‘Better work than we did:’ Nunavut researchers turn to citizen scientists


IQALUIT – Inuktitut has more than 60 words to describe sea ice.

For Nunavut hunters, words are important when traveling on a frozen sea highway by a snowmobile or dog team.

At Pond Inlet, on North Baffin Island, Andrew Arrick spends a lot of time compiling those words and their definitions. He said he plans to share his list with the community and with local schools to help people stay safe.

“I am trying to get all these words, so that they know what to do when they are on ice.”

Arreak heads the Nunavut operations of Smartis, an organization based in the region and the Nunatsiavut region in Newfoundland and Labrador. It combines local knowledge of sea ice with modern technology, uses sensors to determine ice thickness and collects position data on ice, for communities to use when they are out on ice .

However, Smarties has continued its research during the COVID-19 epidemic, thanks to its Nunavut-based staff, which excluded other Southern-based scientists and researchers from the region this year.

“Smartys didn’t get a beat during COVID,” says Trevor Bell, a professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL and founder of Smarties.

He says that the research was always done to run locally.

“We have put our monitoring equipment in the hands of community members since the beginning. They are able to operate and generate sea ice information … without our intervention.

“It is driven by communities for communities in the north. Its benefits are seen in a year like this.”

Nunavut is a center for research throughout the year, but especially in the summer months. For example, in 2017, the Nunavut Research Institute licensed 136 research projects involving 662 people.

In March, the Chief Public Health Officer of Nunavut restricted travel to the region for residents only. Travel between communities was mostly unrestricted, except for the lockdown in spring and November.

Millie Rutio, a researcher at Université du Québec, had been traveling to Nunavut every summer since 2014 to study changes in the Arctic lakes around Cambridge Bay and Victoria Island.

This year, in light of travel restrictions, Rutio turned to community members to carry out his research. He sent sampling equipment to Cambridge Bay and supervised a small research team.

“I was getting everything I needed and more than that.”

Rutio says that collecting samples from Nunavumutty means she can continue her research throughout the year.

She says, “For me and my students once a year, usually in August, Cambridge Bay is known. We now have the opportunity to understand what is happening in the North throughout the year.”

“I didn’t have to go there myself.”

Rutio worked for years in Cambridge Bay to establish relationships with students and other community members. Those connections have been important to her research in the midst of the epidemic, she says.

Thanks to local knowledge, Rutio’s research team also discovered something they are unlikely to own. The crystal-clear lake once used for fishing near the community was suddenly gutted.

“I’m not sure I would have known about this without them”

Professor Heidi Swanson, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, typically spends time in the three areas studying fish in the summer. He carried out his research this year with the help of residents.

“At Kugluktuk (Nunavut), we had done our northern research partner better than ever,” Swanson said at the annual Arctic Net Conference on 9 December.

Like Rutio, Swanson has established connections in many northern communities.

“Where relationships are stronger, we had more favorable abilities.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on December 26, 2020.

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