Climate change and food security in the North

Climate change is altering arctic environments and affecting wildlife. What does this mean for food security in northern Indigenous communities?

In the North, food security starts with a healthy ecosystem—a wide variety of thriving plants, insects, birds, and mammals. Northern Indigenous peoples have always depended on wildlife for food. They have profound respect for the animals and an intimate connection with the land and sea. Climate change is affecting the health of that ecosystem and its wildlife in complex ways.

How is climate change affecting caribou migration?

Caribou, a food staple in many northern Indigenous communities, migrate long distances twice a year. These are epic journeys demanding tremendous stamina and energy. Caribou draw that energy from the strength they build over the preceding months and from the plants they eat along the way. Climate change can bring deeper snow and thinner ice to water bodies, which makes the journey tougher, so the caribou need more energy to complete it. Some may not succeed.

On the other hand, climate change also brings warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons, which can improve the quality and abundance of the plants that caribou eat. Better food means more energy and strength to cope with the deep snow and thin ice.

How is climate change affecting hunters?

Climate change can also introduce obstacles for the hunters who supply their communities with food. If the ice on long-established travel routes becomes unreliable, hunters must use other routes. This may mean travelling further and using more fuel. They may have to change their plans and go to a different area — to fish, for example, rather than hunt caribou. This could push the cost of hunting up and lower the quantity and quality of the food hunters bring home.

Experienced hunters are responsible for training young hunters to be competent and confident on the land, sea, and sea ice, in all conditions. This is more difficult when climate change disrupts ice and familiar weather patterns that have been there for generations.

How is climate change affecting foodborne illnesses?

Warmer temperatures may bring more foodborne illnesses. This may be the result of new parasites, or if traditional food preparation and storage methods that depend on the cold—e.g., air-drying meat outside or preserving it underground in the permafrost— become less reliable.

Conclusion

Community-based environment and wildlife monitoring is key to understanding how climate change affects food security. Indigenous experts from the community and scientists collaborate to plan and run these monitoring programs, making sure they fit local environments and priorities. There are several of these monitoring programs operating in the North.

Both science and Indigenous knowledge—plus the resourcefulness, adaptability, and determination that northern Indigenous peoples are well known for—are invaluable to northern communities as they assess and adapt to today's climate change challenges and plan for the future.

Polar Knowledge Canada

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