‘A better job than we ever did:’ Nunavut researchers turn to civil scientists

IQALUIT – There are more than 60 words to describe sea ice in Inuktitut.

For Nunavut hunters, the words are critical when riding a snowmobile or dog team across a frozen ocean road.

In Pond Inlet, north of Baffin Island, Andrew Arreak spends a lot of time compiling the words and their definitions. He says he plans to share his list with the community and with local schools to help people stay safe.

“I try to get all these words right so they know what to expect when they’re on the ice.”

Arreak heads the Nunavut operations of SmartICE, an organization based in the area and the Nunatsiavut region in Newfoundland and Labrador. It combines local knowledge of sea ice with modern technology, using sensors to determine ice thickness and collect data on ice conditions, which communities can use when leaving on the ice.

Although SmartICE continued research throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, other scientists and researchers in the south were shut down outside the area this year, thanks to Nunavut staff.

“SmartICE did not miss a ride during COVID,” said Trevor Bell, a professor at Memorial University in St. Louis. John’s, NL, and the founder of SmartICE.

He says research is always set up to work locally.

“We have put our monitoring equipment in the hands of community members from the beginning. They are able to operate and generate information about the sea ice … without any intervention from us.

“It’s run by communities for communities in the North. The benefit of that is seen in a year like this.”

Nunavut is a center for research all year round, but especially in the summer months. In 2017, for example, the Nunavut Research Institute licensed 136 research projects involving 662 people.

In March, Nunavut’s chief public health officer restricted residents to the area only. Travel between communities was mostly unlimited, apart from lockouts in the spring and in November.

Milla Rautio, a researcher at the University of Quebec, has been traveling to Nunavut every summer since 2014 to study changes in Arctic lakes around Cambridge Bay and Victoria Island.

This year, in light of the travel restrictions, Rautio turned to community members to conduct her research. She sends sampling equipment to Cambridge Bay and oversees a small research team.

“I was able to get everything I needed and more.”

Rautio says that by collecting Nunavummiut samples, it means that she can also continue her research throughout the year.

“Instead of me and my students going to Cambridge Bay once a year, usually in August, and doing this snapshot of sampling, we now have the opportunity to understand what happens in the North throughout the year, she says.

“I did not need to go there myself.”

Rautio worked for years to establish ties with students and other community members in Cambridge Bay. According to her, the commitments were critical to her research that continued in the midst of the pandemic.

Thanks to local knowledge, Rautio’s research team also discovered something she would probably not encounter herself. A once crystal clear lake used for fishing near the community suddenly became cloudy.

“I’m not sure I would have known it without them”

Heidi Swanson, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, usually spends time in the summer in all three areas studying fish. She also did her research with the help of residents this year.

“In Kugluktuk (Nunavut), our research partner in the north has done a better job than we have done in the past,” Swanson said at the annual Arctic Net conference on December 9th.

Like Rautio, Swanson has established connections in several northern communities.

“Where the relationships are stronger, we have had more adaptability.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 26, 2020.