Indigenous Communities in Arctic Hit Hardest by Climate Change

The cost of doing “business as usual” is externalized to indigenous communities. What can we do about it?

Mickey Snowdon
Oct 10, 2019 · 6 min read

By Mickey Snowdon, Communications Liaison at The Collider

A ship cruises through melted sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Photo courtesy Pixabay.

This Monday, most of our country will observe Columbus Day — but depending on where you live, you might be celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.

The holiday first gained political support when it was declared an international holiday in 1994 by the United Nations’ (UN) General Assembly. Now, at least six states and 130 cities and towns in the US observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

While not everyone favors the holiday — particularly some Italians, who claim Columbus Day is a celebration of Italian heritage and not the slaughter of Native Americans — it does provide a much-needed opportunity to discuss the climate risks facing indigenous communities.

According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs,

Of these indigenous populations, none are feeling the effects of climate change quite as directly as those in the Arctic.

The Arctic region is far more sensitive to global warming than the rest of the world in part because so much of the region is made up of ice and snow, which is melting. Here’s how it works: sea and earth are darker in color than ice and snow and therefore absorb more of the sun’s rays, which heats the water and land — causing ice and snow to melt. This becomes a feedback loop in which the more ice and snow that melt, the more earth and sea are exposed, and the more heat the region absorbs.

Thinning sea ice, drastic and unpredictable weather patterns, thawing permafrost, freshening of surface ocean water, and contamination of drinking water are some of the larger issues plaguing indigenous Arctic dwellers. Because indigenous peoples are so intimately connected to their ecosystems, climate change has the potential to cripple them.

We’re not just talking about a few small groups of people here, either. The Arctic has over four million residents, of which 10 percent are indigenous to the area.

Melting sea ice across the Arctic is hindering indigenous peoples’ ability to hunt, fish, and travel. Photo by user Free-Photos on Pixabay.

Thawing of permafrost increases erosion which can destroy buildings and shelters within native communities, and in extreme cases can lead to the relocation of entire villages. Changes in surface ice and snow conditions affect peoples’ ability to hunt, fish, harvest and herd, which in turn increases their likelihood of malnutrition because they must turn to processed, store-bought food, which is prohibitively expensive (milk is 15 dollars a gallon). For indigenous Arctic residents, loss of traditional hunting grounds and reduced animal populations is resulting in a loss of culture and traditions.

In other words, climate change is depriving these people from living healthy lives connected with the ecosystems they call home.

What about climate-changing industries that are located within the Arctic? While oil production from onshore reserves in Alaska and Russia has been the norm for decades, offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean is now on the rise due to advances in technology and — ironically — increased accessibility caused by melting sea ice.

Yet in the Murmansk region of Northern Russia, 8.2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) comes from fisheries around the Barents Sea. Two indigenous populations — the Saami and the Komi peoples — call the Murmansk region home, and could face a plethora of detrimental effects from environmental degradation (like an oil spill) caused by fuel extraction in the Barents Sea.

A Shell oil rig in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. Photo by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on Flickr.

Aside from oil and gas, the Arctic has many other sought-after natural resources like fish, forests, and minerals, which beckon extraction companies. The global demand for these resources, coupled with the ability to access them, has led to an increase in Arctic migration, which has increased urbanization in the region.

These changes can be both positive and negative (depending on how you look at them), and have social, cultural, political, and health effects on indigenous communities such as:

  • Loss of languages
  • Obesity and diabetes
  • Increased education
  • Increased job opportunities

Why does the Arctic matter? Simply put, the effects of climate change on the Arctic will impact the rest of the world. According to Tim Williams of the Canadian Library of Parliament, “The three mechanisms most often discussed [regarding global climate change] are decreasing reflectivity of the Earth (albedo), changing ocean circulation, and releases of carbon from thawing permafrost.”

Decreased reflectivity of the Earth due to a decrease in ice and an increase in water means the planet will retain more of its heat. Ocean circulation will change due to a decrease in the salinity of ocean water, potentially causing drastic temperature fluctuations across the globe. Thawing permafrost releases carbon into the atmosphere, which isn’t just contained to the Arctic (it effects you, too). Melting ice in the Arctic also means rising sea levels in other parts of the world, biodiversity loss in oceans, plus a multitude of other consequences that have yet to be examined.


Aside from limiting the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or convincing extraction companies to leave the Arctic, what can we do about the region’s dire situation?

Collider member Climate Interactive has developed a technology called the Climate Scoreboard — also known as the UN Climate Analysis tool — which predicts the actual effects that the emissions benchmarks individual countries propose to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) would have on our climate.

While Climate Interactive has long been a leader in developing climate mitigation technologies, they are now working on a “multisolving” program which takes an equity-centered approach on leading climate issues worldwide. Climate Interactive explains that the term “multisolving” refers to finding solutions rooted in justice that reduce fossil fuel use and produce co-benefits in health, resilience, and well-being.

Basically, by incorporating multisolving solutions into climate technology, Climate Interactive seeks to understand the impacts of climate change on the health and well-being of human populations.

Collider member Climate Arts and Sciences Expertise (CASE) Consultants International was an early educator regarding global warming in the Arctic and its impacts on the economic and environmental viability of its residents.

In 2014, CASE’s Founder and President, Marjorie McGuirk, gave a presentation regarding the implications of transportation and human development on the Arctic due to global warming at the 94th American Meteorological Society in Atlanta, Georgia.

During her lecture, she predicted that in the coming years, the Arctic would experience an increase in settlements, trade routes, and associated infrastructure due to melting sea ice — which has already proven true.

In 2016, McGuirk gave a similar presentation at the 13th International Seminar on Climate System and Climate Change in Chengdu, China to bring awareness to and reduce the impact of climate change at a global level.

Whether it’s Climate Interactive’s mitigation technologies allowing policymakers to visualize global emissions strategies or CASE’s international research and education efforts, Collider members are doing their part to address climate issues facing indigenous Arctic communities.


Inspired by the plight of indigenous peoples in the Arctic? Check out the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit for more in-depth resources:

The Collider Blog

Where climate stories are told.

Mickey Snowdon

Written by

Writer | Grad student | Climate warrior | Outdoor enthusiast | Bibliophile

The Collider Blog

Where climate stories are told.

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