When I set out to talk to traditional navigators in the Arctic, Australia, and Oceania, I had not anticipated how intricately the issue of climate change would be intertwined in these conversations. Again and again the indigenous communities I visited happened to be on the front lines of climate disruption, and only later did I fully appreciate that it was often because of their unique cultural practices, including oral transmission of information through generations and methodical observation of nature, that they were so keenly aware of these disruptions. In some cases, individuals are able to compare the changes wrought by climate change against several hundred years of collective experience because of the integrity of their oral traditions.
In the Arctic, where sea ice conditions, weather, and temperature are increasingly unpredictable, I learned that for years older hunters—the same individuals who most often possessed a mastery of wayfinding skills—have reported strange environmental phenomena that they said had never been witnessed before. The Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk was often told by these elders that the sun was emerging after the long winter in different places in the sky than before, and the stars were often appearing in the wrong place. Initially, Kunuk thought it was a joke, but the elders insisted; the earth must have shifted on its axis, they told him. “I never paid any attention to it, but when I started making the documentary Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, people from other communities started saying the same thing,” he told me. “I don’t think they were taken seriously. The Inuit don’t have a PhD, they haven’t gone to the university.”
Kunuk was curious enough that he and a film partner, the geographer Ian Mauro, began reaching out to scientists for an explanation, even writing to NASA, which rebuffed them. They finally found a scientist at the University of Manitoba who was an expert in atmospheric refraction, a kind of mirage caused by changes in air density that deflects light. The earth had not shifted on its axis, but it turns out that the appearance of celestial phenomena had changed in the Arctic, most likely as a result of temperature variations stemming from climate change. As it turns out, the Inuit already had a word for this sort of mirage, but they didn’t connect it to what they saw in the sky: qapirangajuq. It means “spear strangely” and describes how when spearing fish, a hunter has to adjust for refraction in the water. “You start realizing they are right,” said Kunuk.
The scientific group Arctic Council, composed of members from eight countries, now predicts that the entire Arctic will be ice free in the summer by 2040. According to Claudette Engblom Bradley, a professor of education, the Yup’ik in Alaska begin observing and predicting the weather as young children, but environmental changes are now making forecasts extremely difficult. Similarly, in villages like Qaanaaq in Greenland, the changes have wrought havoc on where people can go and what environmental cues they can use to inform their movements. As one villager, Jens Danielson, told the Washington Post, “Earlier, the hunters, they can just look at the weather and see how it is going to be the next few days, so I can go out. But today, you can’t do that anymore, because the change of the weather happens from day to day, or from hour to hour.”
In the South Pacific, climate change is literally confusing the environmental cues used for navigation. Seasonal trade winds are weakening or blowing in inconsistent directions. Across the South Pacific, home to ten million people, sea level rise threatens livelihoods and entire islands. These changes in sea level have been happening at an average rate of 1.7 millimeters per year for most of the twentieth century, a rate that accelerated in the 1990s, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For islands like Tuvalu or Vanuatu and hundreds of others, the threat is flooding and erosion, and potentially the submergence of atolls. Ninety percent of the population of the Maldives, Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu live on land, for instance, that is less than ten meters above sea level.
The potential costs of relocating entire island populations in the future are headspinning. As Robert McLeman points out in his book Climate and Human Migration, there is no direct modern day analog for the disappearance of land masses for entire nations as could happen in the South Pacific. Such refugees would join the 12 million currently stateless people in the world. “Tuvaluans will not cease to be citizens of Tuvalu because of [sea level rise], but Tuvalu itself may physically cease to be habitable, becoming a sort of modern Atlantis,” he writes. “No international law or policy would give automatic shelter or protection to those made stateless by [sea level rise]. Although the popular media, non-government organizations, and some scholars use terms like ‘environmental refugees’ or ‘climate change refugees,’ such a category of persons simply doesn’t exist under international law.”
Over the course of my reporting, I began to connect another surprising aspect of the relationship between human navigation practices and global climate. At the start of the Industrial Age, humanity unleashed a revolution in transportation powered by accessing fossil fuels deep in the earth, propelling us to greater and greater speeds in cars, airplanes, ships, and rockets, vehicles unimaginable to our ancestors. In that same period, from the invention of the combustion engine to now, we have put so much heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere that levels are higher than at any period in the last 800,000 years. In other words, the same revolution in transportation that led to changes in the way we navigate helped create the problem of climate change, and now climate change will undoubtedly impact how and where humans move in the coming decades.
But are indigenous cultural practices and knowledge of navigation potentially critical tools for combating climate change? McLeman writes that pastoralist cultures from Central Asia to Lapland to Saharan Africa practice inherently migratory lifestyles. Among the Aboriginal Australians, Inuit, and First Nations of North America, mobility and migration are inherent components of culture practice and environmental stewardship. What might others learn from those who embraced mobility and migration as part of their identity and possess skills for travel and survival under their own power?
The Columbia University professor Rafis Abazov has written that the modern world has much to learn from nomadic cultures, including attitudes toward the Other, because exploring otherness and learning from newcomers about the land beyond the horizon is essential to nomadism. At the very least, it seems that indigenous communities have much to offer the scientific community, if only their traditions and methods for accumulating and synthesizing knowledge were seen as equally valid.
The Indigenous Peoples’ Bio Cultural Climate Change Assessment Initiative argues that indigenous knowledge, experiences, wisdom, and perspectives are needed to develop evidence-based responses for adaptation. And across the South Pacific, the revival of traditional navigation is increasingly seen as a potent response to the threat of climate change, and the specific technologies and economies that unleashed it. The Marshall Islands is the first Pacific country to commit to reducing its transport emissions by nearly 27 percent by 2030. The Okeanos Foundation wants to create a new Pacific inter-island transportation industry using a combination of traditional canoe technology, biofuels, and solar power to wean Oceanians away from a dependence on the very fossil fuels that threaten to submerge their nations. Voyaging societies, NGOs, nonprofits, schools, and communities are recognizing that traditional knowledge and wayfinding could be powerful aspects of a sustainable, fossil fuel–free future.
Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
M.R O’Connor’s pieces have appeared online in the The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, Slate, The Atlantic, and Nautilus. Her reporting has received support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, The Nation Institute's Investigative Fund, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. In 2016 she was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. A graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, she lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn.