially catastrophic feedback loop. The expected cost of melting permafrost, according to the Cambridge study, could soar to $43 trillion in economic damage by the end of the century.
Earlier melts and later freezing of winter ice could be part of the reason for reduced caribou populations, scientists said, as normal migration routes to breeding grounds or winter food sources are disrupted.
The crash in the caribou population is not unique to Canada with similar declines happening across the north, said Nancy Maynard, an Emeritus Scientist with NASA. The numbers of reindeer – a cousin of the caribou – in Norway and Russia’s eastern regions are also declining rapidly, she said, citing ice melts, increased forest fires linked to warming, and industrial development as possible causes.
During the winter months, caribou survive by using their hooves to dig through deep piles of snow to reach lichen and other plants buried underneath. But warmer temperatures have led to winter snow melts or rain on the snow, which later freezes, forming layers of ice interspersed with deep snow.
This means the caribou can’t break through the ice to forage for food and can sometimes starve due to “pasture lockout”, Maynard said. “The changes are happening so fast and it’s dramatic how people are forced to cope.”
“The rate of change has accelerated and it has been surprising scientists,” she said. “Particularly over the last few years, extreme and unpredictable weather has become really noticeable and measurable.”
Healthy eating imperiled
In northern villages like Fort Simpson, caribou hunting isn’t just a cultural practice honed over generations, or a marker of indigenous identity, but essential to the local diet. The meat represents a key food source in a region where groceries normally cost more than double southern prices.
“People are nutritionally affected by the caribou (decline),” Bob Bromley, a politician said during an interview at the legislature in the territorial capital Yellowknife. “They have been raised on caribou and their bodies are adjusted to deal with that kind of food. Store bought food is not as healthy and usually has higher fat and sugar content than they are used to.”
With the decline in animal populations, and a reliance on expensive store-bought food, much of the north fares poorly for health indicators. Obesity is rising, physical activity is declining and lifestyle related ailments like diabetes and cancer are increasing across the Northwest Territories, with indigenous people particularly affected, the government said in a 2014 report. It did not provide specific statistics.
It’s difficult to draw a direct link between negative health indicators and global warming, but residents across the region said they believed there was a connection.
In some small communities, people depend on traditional foods for up to a third of what they eat, said Jessie Mackenzie from the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research. “(Almost) every household has someone who hunts or traps for food,” the Dene researcher said. “The warmer temperatures are causing the caribou to become more food insecure, and we, in turn, become more food insecure.”
Across northern Canada, the number of people depending on food aid more than doubled between 2013 and 2008, according to a report from Food Banks Canada. More than 3,500 people in Canada’s three northern regions – the Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories – now depend on food assistance in a “dire public health emergency”, the report said.
Along with the decline in caribou, high transportation costs of trucking or flying food throughout the Northwest Territories, an area larger than Egypt with a population of less than 50,000, also stoke food insecurity. Vegetables and other fresh foods are particularly expensive, leading some residents to opt for cheaper pasta or canned goods, exacerbating health problems.
When moose, caribou or other large animals are available for hunting, ice melts and changes in the land due to warming are making life harder, and less safe for hunters, residents and scientists said. Many residents hunt on snowmobiles and rely on traditional knowledge of ice thickness to navigate the region’s frozen lakes and rivers with four to five feet of snow on the ground in winter.
With global warming, the ice in some northern regions isn’t freezing as deeply and is melting earlier, said Jamal Shirley, a manager at the Nunavut Research Institute in Canada’s northernmost territory.
According to Shirley, a number of younger people, who often don’t have enough traditional knowledge to know when the ice is safe, have died in recent years by falling through weak ice when fishing.
Problems like these can’t be blamed on climate change alone, he acknowledged, citing historical trauma faced by indigenous residents due to colonization, language loss, food insecurity and other contributing factors.
“With all of these factors occurring at the same time as climate change, it’s hard to look at the challenges in isolation,” said Shirley. “Ultimately, nature is in control here and human beings are vulnerable.”
That vulnerability is increasing in some regions, as the weather becomes more erratic due to climate change. Some residents, including Jim Antoine, believe a five degree rise in northern temperatures is likely if current trends continue based recent rises and the amount of carbon dioxide still being emitted into the atmosphere.
Few have faith that their situation will improve following another round of United Nations climate negotiations in Paris in December where the 193 member nations are due to agree on a new global deal to slow climate change.
“The countries doing the polluting aren’t going to stop,” said Antoine. “We aren’t the ones causing climate change, but we are the ones living with it.”