Hunting for data with dog sleds

Dog sled

Returning with the autonomous system after a successful hunt

9 May 2011 by Jeremy Wilkinson

What happens when modern climate science meets ancient Inuit traditions? Jeremy Wilkinson found out first hand.

In the spring of 2008, I was one of a number of international scientists who got together to take a series of scientific measurements on the sea ice around Qaanaaq, the most northerly town in Greenland. We wanted to find out about the local sea-ice conditions by measuring changes in its thickness.

This work is particularly important because at the moment satellite technology can't measure ice thickness directly. Our approach was much more down to earth: we hired local hunters to take us out on their dog sleds so we could measure and document sea-ice conditions over as large an area as possible.

While we were with the Greenlandic hunters we experienced first hand the recent climate-driven changes that are happening in the region, and we saw the challenges that the local community must overcome to adapt to them. For example, the sea ice around Qaanaaq is melting earlier in the year and forming later, so it is getting thinner and less stable.

Changes in the thickness and stability of sea ice, and the length of the sea ice season, are not unique to Qaanaaq; they are happening right across the Arctic. These changes will influence not only the safety of the people travelling on the ice, but also their ability to hunt.

Drilling through the ice

Drilling holes through the ice to measure ice thickness

Sea-ice changes have immediate implications for the sustainability, economy, health and well-being of many northern indigenous communities. In many ways the sea ice is the glue that binds these communities together; it influences all aspects of their daily life. The sea ice can be seen as the highways of the north, and the Inuit travel on these highways with dog-sled or skidoo in the same way as we use cars to commute.

These journeys are essential to the Inuit, whether for social visits to nearby villages or hunting trips to remote regions; hunting on the sea ice provides communities with essential food as well as commercial income. So the Inuit travel throughout the sea-ice cycle and over different types of ice including land-fast ice (which is securely attached to the land), the region at the edge of the ice, and the moving pack ice - sea ice that is free to move with the wind or the ocean currents.

For generations Inuit have observed the environment and have accurately predicted weather and sea-ice conditions, enabling us to travel safely on the sea-ice to hunt seals, whales, walrus and polar bears. Talk to hunters across the North and they will tell you the same story: the weather is increasingly unpredictable. The look and feel of the land is different. The sea ice is changing. Hunters are having difficulty navigating and travelling safely. We have even lost experienced hunters through the ice in areas that, traditionally, were safe.

- Patricia Cochran, previous Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, in a speech to the United Nations Environment Programme

After each long day of field measurements we looked forward to a warm dinner at Hotel Qaanaaq and the entertaining after-dinner discussions with its owner, Hans Jensen. It was during one of these conversations that we commented on the number of dog teams around Qaanaaq and that no matter where we went on the sea ice, we always saw the tell-tale signs of both sleds and dogs. One thing led to another, and before we knew it we were discussing the possibility of incorporating scientific sensors onto the sleds themselves.

This made perfect sense. The Inuit hunters could continuously collect valuable data throughout the sea-ice growth and melt seasons, rather than just over the few weeks of our campaign.

This would reduce the need for costly field campaigns and, more importantly, the nature of the Inuit hunting trips meant that scientific data could be collected over a larger area. We realised we could quickly build up an extensive database on the ice conditions around Qaanaaq, and continue to add to it each season. And local communities would be playing an important role in monitoring climate change, helping provide scientifically valuable data that is urgently needed by scientists and policy-makers worldwide.

Map showing trips on the sea ice with corresponding thickness of sea ice

Results from the trips on the sea ice

So when we left Qaanaaq at the end of our 2008 field season, we promised to pursue scientific funding for a sledge-based system and hopefully return with it in the near future. We knew that fulfilling this dream would not be easy, but we persevered and through a NERC grant we were able to return to Qaanaaq in spring 2010. Armed with specially-developed instruments to mount on the hunters' sleds, we ran a pilot field campaign to test the system's accuracy at measuring ice thickness, as well as its ability to gather data over a wide area.

Though we were hindered by bad weather, we still put the kit through its paces and managed to achieve everything we'd set out to do. To calibrate the sled-mounted system, we took almost 150 ice-thickness measurements by drilling holes through the sea ice. Then we compared these to the readings from the sensors mounted on the sleds; we were pleased to see that a sled-mounted system could measure the sea-ice thickness to within a few centimetres of the drilling results.

Furthermore, the hunters brought back almost 200km of ice-thickness data in only two days - this corresponds to an amazing 20,000 independent ice-thickness measurements. Crucially, we also got lots of useful information back from the hunters about where and how a system should be mounted on a sled, how to modify it to make it robust enough for rigorous daily use and, most importantly, how they would benefit from the data.

So what happens next? The data gathered by the Inuit hunters is sent back to the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in real time via satellite. From there it can then be quickly forwarded to the appropriate meteorological centres, which incorporate the information into ice charts or weather forecasts.

These forecasts in turn directly benefit the communities that gathered the data. And at a more local level, the combination of meteorological, sea-ice, and hunting data will help us anticipate the success of hunting various prey over different sea-ice conditions and locations. As the data builds up we'll be able to predict more accurately how successful the Inuit's hunting is likely to be in the future as the sea-ice conditions change.

Developing the local capacity to gather scientific data for climate-change studies also gives the community an opportunity to tell the world about the changes that are happening to their homes and their everyday lives.

Because of the need for high quality sea-ice thickness data, and the enthusiasm shown by the hunters, we are optimistic that these new systems have a bright future. But there's a long way to go before these instruments are routinely mounted on sleds around the Arctic. We learned a lot on our first trip, and since coming back to the UK our engineers at SAMS have made more changes to the instruments, ready for our return to Qaanaaq in early spring 2011.

Dr Jeremy Wilkinson is the leader of the Sea Ice Group at the Scottish Association for Marine Science. For further information on this project, please contact him.

'Tradition and Technology: Sea Ice Science on Inuit Sleds' - JP Wilkinson, S Hanson, NE Hughes, A James, B Jones, R MacKinnon, S Rysgaard and L Toudal (2011). Eos, 92(1).