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Introducing an Online Encyclopedia of Inuit Arctic Observations

Siku, an online tool that recently won a $750,000 grant from Google, aims to pull together native knowledge about dangerously thin sea ice and other conditions in the Arctic’s fast-changing landscape.

Written by Jillian Kestler-D’Amours Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Arctic eider jimmy iqaluq
Sanikiluaq elder Jimmy Iqaluq describes a frozen seascape captured by an aerial drone.Photo Courtesy of the Arctic Eider Society

It’s being touted as the Wikipedia of Inuit knowledge, a searchable database of information about how sea ice and other conditions are rapidly changing across the Canadian Arctic.

Called Siku from the Inuktitut word for “sea ice,” the online platform may also change the way Inuit knowledge is shared and used in local communities, according to Joel Heath, executive director of the Arctic Eider Society, a charity that works with Inuit and Cree communities in Hudson Bay, which launched the database.

“Inuit have been talking about these sorts of changes for a long time,” he said.

A prototype of the project is currently available online, showing research and data gathered in five communities: Sanikiluaq, Inukjuak, Umiujaq, Kuujjuaraapik and Chisasibi.

Points on a satellite map are marked with data about water salinity, snow cover, ice thickness and wildlife – all community-based information on how climate change is affecting local ecosystems.

Sea ice is declining at a rate of 13 percent per decade in the Arctic, according to recent studies, which makes travel along traditional routes increasingly unpredictable and dangerous for local hunters and Indigenous communities.

“Often scientists write off Inuit knowledge as being anecdotal, but when a hunter tells you they’ve seen this change happening, it’s based on their own data and observations,” Heath said.

“This is helping document those observations systematically over time to quantify what they’ve been saying all along,” he added.

A screen capture from the Arctic Eider Society’s Interactive Knowledge Mapping Platform shows results from a community-driven research project to monitor water and ice along the Hudson Bay coast. SIKU will expand on this platform, adding many new tools and functions. (Photo Courtesy of the Arctic Eider Society)

A screen capture from the Arctic Eider Society’s Interactive Knowledge Mapping Platform shows results from a community-driven research project to monitor water and ice along the Hudson Bay coast. SIKU will expand on this platform, adding many new tools and functions. (Photo Courtesy of the Arctic Eider Society)

Earlier this month, the Google.org Impact Challenge awarded the Arctic Eider Society $750,000 to help bring Siku to even more communities and expand its reach.

The group is currently working on a mobile app to allow people to take photos that will be GPS-referenced and tag them with Inuktitut terminology for sea ice, wildlife or other observations.

In practice, a hunter or community member could document his or her observations on the land in real time, and that information would then be linked to their profile when they come back into cellular range.

Deploying a “user-friendly, social media-style interface” similar to Facebook, the project will allow people to create profiles and scroll through an information feed they can filter based on location and types of research.

“It could be anything at all,” Heath said, including wildlife, sea ice, weather observations, ethnographic research tools or even hunting stories. The data will also be available in different Inuktitut dialects.

It is critical that Inuit communities themselves lead the research, Heath said, and tell their own stories without needing to wait for a researcher to be in the Arctic to document changes.

A young and an experienced hunter observe wildlife together at a polynya. (Photo Courtesy of the Arctic Eider Society)

A young and an experienced hunter observe wildlife together at a polynya. (Photo Courtesy of the Arctic Eider Society)

Siku isn’t the only technology seeking to document climate-related changes in the Arctic with the help, and for the benefit, of Indigenous communities.

SmartICE, a sea-ice monitoring system, was developed about five years ago to respond to community concerns about the impact of rising temperatures on shipping and on-ice travel in coastal Arctic communities.

The idea blossomed after a particularly warm winter, during which “the surface of the sea ice turned to slush, [and] lots of people had real problems traveling,” said Trevor Bell, the project leader and a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

With pilot projects in Nain, Nunatsiavut and Pond Inlet, Nunavut, SmartICE uses sensors and satellite imagery to measure and map ice thickness and evaluate the safety of traditional routes that are becoming more and more hazardous.

The sensors can be stationary – deployed from a boat or aircraft or deposited directly into the ice at specific points chosen by local communities – or mobile, affixed to an ice sled to give provide “real-time ice thickness … wherever you go,” Bell said.

That information is then shared with local communities in various ways, including printed maps that are given to hunter and trappers’ organizations, Parks Canada or local hamlets.

SmartICE, which won the Arctic Inspiration Prize last December, is also developing a data portal and smartphone app “so that people can access the information when they’re out on the ice in communities where you have cellphone coverage,” Bell said.

Asked whether SmartICE and other projects like Siku could streamline their operations to make their data more easily available in a single place, Bell stressed that the priority is to provide the tools that will make communities safer now.

“Climate change is not something that’s happening in the future in the Arctic,” he said. “It’s happening now. People are being threatened now. People are at risk now.”

“Once we have found some solutions that are appropriate for the community and accepted and the community is satisfied with them, then we can look to perfect that service with the latest technology or working with other groups,” Bell said.

Heath, meanwhile, said he hoped Siku would expand to more communities in Hudson Bay and other parts of the Arctic in the next few years.

He also noted that Siku could provide a common, online mapping platform for other projects, so that Inuit communities can easily access the different information that is out there.

“We’re open to collaborations with other projects and organizations to make sure that these tools can benefit their projects, and help build connections with the communities, with the communities being the priority for us,” Heath said.

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