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Climate Change Scientists Turn to Inuits for Research

Native people have long lived in harmony with nature, following the patterns of the weather for centuries. Now, science is listening. Scientific American reports that climatologists at the University of Colorado used information from two Canadian Inuit communities and scientific data in a recent study on shifting weather patterns.

Scientists tracking weather for more than a decade recognized that native insight might eclipse the latest weather satellites and computer models. Elizabeth Weatherhead is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado and lead author for this study. As she told Scientific American, "This is not the first scientific paper on Inuit knowledge. But it is the first paper linking that Inuit knowledge to more scientific approaches."
And what have they found? The scientists looked at how much weather changes from one day to the next, and how long a weather pattern lasts. The Inuits, located in and near the Arctic, explained to Weatherhead and co-author Shari Gearheard that there are unexplained changes in weather patterns. The natural time scale to a weather event is becoming more erratic. In other words, it could be cold one day and warm the next—as opposed to usual three weeks of warm weather. Canadian Inuit tribes have noticed that their traditional forecasting measures are becoming less accurate. Inuits believe this is because the weather has become erratic.
Mead Treadwell is the chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and he says this report justifies new interest in indigenous observations about our world. As he told Scientific American, "If you lose the language that people have been speaking for 10,000 years as it has evolved, you lose a huge amount of information that is built up in the language … If something is named 'a place where the caribou mate,' that tells you the caribou were once there if they are not there now." After all, a popular (though disputed) saying goes that Inuits have several words for snow. Why should science not pay attention?
This is not the first time scientists have turned to native people for information. According to Treadwell, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration twice changed its report of the Arctic's bowhead whale population based on a report from indigenous people that revealed more whales than what was counted by the government.

Katherine Butler, a regular contributor to the Mother Nature Network, writes from Los Angeles.

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Photo (cc) by Flickr user paukrus\n

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