Native Wisdom:  A door to traditional knowledge

The Planetary Canary

When it comes to climate change, the Arctic is Earth’s proverbial canary in the coal mine. Ruth Curry of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute says that ice is in decline everywhere on the planet, but that decline is particularly marked and rapid in the far north.

This is apparent, for example, in the Greenland ice sheet, which, though two miles deep in places, has shrunk by 5 percent in the past decade. Some of the loss occurs from simple melting along the fringes of the island. But much of the loss takes place when surface water trickles down to the base of the island. The theory is that these super crevasses known as moulons may be creating a sort of mammoth “Slip-n-Slide”, a liquid sheet under the ice that is accelerating the ice’s advance to the sea and making it increasingly unstable. Curry says the potential exists for the ice sheet, which once seemed so invincible, to collapse. That would be a problem not only for Greenland but for the rest of us as well. The ice sheet contains enough water to raise the global sea level by 23 feet. That’s about the height of the tsunami that hit Indonesia and the Indian Ocean in 2004.

Intricate Knowledge of the Ice

Most Greenland Inuit live within site of the sea and have learned to read ice better than most people read books. Legendary Barrow Mayor Eben Hopson explained it poetically in 1977 in his welcoming address to the first Inuit Circumpolar Conference. “Our language contains the intricate knowledge of the ice that we have seen no others demonstrate.”

That knowledge has proven to be so accurate and prescient that scientists are increasingly incorporating it into their research. Craig George, of the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management in Barrow, Alaska, co-authored a paper on “Observations on Shorefast Ice in Arctic Alaska ” that combines scientific studies with traditional Inuit knowledge to analyze the behavior of sea ice in the Arctic and Chukchi Seas and its impact on the Inupiat culture. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the most comprehensive study of Arctic climate change to date, puts traditional knowledge on equal footing with science. Alaska Natives have created the Alaska Native Knowledge Network with an information-rich web site devoted to the subject ( The AAAS has published a document called the “Indigenous Knowledge Handbook” and UNESCO has a similar publication.

This melding of science and traditional knowledge earned through generations of experience makes a great deal of sense. After all, the first step of the Scientific Method is to observe and describe a phenomenon or group of phenomena. The observations of the Inuit and other Arctic peoples are so detailed and go back so many generations, that they may help scientists move more quickly to the second and third steps in the scientific method: constructing and testing hypotheses.