For most, it’s hard to imagine a harder environment to navigate than the Arctic. 19th century British explorers certainly thought so; British ships trying to find the Northwest Passage were frequently trapped or destroyed by the ice, including Sir John Franklin’s doomed vessel, recently discovered in the waters off King William Island in Nunavut.
But what if that environment isn’t as hostile as it appears?
“The Arctic itself is a social place if you know where and when to go,” says Dr. Claudio Aporta. “If you’re travelling a traditional Inuit trail at the right time it’s very likely you’re going to meet other people… everybody uses the same trails at the same time because usually those trails connect the community to hunting resources, so if you’re part of the community, you have access to that knowledge.”
Aporta is a professor in Dalhousie’s Marine Affairs Program. As part of his research on Inuit knowledge of marine and coastal environments in Nunavut and other parts of the Eastern Canadian Arctic, he’s collaborated with researchers at other institutions to create two digital atlases: the Inuit Pan Arctic Atlas and the Inuit Sea Ice Use and Occupancy Project.
While the latter charts sea ice use and knowledge in Inuit communities, the former is an interactive map that uses satellite imagery and GPS to trace of the history of Inuit occupancy and movement in the Arctic. Drawing on historical data and community based research, the atlases lay out the deep-rooted Inuit culture of the region.
There’s no denying the Arctic is a vast and wild place, Aporta says.
But for the communities who have lived there for millennia the region is fundamentally interconnected; trails and place names speak not only to modern-day mobility, but also a history of connections: to the environment, to other communities, and to a network of trails that spans from Greenland to Alaska.
“There is a network of mobility within and across the Canadian Arctic and when you put that network on a map then you start having a different sense of what the Arctic is like,” he says. “It’s not just an empty place, it’s a place where people connect to each other and to resources.”
This network applies no less to the sea ice than the land itself. Although the annual closing in of the sea ice has long been seen by outsiders as a barrier to human activity, and meant delays and sometimes death for early explorers, it has the inverse significance for the Arctic’s original inhabitants.
“For the Inuit the sea ice is kind of a welcoming feature, it’s the opposite of an obstacle. It’s a surface that allows them to connect to other people, so the moment the sea ice is stable then they can start travelling, other visitors can come.”
Communities in Nunavut – such as Igloolik, where Aporta has based much of his research – are still closely connected to the sea ice, but their relationship to it is in flux; where young people would have once learned about their environment by spending time out on the ice, their time is now largely spent indoors and at school, where traditional knowledge has yet to be systematically incorporated into the curriculum.
Older generations are concerned that young people won’t know the trails and place names of their environment. This is where maps come in.
Aporta has a self-professed fascination with maps; but you don’t need to share his fascination to see how maps can be effective teaching tools. By charting traditional knowledge, information that was once transmitted experientially is given tangible representation.
“Mapped knowledge will never replace experiential knowledge, but it could be an entry point for younger Inuit into kind of a deeper type of learning.”
Maps are intuitive, he says, making them an ideal way to bring historical and cultural knowledge into active use.
“Maps are powerful instruments to represent how people relate to the environment… everybody seems to understand what a map is trying to convey.”
Sea ice can be shown topographically because it has its own kind of predictability. Features in the sea ice will return year after year, Aporta says, conjured by the movement of ocean currents, the prevailing wind, the geography of the coast, and other features that are stable over time.
But the destabilizing effect of climate change is being felt all the same. Sea ice may not be disappearing completely – at least not in the communities Aporta has studied – but the ice is changing; it arrives later and leaves earlier.
Aporta says he’s heard anecdotally from Inuit hunters that the ice is also less reliable, and therefore more dangerous. From a navigation standpoint, trails that once ran across frozen bays and fjords are being eschewed in favour of safer – and longer– overland routes.
Nearly two hundred years after British explorers attempted to navigate the Arctic, the prospect of an ice-free Northwest Passage has prompted a renewed scramble for the region, with the federal government asserting Canada’s need to establish ‘Arctic sovereignty’.
But that discussion often frames Canada’s Arctic as conveniently empty territory, obscuring both a history of sovereignty by Inuit people and the complex knowledge – knowledge both holistic and technical, says Aporta – they have of the environment.
Putting this knowledge on the map not only preserves it, but also provides a better understanding of exactly what the Arctic is.
“I’m aiming at…a new vision of the Arctic that is not that empty place but is actually an interconnected place,” says Aporta. “Trails have a power of conveying the interconnection.”