Sustainability Climate Change

Indigenous people help develop better Arctic shipping routes

The MS Roald Amundsen cruise ship, the first of the new hybrid-powered expedition ships in Hurtigruten's fleet, arrives at Tromsoe, northern Norway on July 3, 2019

Story at a glance

  • Because of melting ice due to climate change, the Arctic is rapidly opening up.
  • Experts are working with local indigenous people to develop new shipping routes through the region that minimize harm.
  • Local people have extensive knowledge of ice and wildlife patterns, currents and other valuable information.

As the climate warms, the Arctic is becoming a more hectic place. Less ice means more boats, which can now make their way through the once impassable ocean. Shipping traffic in the Canadian Arctic has tripled in recent decades, which is presenting new challenges for these pristine northern environments and the Inuits who live there.

There is the potential for oil spills and pollution, and the noise of ships moving through the ice and water risks disturbing wildlife. The increase in shipping is also a threat to the culture and way of life that has developed in the north; hunting and country food traditions, for example, are dependent on the availability of certain Arctic creatures.

Ron Ningeongan, who works at the Kivalliq Inuit Association Community at Coral Harbour in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, says that the obvious increase in shipping is already affecting wildlife. The community has observed that beluga whales now avoid the harbor due to excessive marine traffic, and that there are fewer walruses, which may be a factor in pushing polar bears nearer the town.

“I’ve heard from local hunters that they have seen impacts on our numbers, particularly seals, which is what our community harvests, either to sell the skin or for our diet,” says Ningeongan. “Either they have to go farther away from the community to harvest seals, or there haven’t been as many as before.”

Of course, the best solution would be to prevent the Arctic melting at all — but this would involve a massive reduction in emissions reaching far beyond the globe’s current collective efforts. Even if temperature rise keeps below 2 degrees Celsius, the Arctic is still expected to lose the entirety of its summer sea ice once per decade.

The Canadian government is preparing for this new reality by designing a network of “low impact shipping corridors” across the Canadian Arctic. These routes are designed to help the shipping and transportation industries by providing better access to infrastructure, navigational support and emergency response services in this remote region, while also prioritizing the nature and culture of the areas and communities through which they pass.

But the early versions of these new shipping routes neglected to include the voices of the indigenous people who live across the Canadian Arctic, despite their wealth of knowledge about the region. So a team of researchers from the University of Ottawa set out to document insights of the Inuit communities that have been personally impacted.

“It’s morally and legally imperative that we connect with and use the knowledge of Inuit and Indigenous People in the region to determine what the shipping lanes might be in the Arctic,” says Jackie Dawson, associate professor at the University of Ottawa, who led the project, called Arctic Corridors and Northern Voices. “We basically pointed out a flaw in the government’s approach, then took it upon ourselves to get the evidence and information that they would need to make decisions.”

Conducting research across large areas of the Arctic is an expensive and difficult endeavor. The project initially started small, with plans to talk to just three communities. But there was so much interest, and the team was offered so much funding, that they ended up engaging 14 communities.

The team worked with local people to plot a new and improved network of shipping routes through the Arctic, using the specialist knowledge that comes from generations of living close to the land. Alterations included avoiding migratory bird sanctuaries, restricting shipping during caribou migration and no breaking ice during seal pupping season. In Coral Harbour, for instance, community members have requested that ships avoid the corridor that passes near their island, as this is used by walruses for migration, feeding and breeding. This may cost the ships more money, but it would be affordable, the report points out

“When you live in a place, you gain knowledge from your elders and your experience on the land that is just not possible from a Western scientific perspective; little dynamics like how the ice converges in certain places, or how the belugas always move through this area, or even simply where their hunting areas are and what time of year — and how the ships tend to impact the animals they’re hunting,” adds Dawson.

Not all of the changes suggested by the communities were for the benefit of the environment. Some communities suggested alterations that would lead to safer journeys for the ships. In the Bellot Strait, for instance, communities reported that icebergs can get sucked beneath the water on the east side, and stay submerged throughout the narrow passage, out of sight of ship navigators. So while these low impact corridors will be voluntary, it’s easy to see why operators have already signalled their willingness to use them.

“We hold the principle that any Arctic strategy worth pursuing must put working with Inuit at its heart and not at the periphery,” says Natalie Carter of the University of Ottawa, who led the community research element of the project.

These changes have been plotted on maps and shared with the federal agencies in Canada that are ultimately responsible for the new shipping corridors. It is now time for the government to decide which suggestions to incorporate into its new low-impact shipping network. The government still needs to finalize elements of the plans, including how the shipping corridors will be managed, and the final product is still some years off.

Meanwhile, the Arctic continues to melt. In 2019, the Arctic sea ice shrunk to one of the lowest levels on record. Sensitive shipping routes will make this devastating transition easier for communities and wildlife to navigate.