January 2, 2008

Nunavut News

Here’s a trivial question for geography buffs: What is the capital of Nunavut (pronounced ‘Noo-na-voot’)? If you know that the answer is Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay), you win five stars. Of course, you are probably the only one in the room who has a clue about this place called Nunavut.

As seen in the map below (Figure 1), Nunavut is the largest and newest territory of Canada; it was separated officially from the Northwest Territories on April 1, 1999 via the Nunavut Act and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act, though the actual boundaries were established in 1993. The creation of Nunavut resulted in the first major change to Canada’s map since the incorporation of the new province of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949. Nunavut includes Ellesmere Island to the north, as well as the eastern and southern portions of Victoria Island in the west. Nunavut is both the least populated and the largest of the provinces and territories of Canada. It has a population of only 29,474 spread over an area the size of Western Europe. If Nunavut were a sovereign nation, it would be the least densely populated in the world: nearby Greenland, for example, has almost the same area and twice the population.

Figure 1. Map of Nunavut

Nunavut is the home of the Inuit people who are indigenous to the Arctic. If you are still referring to them as “eskimos,” shame on you (the “e” word is generally considered derogatory). Inuit populations include Canadian Inuit, Alaska’s Inupiat and Yupik people, and the Russian Yupik. Inuit are descendants of the Thule people who arrived in Alaska about AD 500 and reached Canada in 1000. Alaskan Inuit now live mainly in the North Slope boroughs and the Bering Straits region. Inuit rely heavily on subsistence fishing and hunting whales, walruses and seals.

There are 169,000 websites for “Inuit” and “Global Warming.” The Inuit people are becoming the poster children for the global warming crusade (Pacific Islanders are popular as well). These thousands of websites proclaim that the Inuit are really feeling the heat — you will discover that fish and wildlife are following the retreating ice caps northward. Polar bears are losing the floes they need for hunting. Seals, unable to find stable ice, are hauling up on islands to give birth. Robins* and barn owls and hornets, previously unknown so far north, are arriving in Arctic villages (*more on these claims soon). You will find no end of stories about fishing shacks falling into the sea, snowmobiles crashing through the ice, polar bears attacking villagers, and on and on. One Inuit leader, Mrs. Watt-Cloutier said: “We are already bearing the brunt of climate change - without our snow and ice our way of life goes. We have lived in harmony with our surroundings for millennia, but that is being taken away from us.” Many of the websites deal with human rights and the following sentence is fairly typical of what you will find “By repudiating the Kyoto protocol and refusing to cut US carbon dioxide emissions, which make up 25% of the world’s total, Washington is violating their human rights, the Inuit claim.”

An article has appeared in a recent issue of Quaternary Research with some news about the temperature history of Nunavut over the past 7,000 years, and we suspect the article is not popular with Inuit stories of climate change. The research was conducted by Susan Zabenskie and Konrad Gajewski of the Laboratory for Paleoclimatology and Climatology at University of Ottawa (which you better know is the capital of Canada). The authors acknowledge that “This work was supported with grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC), Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS) and Northern Scientific Training Program (NSTP).”

Zabenskie and Gajewski note “A major proxy indicator of past climates is the pollen produced by plants, some of which are deposited in lake sediments. Pollen assemblages are related to the vegetation, which, in turn, is related to the climate. Pollen diagrams prepared from lake sediment cores document the history of the regional vegetation through time. Using various analyses, modern pollen assemblages can be related to the modern climate and these relations, in turn, can be used to estimate past climates from the fossil pollen assemblages.”

The researchers collected pollen spores from sediment cores taken from a lake (referred to as JR01 in Figure 2) in Nunavut. They made the appropriate measurements and statistical analyses to link the pollen pattern through time to variations in local temperatures. Surprisingly (to some) – they find “Reconstructed mean July temperatures remained around 6.6 °C before 5700 cal yr BP. July temperatures then increased to 7.8°C between 5700 and 3800 cal yr BP and temperatures have decreased slightly during the past 3800 yr” and “Maximum estimated July temperatures were reached between 5800 and 3000 cal yr BP, at which time they exceeded present-day values.” Finally “Reconstructions of July temperature using the modern analog technique showed that the mid-Holocene (5800–2800 cal yr BP) was approximately 1°C higher than during the past 1000 yr.” See Figure 3, for their temperature reconstruction.

Figure 2. Location of Lake JR01 in the Canadian Arctic (from Zabenskie and Gajewski, 2007)

Figure 3. Temperature reconstruction of Lake JR01. Outer thin lines represent the minimum and maximum temperature. Middle line represents the average of the maximum and minimum temperatures for each sample. Solid thick line represents the 5-point running mean (from Zabenskie and Gajewski, 2007)

So, summers in Nunavut warmed from 7,000 BP to 4,000 BP to conditions warmer than present, then around 3,000 BP, a long cooling began culminating in near-present conditions being among the coolest of the past 7,000 years. We have the greatest respect for the Inuit people of today and their ancestors of the Arctic who survived (and even flourished) during times in the past that were warmer than modern conditions. We also congratulate the ecosystem of Nunavut that also survived (and probably even flourished) during the warmer years of the mid-Holocene.


Zabenskie, S. and Konrad Gajewski. 2007. Post-Glacial climatic change on Boothia Peninsula, Nunavut, Canada. Quaternary Research, 68, 261–270.

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