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Sat. February 04, 2023
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Climate Change Related Warming Impacts on Food and Social Factors in the Arctic
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By Monique Baskin


This paper explores the connection between climate change related warming impacts with food and social factors in the Arctic region. The physical and chemical changes, which include loss of sea ice and permafrost and increased land surface and ocean temperatures, have caused significant effects in the Arctic’s ocean and land-based ecosystems. Food insecurity has becoming a formidable challenge with an estimated prevalence between 50 and 80% in Canada’s Inuit community. Food insecurity can be categorized into four components: availability, access, quality and utilization; with food quality becoming more of a concern for the indigenous population. Despite contamination levels, the benefits of traditional food, outweighs the transition to western food, nutritional and culturally. Climate change effects on food have affected social and cultural connections. Numerous studies have illustrated the importance of food sharing with climate change negatively impacting this practice and thereby significantly altering social life, relationships and interactions within the community.

Climate Change Related Warming Impacts on Food and Social Factors in the Arctic

The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and climate scientists alike have concluded that, globally, the climate is warming. Land and ocean temperatures have increased an average of 0.78 °C, when comparing the 1850–1900 and 2003–2012 periods and data has shown that between 1880 and 2012, the average surface temperature of land and ocean changed from 0.65 to 1.06°C. Although the earth on average is warming, the Arctic region has taken much of that burden with scientists virtually certain in the estimates of tropospheric temperature change in the Northern Hemisphere (SPM, IPCC 2013). Some of the physical and chemical changes in response to this warming include loss of sea ice and permafrost; decreased snow cover extent and snow depth duration; increased land surface and ocean temperatures; and increased precipitation (Larsen et al. 2014). These changes have caused significant effects in the Arctic’s ocean and land-based ecosystems and overall ecology and have subsequently led to impacts on the already fragile food web.

Traditionally, indigenous people subsist on the meat and blubber of land and marine mammals that are raw or freshly frozen (traditional/country food) however, because of the changing landscape, food security and food safety have become tangible issues, which have led to indigenous people consuming a more Western-style diet. The focus of this paper is on climate change related warming impacts and how that has affected food security and food safety which in turn have adversely affected social factors and dramatically changed the cultural landscape in the Arctic region. Finally, recommendations are provided on possible paths forward in order to mitigate and adapt to the stark and abrupt changes sweeping the Arctic.

Physical Impacts of Climate Change

Loss of sea ice and permafrost has had collateral damaging effects on both the indigenous population and animals. Barcott (2011) explained that sea ice and its chemical make-up are the basis for an intricate food web. It harbors nutrients which tiny organisms, plankton and krill feed on and in the spring, a bloom of ice algae feeds both smaller and bigger organisms. However, warming causes an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) uptake, which affects the ocean pH balance as well as the shell formation of specific organisms leading to a dramatic reduction in their population. The decrease in the number of organisms means a decrease in food for other marine mammals and an environment of increased competition as warming has precipitated migration of other species into the area. Another damaging effect is related to reproduction rates of marine mammals. Seals dig snow caves (close to their breathing holes) in deep snow where they protect themselves and their young from predators and weather. The lack of snow has affected the pinniped (seals and walrus) population to the extent that seals are now protected as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (p. 32).

The population of land-based mammals such as caribou has not fared better. In a 2010 report, Struzik indicated “34 of the 43 major herds that scientists have studied worldwide in the last decade are in decline, with caribou numbers plunging 57% from their historic peaks.” Some of the reasons cited included the inability to access food due to extreme weather such as ice storms, the invasion of other plant species (which precludes the food they prefer from growing) and an increase in vectors such as mosquitos and flies that interrupt their feeding. This interruption is significant because instead of the animal feeding longer in order to gain weight (an important factor for breeding), they do not feed and subsequently lose weight. The warming trend affecting the animals’ ability to grow physically also alters the quality, taste and usability for the indigenous people. In areas where caribou populations were adequate, Nancarrow and Chan (2010) confirmed that community members had noticed meat harvested was not as healthy, was infested with more parasites than normal and the hide was generally thinner and unsuitable for wear.

Food Insecurity

As climate warming has progressed, food insecurity has becoming a formidable challenge. Power (2008) found that Aboriginal Canadian rates of food insecurity were much higher than for non-Aboriginal Canadians and those differences in food security exist based on age, gender, and geographic location and among urban, rural or remote dwellers. Ford et al. (2011) estimated that food insecurity prevalence was between 50 and 80% in Canada’s Inuit community. Food insecurity can be categorized into four components. They include availability, access, quality and utilization. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization defines food security as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” And Paci et al. (2004) further defined traditional/country food security as “the continued and predictable availability and access to food, derived from northern environments through indigenous cultural practices.” Food availability deals with the production of and physical presence of traditional food, which is affected by the physical impacts of warming. Access takes into consideration the socio-economic status or ability to afford market food as a substitute for traditional food. It also encompasses the ability to physically obtain traditional food or have food physically delivered to community markets. McNeely et al. (2011) point out that in Alaska, travel can be dangerous or impossible during key harvest times due to decreased thickness of river and lake ice; timing of spring break up or fall freeze up of the rivers. These resource dependent communities (significant quantities of their diet are harvested from the natural environment) are especially vulnerable when alternatives are insufficient.

Food utilization and quality are closely related as utilization involves choosing healthier, higher quality, nutrient appropriate foods, as more market food options are made available (Power, 2008). Quality considers the contamination load and nutrient level of available traditional food. Tennenbaum (1998) wrote that contaminants originate in industrialized countries and travel to the area via ocean currents and winds. Contamination loads are dangerously high due to low temperatures, limited sunlight slowing their decay and further concentration through biological processes. Despite this, it is often difficult to prohibit the ingestion of traditional foods for a number of reasons: costs associated with switching to market foods; disruption of culture; and lack of evidence suggesting some contaminant levels adversely health, although mono methyl mercury is an exception (commonly found in marine organisms as mono methylmercury (CH3Hg+) or mercury ion (Hg2+)).

Food Contamination

As more information about mercury has been discovered, there have been more questions from indigenous people about the safety of their food. Fisher et al. wrote about two forms of mercury found in the atmosphere: elemental Hg0 and divalent HgII. HgII is water soluble however Hg0 remains in the atmosphere between 6-12 months, which allows for transport into the Arctic region (2013). However, in March after the sun rises, the light and heat cause a photochemical reaction, which removes mercury from the atmosphere and deposits it on snow, ice and open-ocean. This is called a mercury depletion event (MDE). Although the deposits fall, 80% of it is re-emitted into the atmosphere because of the ice cover. Researchers have estimated the amount of mono methylmercury in the entire Arctic Ocean to be about 450 Metric Tons (MT) and the upper ocean to contain only about 47 MT, but only 4.5 MT is in the marine biota (Hoag, 2008). Booth and Zeller (2005) indicate this is as a result of the rates of methylation (transformation into Hg2+) and demethylation. The connection to climate change lies in the fact that methylation rates are temperature dependent and will lead to concentration rate increases. This was confirmed by the research done by Hammerschmidt et al. (2006) in which they state, “warming of the Arctic may increase mono methylmercury bioaccumulation by both enhancing mercury methylation and reducing the role of photodecomposition”.

Since the end of the 19th Century, there have been concerns about the sharp increase of mono methylmercury in beluga whales and other marine mammals because these marine mammals are typically hunted for subsistence by indigenous people of the Arctic. Some marine mammals have shown as high as a 10-fold increase in mono methylmercury contamination and often, sampled meat “contained mercury at concentrations above the Canadian consumption guidelines for fish of 0.5 microgram of total mercury per gram of fish tissue” (Hoag, 2008). Light and heat promote the spring growth of under ice algae, which eat nutrients that are now laden with toxic mercury. Ice algae are nutrition for zooplankton and krill and this begins the process of bioaccumulation of mercury. Small fish feed on the krill and larger fish feed on the smaller, with continuous bioaccumulation until human consumption. Booth and Zeller (2005) concluded that, “given the present level of consumption by the general population, mercury loading of the environment would need to be reduced by approximately 50 percent for most of the general adult population to fall below the World Health Organization tolerable weekly intake”.

Social and Cultural Change

Despite contamination levels, the benefit of traditional food outweighs a complete switch to western food. Nutritionally, traditional food only contributes about 25-30% of total dietary energy but significantly more nutrients such as protein, iron, zinc and other essential micronutrients than Western foods. Wesche et al. (2010) noted that even a single portion of traditional food increased the quality and level of nutrients and shifts to a more westernized diet had been linked to increase in obesity. As a result, an adaptive option has been to substitute among local food sources instead of primarily subsisting on a Western diet i.e. substituting muskox, moose and beaver for caribou (currently no alternative nutrient source for sea mammal blubber exists).

Traditionally, when thinking about social factors affecting climate, personal actions (driven by social factors) that contribute to climate change come to mind. However, investigating this topic has revealed social impacts to the community that are a result of other peoples’ choices and behaviors, a couple of which are changes in principles for social life, relationships and interactions; and cultural practices and norms. There have been numerous studies that illustrate the importance of food sharing within the community and negative impacts to this practice have significantly altered social life, relationships and interactions within the community. Wenzel (1995) described the subsistence economy as more than production and distribution of goods but essential to culture, where sharing is characterized as analogous to kinship, a central institutional element in the Inuit community. Furgal et al. (2012) noted that incidences of sharing provided opportunities for exchange of information about history and hunting, sustaining and strengthening bonds (particularly among hunting teams), maintenance of language as well as community well-being, part of which meant providing food to households without hunters in the family or those of lower socioeconomic status. This was such an important part of everyday life that even after commercial goods began to pervade society in early 20th century, mutual help and social obligations were maintained (Chabot, 2004). However, with increasing climate pressure, the fabric of the indigenous community has ripped and roots of change are becoming more permanent. There is now less inclination to share within the community and even sometimes within households due to rising commodity prices; food shortages due to a myriad of factors to include hunting practices becoming extinct and rising prices for hunting equipment and technology; as well as negative effects for those that share (Ford et al., 2011). This directly affects food security for those of lower socioeconomic status and results in a loss of culture.

Due to warming, the practice of traditional food preservation has left communities vulnerable to foodborne illnesses, unnecessary food waste and in jeopardy of serious injury. When traditional food is obtained, it is stored in traditional ice cellars called ‘sigl-uaqs’. These are storage cellars that are dug underground in the ice and are meant to store large quantities of food such as meat and blubber from a whale kill. In the past, the ice cellars’ low temperature kept bacteria out and meat safe for consumption, even in the summer. However, not only were cellars functional, they also provided spiritual and cultural meaning. In the spring, it was customary for cellars to be emptied and cleaned out, with the remaining meat eaten or given away. It was believed that if the cellars were not cleaned out, whales would evade hunters and they would not be able to obtain a fresh catch because they still had food in the cellar which meant there would be no place for it to be stored. However, warming of the permafrost has left cellars structurally unsound and the meat stored within rotten. Brubaker et al. (2009, 2010) found that since 2003, the temperature of the top ten meters of Alaskan soil have increased, with erosion and storm surges increasing the incidences of inadequate cellar temperature, humidity and moisture. Particularly, of the three cellars surveyed, despite the temperature and degree of the thaw varying, temperatures in the cellars were warmer than the outside air. This leaves the health of the indigenous population highly susceptible to disease: first from lack of proper nutrition and second, from possible foodborne illnesses.

Without a doubt, climate change has had an impact on the community. Looking at this community, it confirms the rhetoric that those who minimally contribute to climate change, will be the ones who suffer its effects the most. There is work that needs to be done. It is my recommendation that as the population shifts their diet and participates in substitution, there ought to be more studies investigating how food substitution will affect their general health. Also, as they transition into an unfamiliar way of life, community-led support and education programs are important to help them cope and develop basic skills such as money management and how to select healthier food options. There also needs to be mechanism to help in maintaining and preserving what culture remains.

International Affairs Forum Student Writing Competition Semi-Finalist Monique Baskin is an International Affairs Masters and Environmental Health Science and Policy Graduate Certificate Candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs and Milken Institute School of Public Health. 



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