Climate Change Impacts on Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ Ways of Life

Activity Instructions

  1. Divide students into pairs. One student in the pair should read about Arctic Indigneous Ways of Life (see below.) The other student should read about Environmental Changes in the Arctic.

  2. With their partner, students should discuss what they learned from their reading. Then, each pair will brainstorm at least 3 ways that environmental changes in the Arctic could be affecting or changing indigenous peoples’ ways of life.
    Example: A decrease in the seasonal sea ice extent could put coastal indigenous Arctic villages at threat of being eroded away by high-energy storm waves.

  3. Discuss as a class.


Reading: Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ Ways of Life

Note: The following reading offers a few examples of Arctic indigenous peoples’ ways of life, but is by no means a complete picture. To learn more, check out some of the references listed at the end of the reading.

Arctic communities, both indigenous and non-indigenous, live predominantly on or near coastlines (Figure 1).  While each indigenous community is unique, what distinguishes indigenous peoples from non-indigenous is that indigenous peoples are the original owners and inhabitants of a region, while non-indigenous peoples have more recently occupied or colonized an area. It is not uncommon for Arctic communities to be located on or very near the water’s edge. 

Figure 1: Arctic Coastal Communities color-coded by population size. Map credit: Susie Harder, Arctic Council

For millennia, many indigenous communities all over the Arctic have relied on being able to hunt whales, seals, fish, and land mammals such as caribou to feed their families. Indigenous peoples living on the Arctic coast are intimately connected with the sea ice. Many traditional indigenous hunters and fishers rely on shorefast ice, or ice that attaches itself to the coastline in the fall and winter, for travel, hunting, and camping. In Utqiagvik, Alaska, for example, Iñupiat hunters build trails across the shorefast ice in the spring to connect them to the ice’s edge where they can hunt migrating bowhead whales.



Trails to the whale: reflections of change and choice on an Iñupiat icescape at Barrow, Alaska by Druckenmiller et al. (2012)

Food Insecurity: Arctic Heat is Threatening Indigenous Life by Ed Struzik (2017)

Understanding Arctic Sea Ice in a Period of Rapid Climate Change by Andrew R. Mahoney and Martin Robards (2017)


Reading: Environmental Changes in the Arctic

Note: The following reading outlines some of the environmental changes happening in the Arctic as a result of warming temperatures. There are other factors, like resource extraction, that are also impacting the Arctic environment. Check out the references listed at the end of the reading to learn more.

Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean grows and shrinks seasonally (Figure 2). It typically freezes and grows more extensive in the fall, reaching a maximum extent in the winter, and then begins melting and shrinking in the spring and summer. Sea ice cover plays an important role in protecting Arctic coastlines from high-energy storm waves that can cause significant coastal erosion. Shorefast ice is sea ice that actually becomes attached to the coastline. Like sea ice cover in the ocean, shorefast ice grows in the fall and winter and shrinks away from the coastline in the summer. Marine algae, the foundation of many Arctic food chains and the entire Arctic ecosystem, rely on sea ice formation in the fall and winter. They live in pockets of trapped brine water in the ice in the winter, ready to resume primary production when the sun returns in the spring. 

Figure 2: Seasonal changes in Arctic sea ice extent. The gray line is the 1981-2010 median, the red line is for 2019, and the blue line is for 2012 (record minimum year). Credit: NSIDC

In recent decades, Arctic sea ice has begun forming later in the fall and melting earlier in the spring as a result of rising temperatures in the Arctic and globally. Over the past 30 years, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean at the end of the summer has decreased by about 40%. Similarly, shorefast ice has begun forming later in the fall and melting earlier in the spring. Some indigenous peoples in the Arctic have reported that the shorefast ice has grown more ‘soft’ and thin over time. Rising temperatures in the Arctic are changing the life cycles and abundance of many animal species in the Arctic. Warming temperatures and more frequent winter rains and sleet that freeze the Arctic snow cover on the ground also make it harder for animals like caribou to dig up lichen from the ground for food.



Climate Change: Arctic sea ice summer minimum by Rebecca Lindsey and Michon Scott (2019)

2018 Arctic Report Card: Reindeer and caribou populations continue to decline by Cody Sullivan (2018)

Mapping the uncharted diversity of Arctic marine microbes by Eric Collins