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Climate Change Impacts

What is Climate Change Impact?

Climate Change Impact is a way of looking at the effects climate change has on the people and environment of Nunavut, over time.

Almost every part of life in the region will be touched by climate change. It’s important to be aware of these changes in order to deal with impacts that have already happened and prepare for those that will most likely take place.

For example, decreasing ice could allow increased shipping through Arctic waterways, including the Northwest Passage. While this may mean economic benefits for Nunavut, it can also raise the risk of oil and chemical spills. Increased land-use activities and natural resource development, together with population growth and an expanding economy, mean we must  plan to ensure environmental sustainability in the future.

Impacts on Culture, Health and Well-being

For centuries, Inuit have maintained a close relationship with ice (siku), land (nuna), sky (qilak), and wildlife (uumajut). Inuit rely on innovative survival skills adapted to the unique climate and weather of the Arctic. Rapid environmental changes will continue to affect Inuit culture and the well-being of all Nunavummiut.

Nunavummiut are part of a complex social and environmental system. Climate change in Nunavut cannot be addressed without considering other factors. Communities’ ability to cope and adapt to climate change will be limited by factors such as housing, poverty, food security, language, modernization, and the erosion of traditional land-based skills. All of these factors have direct impacts on the maintenance of Inuit cultural identity, and the well-being of Nunavummiut. 

Impacts on Traditional Activities

Many Nunavummiut depend on hunting, fishing and gathering to support themselves and the local economy in their communities. Local hunting practices have already changed and new technologies are increasingly relied upon.

Inuit elders, who traditionally used their skills to predict the weather, have observed changing cloud and wind patterns (see Voices From the Land for direct quotes from elders on the changes they have witnessed). Their weather and climate-related knowledge does not fit with today’s weather conditions and patterns. Unpredictable weather and climate has increased the risk of travelling on the land. This has made it very difficult for elders to pass along their weather prediction skills to younger generations.

Some traditional travel routes are now unreachable, preventing the use of traditional camp sites. According to many elders and community members, decreasing water levels make travelling by boat more difficult. The early melt of lakes, rivers and sea ice make travel routes unsafe in the spring, and thawing permafrost makes travel by ATV in the summertime more difficult. 

Impacts on Food Security

Climate change’s projected impacts include less access to wildlife and more safety risks from changes in sea ice thickness and distribution, permafrost conditions and extreme weather events. This means traditional food security may be significantly affected.

The shift from country food to expensive, store-bought, and often unhealthy food items has had negative effects on Inuit health and cultural identity. Climate change can make this problem even worse.

Food storage is also affected by warmer temperatures and thawing permafrost. Interviews with elders suggest that outdoor meat caches, which used to remain fresh and preserved in the cold, now spoil.

Country food is still the healthiest food choice for Nunavummiut. However, climate change may increase human exposure to contaminants. A shifting climate can change air and water currents that bring contaminants into the Arctic.Also, changes in ice cover and thawing permafrost appear to have contributed to increased mercury levels in some northern lakes. This results in more contaminants making their way into plants, animals, and ultimately humans.

Impacts on Health and Diseases

Diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans (scientists call them “zoonotic diseases”) are expected to rise as temperatures warm. Previously isolated animal species may come in contact with each other when natural barriers like ice or snow decrease from climate change. This can increase the spread of diseases.

Extreme weather and natural hazards are both direct impacts on human health from a changing climate. Unpredictable weather patterns may cause more accidents and emergency situations. Search and rescue missions are affected, as searches are often held back by these unpredictable weather patterns.

Impacts on Heritage and Special Places

Heritage and special places in Nunavut are being affected by permafrost degradation and increased coastal erosion caused by the late freezing of sea ice. The cold Arctic climate helps preserve organic material frozen in permafrost. If the permafrost changes, it will ruin cultural remains and archaeological artifacts that were previously preserved. Ongoing freeze-thaw cycles promote the decay of artifacts such as sod houses (many of which hold their form because of permafrost) and other historical resources, such as sites relating to European exploration of the Arctic. Naturally occurring coastal erosion is expected get worse as sea levels rise. This will threaten historic sites on southern Baffin Island, northern Victoria Island and the western high Arctic islands, where little archaeological surveying has been done.

Nunavut has seen more tourists who want to experience our unique Arctic environment and visit heritage sites, parks and special places. Nunavut’s historic and archaeological resources are key attractions for cruise ships and other visitors. Their deterioration can negatively impact tourism.

Impacts on Infrastructure

Over the past several decades, we have used the unique properties of frozen ground, or permafrost, to our advantage. We tailored the engineering of buildings around the characteristics of frozen ground.  Permafrost presents challenges to the construction, operation and maintenance of buildings, airports, roads and other northern infrastructure.

As a result, changes in permafrost, ice conditions, precipitation, drainage patterns, temperatures, and extreme weather events can have negative results for infrastructure designed for permafrost conditions.

Permafrost thaw can cause building foundations to shift and become weak. Frozen ground provides a secure foundation. If it does not stay frozen, its strength and integrity – or ability to support a building, pipeline, road or airstrip – may be affected. Older facilities may be more vulnerable because climate change was not considered when these structures were built.

The impacts of climate change are expected to become a major burden on government resources. Municipal infrastructure impacted by degrading permafrost (for example, sinking/cracking buildings) may divert resources from building new infrastructure. Engineering and construction practices for building on changing permafrost are being developed. However, these changing practices will affect the cost of both construction and maintenance of current and future infrastructure.

Pipelines, roads and airstrips, which also rely on permafrost for structural integrity, are experiencing stresses from shifting and thawing grounds. Eventually, these will need to be repaired due to changing freeze and thaw conditions.

Although new infrastructure is being designed to suit a changing environment, existing water and waste containment facilities may not have been designed for current and future warming trends. These facilities and other naturally-occurring containment structures may fail, with possible impacts on the environment and human health. 

Land-use activities contribute to changes in the structure of the ground and permafrost by altering the amount of sunlight absorption, and changing the flow of water. This can cause collapsed roadways, and shifting building foundations. Avoiding this will involve a great deal of planning to make sure that infrastructural integrity is maintained. Environmental changes and effects on permafrost are presently considered in community land-use planning and climate change adaptation plans. Current data and tools being developed will continue to provide information to design appropriate, sustainable infrastructure that works in a changing climate.

Impacts on Transportation

Decreasing sea ice thickness and cover will open areas of land and water that have been inaccessible. This will lead to more shipping and industrial activities. While a longer summer shipping season will generate more economic opportunities for Nunavut, it will also increase risks to the environment, most notably through spills and other pollution incidents. 

Other transportation-related challenges have been identified. For example, sea ice changes present challenges to traditional snowmobile or dog team transportation routes.  New or alternate routes will be needed to continue safe traditional hunting and recreational activities. 

Degrading permafrost and changing freeze-thaw cycles have visibly shifted and cracked the surface of airport runways throughout Nunavut. This is a significant transportation challenge because air travel is a main resource for Nunavummiut to receive food and supplies.

In response to these challenges, Nunavut will need improved research, monitoring and response capabilities. This includes new and better infrastructure, mapping, and navigational systems. Improved infrastructure will likely include roads, asphalt paved runways, and fixed marine structures in coastal areas.

Impacts on Resource Development

An increase in exploration and industrial activities will likely result from current climate change projections, which include reduced sea ice cover and warmer temperatures. The Canadian Arctic Archipelago has the potential for vast hydrocarbon deposits and other mineral deposits. Oil and mineral resource development are expected to increase.

Renewable resource development, such as fisheries, will also be impacted by climate change. Fishing in Nunavut is an important part of the economy and subsistence living. It is likely that the number of fish species present in the waters off Nunavut will increase as sub-arctic species will move further north with the warming climate. Although this can result in new opportunities for fisheries, it can also bring parasites and new predators. Current and planned fisheries activities and management will need to be continuously monitored and adjusted to address the impacts of climate change.

Impacts on Tourism

Longer summers can result in an extended ‘high’ tourism season and increased tourism activity. Decreasing ice cover is likely to result in more shipping traffic, particularly cruise ship activity, into areas that were formerly inaccessible and/or had limited access. While beneficial, more marine tourism brings challenges in the form of impacts on communities, historic resources, and the environment in general.  Addressing these challenges will require additional resources.   

Impacts on Arts and Crafts

An increase in tourism should lead to more sales of arts and crafts, and milder weather will make access to carving stone possible for longer periods during the year. However, sudden and unexpected weather patterns and thawing permafrost can pose a risk to the safety of artists and businesses accessing quarry sites at great distances from the communities.

Impacts on Energy

The changing climate will potentially have great impacts on our energy sector. Warmer temperatures will affect our heating requirements, making it less expensive to heat buildings.

Existing power plants will be affected by changes in permafrost conditions, which will influence the stability of infrastructure. Settling of foundations in existing power plants has already been noticed. Degrading permafrost is also expected to impact fuel tank farms and transmission lines. For example, permafrost degradation has created conditions where hydro poles are easier to install.  At the same time, degradation is also responsible for destabilizing poles, causing them lean precariously because of weaker soil

Changes in water and precipitation patterns along with permafrost degradation may impact hydroelectricity development. Previous studies that estimated hydroelectric potential will no longer be reliable as the flow patterns in our lakes and rivers may change as a consequence of climate change. Some studies have suggested that precipitation will increase, which can have a positive effect on the amount of water available for hydroelectric power production. Possible changes in wind patterns may affect the feasibility of wind generation.