New map of Inuit trails highlight Arctic's human presence amid ice melt

For stark evidence of climate change happening today, it is common to look to the Arctic and images of frozen wasteland populated by giant calving glaciers, lonely polar bears and a thawing Northwest Passage. There are often few humans in the frame.

Besides the occasional extreme weather event, much of the public doesn't view climate change as a crisis that affects people. But a new visual project from a team of Arctic researchers is highlighting the human presence on top of the world and aiming to educate the public about the impact of climate change on humans now.

More of a historical project than a scientific one, the Pan Inuit Trails project is an online document of historic and existing Inuit trails and sites that crisscross North America's Arctic regions. Where most people see a frozen cap at the top of the continent -- out of reach of human influence -- this project shows an elaborate network of trade and exploration routes on land and sea stretching from Greenland to the northwestern tip of Alaska.

Using old published and unpublished maps and records, as well as extensive traditional Inuit knowledge of the region, the researchers were able to compile a comprehensive record of human mobility and occupancy in the Arctic. While some of the trails are no longer reliable, or no longer exist because of ice melt, others are still heavily used and are now marked by modern snowmobile tracks and Inuit stone statues.

Many of the maps came from the 18th and 19th centuries and were commissioned by Arctic explorers and land surveyors.


Claudio Aporta, an associate professor at Dalhousie University and co-leader of the atlas project, has been chronicling Inuit trails for years. He said that even some Inuit were surprised at how far the trails reached across the continent.

"There was no awareness of how the trails would basically connect the whole North American Arctic," Aporta said.

From the Hecla Strait to Gjoa Haven

Aporta said there are hundreds of unrecorded trails not included in the project, but the online map is still covered in thin pink lines -- some of which stretch around entire peninsulas and into oceans. Studying the maps, you can scroll over trails marked "Hall's Journey to Fury and Hecla Strait 1868," "Malaurie Sled Journey from Gjoa Haven to Back River -- 1963" and "Eskimo Trade Routes, Arctic Coast, Canada." Most routes are simply marked "Trail."

But the atlas is useful not only as a comprehensive historical record but also as evidence for how the Arctic is changing as its climate warms and affecting local communities, backers of the project say.

Henry Huntington, science director for Pew Charitable Trusts' U.S. Arctic Program, praised the project for providing a "deeper historical perspective" of the region, adding that the project can help people visualize how many people are being affected by climate change.

"The temptation is to look at the Arctic and say there are only a few small communities -- very widely dispersed -- and that lots of the areas are not used," he said. "Actually, very few areas are not used."

Cambridge University geographer Michael Bravo, a co-leader of the project, said that knowledge of pan-Arctic connectedness could be important to consider as industrial development in the region ramps up. The idea is to make industrial developers cognizant of the trails, so they can work around them to avoid disrupting Inuit life.

As the climate warms and the sea ice melts, many industries are looking north either to extract mineral resources or to ship goods through thawing waterways, including the Northwest Passage, which became open to ships without an icebreaker for the first time in the summer of 2007. Royal Dutch Shell PLC is one company spending billions of dollars trying to tap into the Arctic's enormous oil reserves (EnergyWire, May 29).

"The question really was how could we come up with a useful way of showing the inhabited Arctic more truthfully and faithfully than the image that people in other parts of the world often have, which is often quite wrong," Bravo said.

"We wanted to be able to show ... here is what people actually do on the sea ice," he added. "The sea ice is a rich landscape, differentiated. There are even place names."

Many trails disappearing or gone

Both Aporta and Bravo made clear that the project is not meant to be a scientific record of climate change in the Arctic. There are no time-lapse photographs showing frozen seas in the 1890s and emerald blue waters today. The project was principally meant to show that the North American Arctic is a dynamic and interconnected place, like regions farther south.

But the launch of the atlas this month did provide an opportunity for Aporta and Bravo to note that many of the trails they documented are either disappearing or completely gone. In some cases, shortcuts Inuit would take across frozen bays are no longer viable. New technology like snowmobiles has made some routes more popular and some routes next to useless, and Arctic travelers now have to contend with the harsh weather, unpredictable ice and increasing volumes of shipping traffic.

Scientists in the region have stepped up their calls recently for more intense study of the growing health risks climate change poses in the Arctic, including increasing numbers of people falling through fragile ice (ClimateWire, May 29).

"What we hear in the communities is that some of the trails that were well-established on the sea ice are not used, or are less used today," Aporta said.

Huntington added that while the project is a historical record, it is still a "huge help" to scientists studying ongoing climate change in the region.

"You're not going to get anywhere documenting change if you don't have a record of the changes," he said.

Twitter: @henrygass | Email:

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