Story to watch in 2012: On Thin Ice

Jagged ice along the coast in Hopedale, December 2009. Photo by Kristie Jameson.

For a handful of communities along the northern coast of Labrador climate change isn’t some abstract problem happening elsewhere. It’s happening to them right now and it poses a very serious threat to their livelihoods and the future of their communities.

These communities—Nain, Natuashish, Hopedale, Postville, Makkovik, and Rigolet–are very isolated as it is—only accessible by plane year-round, boat in the summer, and snowmobile in the winter—something they have dealt with for a very long time. But the past two winters have been the warmest and wettest on record and this is making matters worse.

MUN Geography Professors Trevor Bell and Joel Finnis say the Labrador coast is decades ahead of projected global climate change for the region.

“When we’ve looked at what the models project for the trend and rate of change,” Bell says, “we see that parts of Labrador are experiencing them now, although the projections are for the middle of this century.”
February 2010 saw the lowest recorded sea ice levels ever. A minuscule 14 per cent of what they were in the previous record low year, 1969, according to Environment Canada.

The consequence? Families are having an increasingly difficult time heating their homes and feeding themselves.

Each winter, ice accumulates along the coast and on lakes, becoming a sort of highway system, linking communities to one another, and linking people with hunting grounds and firewood. Less ice and worse ice, as has been the case the past two winters, mean those communities become even more isolated, and getting food and firewood becomes much more difficult and costly. And in another cruel wrinkle, with less ice and more rain comes more fog, which means fewer planes carrying people and supplies are able to land, sometimes for up to two-weeks, driving barely affordable grocery prices even higher.

The cost and quality of food in grocery stores is often unreasonable—junk food that can keep is cheap, fresh healthy food is expensive and sometimes half-rotten by the time it gets there. A pretty ho-hum looking watermelon and its $55 price-tag at a Nain grocery store made national news in 2008. The local food sources—hunted game and gathered berries—are becoming more costly too, as hunters have to use more fuel to find longer, overland routes to hunting grounds because the more direct ice routes are now less predictable.

With the sustainability of their communities in jeopardy, the inhabitants, along with researchers and government, are working on a number of initiatives to adapt to the changing conditions. In Nain, for instance, a variety of programs are being developed to collect wood, monitor ice conditions, and there is a community freezer program that sees hunters donating food to be shared. In its first six months, Nain’s community freezer program has provided about 3,000 meals to the community of about 1,000 people.