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Arctic mobility

Main Contributors:

Tove Björklund, Cláudia Florêncio, Rawaf al Rawaf, Rawaf al Rawaf

Other Contributors:

Juan Carlos Rocha


Due to anthropogenic climate change and diminishing navigable ice, the Inuit’s mobility and available livelihoods are currently undergoing a regime shift. Inuit communities are increasingly relying on both wage employment and traditional subsistence harvesting, indicating we are probably witnessing the transition between these two livelihood regimes. The main drivers for this transition are anthropogenic climate change and increasing access to store-bought goods through trade and import. The necessity to secure access to food (either traditional or store-bought), and the erosion of traditional knowledge and shifting cultural norms are the key processes impacted by these drivers, as evidenced by the state of human well-being and ecosystem services in Inuit communities today.

Type of regime shift

Ecosystem type

  • Tundra
  • Rock and Ice

Land uses

  • Fisheries

Spatial scale of the case study

  • Sub-continental/regional (e.g. southern Africa, Amazon basin)

Continent or Ocean

  • Europe
  • North America
  • Arctic Ocean


  • Arctic Region


  • Russia
  • Sweden
  • United States
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • Finland

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Key direct drivers

  • Vegetation conversion and habitat fragmentation
  • Adoption of new technology
  • Global climate change

Land use

  • Large-scale commercial crop cultivation
  • Fisheries


Ecosystem type

  • Tundra
  • Rock and Ice

Provisioning services

  • Freshwater
  • Fisheries
  • Wild animal and plant products
  • Hydropower

Cultural services

  • Recreation
  • Aesthetic values
  • Knowledge and educational values
  • Spiritual and religious

Human Well-being

  • Food and nutrition
  • Health (eg toxins, disease)
  • Livelihoods and economic activity
  • Cultural, aesthetic and recreational values
  • Social conflict
  • Cultural identity

Key Attributes

Spatial scale of RS

  • Local/landscape

Time scale of RS

  • Years
  • Decades
  • Centuries


  • Irreversible (on 100 year time scale)


  • Paleo-observation
  • Contemporary observations

Confidence: Existence of RS

  • Speculative – Regime shift has been proposed, but little evidence as yet

Confidence: Mechanism underlying RS

  • Well established – Wide agreement on the underlying mechanism

Alternate regimes

Current and future generations of Inuit living in the Arctic region, and activities connected to their livelihood defines the system boundary. We consider climate change, trade, and imports as system drivers.

Traditional Livelihood

In the first regime there is a naturally variable climate, and the Inuit are highly adaptive to it via their mobility (following the game). They hunt for subsistence, which is an important part of their culture and main livelihood. The environment shapes their lives, and they are highly dependent on sea ice for hunting a broad range of species (e.g. seal, whale, caribou) and for transportation (e.g. dog sledge or snowmobile). The Inuit can live without seasonal constraints on hunting, they cooperate (e.g. leaving food for each other in caches), and only hunt what they need for survival.

Wage Employment

In the second regime the sea ice is changing faster than in the past, due to anthropogenic climate change, and the environment no longer resembles what the traditional language is able to describe (e.g. name of places no longer describe the current landforms). The sea ice is thinner, breaking up earlier in spring, and freezes later in autumn. This affects the polynyas (open patches of water surrounded by ice), restricting mobility and therefore hunting activities (Hastrup 2008, Laidler et al. 2008). Weather conditions are less favorable (e.g. more rain, snow and fog) with faster changes, with the result of Inuit struggling to predict the weather and seasonal conditions.  Generally, the social landscape is more centralized, with permanent settlements, a higher degree of trade, and global influences and opportunities. Future generations face Arctic conditions unable to support traditional Inuit livelihoods, and they may be forced to rely solely on wage employment. The only other option may be to emigrate.

Drivers and causes of the regime shift

Shift from Traditional Livelihood to Wage Employment

Anthropogenic climate change is considered the main driver for this regime shift.  The global increase in greenhouse gas emissions causes higher Arctic temperatures, resulting in a decrease in sea ice (IPCC 2014). In recent decades, the consequences of climate change have increased exponentially. Despite being highly adaptive and habituated to a changing environment, the traditional livelihoods, human wellbeing, and connection to the land in Inuit communities are under stress (Hastrup 2009, 2013, Willox et al. 2013).

Thin and unstable ice, in combination with unpredictable weather patterns, makes it hard for Inuit to travel and hunt safely (Nuttall 2005, Hastrup 2009). In order to follow the game and continue their traditional way of living, the Inuit rely on their traditional knowledge and adaptive skills (Ford 2008). This knowledge and skillset is required for safe travel, hunting, and managing prey species. Changing ice dynamics creates a mismatch between knowledge and reality. The language used to describe places evolves slower than the rate landforms are changing from year to year. Place names often aren’t up to date, or their meanings are no longer applicable. The seasonal timing of hunting can be delayed, due to shifting and unrecognisable weather patterns (Hastrup 2009, 2013). Fewer young people hunt today (trade and import substituting for hunting activities in some Inuit communities), and permanent settlement patterns are replacing the semi-nomadic lifestyle characterized by traditional Inuit livelihoods and knowledge. The transmission of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next is constrained by changing community dynamics, related to intergenerational segregation, an increasingly dominant monetized economy, and eroded social network structures (Ford 2008, Kral 2003).

Shift from Wage Employment to Traditional Livelihood

Drivers for sustaining the regime of traditional Inuit livelihoods are those resulting in the predictable formation of stable ice - if we assume that Inuit communities are reliant upon traditional foods and hunting practices in the long-run. We do not consider a shift from regime 2 to 1 possible in reality, since there is no strong evidence that the sea-ice cover will increase during this century (IPCC 2014).

How the regime shift worked

Shift from Traditional Livelihood to Wage Employment

Traditional livelihoods rely on predictable ice cover, and natural seasonal variations stable enough for hunting, transportation of goods, and travel. There is a high abundance of natural resources available for pursuing traditional Inuit livelihoods. The relevance of indigenous knowledge is high, and knowledge adapts to the prevailing Arctic conditions. Mobility provides the basis for this adaptive lifestyle. Another prominent condition is a lack of alternatives to traditional ways of subsistence, and there is little to no contact with sub-arctic populations.

Key drivers that contribute to the traditional livelihood shifting to wage employement include anthropogenic climate change that drives the reduction of ice cover and the increase in unpredictable weather conditions, forcing the Inuit to find alternative livelihoods not dependent upon the ice and mobility. Imported food and technology may help to increase food security in the short-term, but drives the substitution of traditional resources and practices, creating a need for monetary income and pushing communities toward wage-employment. The change in the social dynamics and shifts in generational attitudes drive the erosion and abandonment of traditional networks and knowledge, which has a theoretical threshold for the minimum amount necessary to pursue a traditional livelihood.

In the wage employment regime, the conditions are characterized by receding ice cover and unpredictable weather patterns. These factors fundamentally affect prey species and hunting, mobility, and viability of traditional livelihoods. Economic and geopolitical interest in the Arctic, such as alternative trade routes and resource extraction, may increase the diversity of occupations and external resources available to some communities in the Arctic region. The availability of external resources purchased from stores gives some Inuit communities extra flexibility and food security while trying to adapt to changing Arctic conditions.


Impacts on ecosystem services and human well-being

Lost provisional ecosystem services include many of the prey species the Inuit hunt and fish (Wesche et al. 2010) for fuel (bubbler) and harvested wild products (seal fur used for traditional clothing, skin boats) (ICC 2008). This is due to reduced mobility, changes in wildlife migration patterns, and habitat fragmentation. If we consider fresh water as a provisional ecosystem service, there are lower levels of stored drinking water (Wesche et al. 2010, Dicks 2011). One consequence of increased ice-melting is increased hydroelectric power generating potential, depending on the context.  The potential increases in the short-term, but will decrease in the long-term because water volume will decrease as glaciers disappear (Dicks 2011). Inuit consider traditional foods to be better tasting, culturally important, more nutritious and healthier than store-bought food (Ford 2010). Dependence on available store-bought food is increasing community health problems (e.g. obesity) (Wesche et al. 2010). Since fewer young people are hunting, traditional knowledge and skills are being lost. As a consequence of underemployment and expanding permanent settlements, there incidence of social conflicts, alcohol addiction, depression and suicide are also increasing (Ford et al. 2010, ICC 2009). In the wage employment regime, Arctic communities benefit from permanent facilities like hospitals (contributing to increased life expectancy, and reduced infant mortality) and schools (preparing children for modern challenges while preserving their culture) (UNESCO 2009). However, housing conditions are poor in these more permanent settlements (ICC 2009).

There will be a loss of cultural ecosystem services as communities are forced to move towards a wage employment to subsist, i.e. as knowledge related to hunting and traditional medicines is lost (Dicks 2011). Increased access to the Arctic increases opportunities for tourism which would likely impact the lifestyles and cultural ecosystem services provided by local communities (Dicks 2011). These ecosystem services might increase or decrease depending on whether local communities continue to adapt and preserve their culture and local knowledge, or make use of them to generate revenues from tourism-focused activities. Decreased access and availability of traditional food, and increased dependence on wage-employment and store-bought foods, cause a loss of traditional practices. This has negative impacts on food security, food sharing practices (Ford et al 2010), cultural identity, and local communities’ physical and mental health (Willox et al 2013).



Management options

The traditional Inuit culture and livelihoods are characterized by their ability to adapt to prevailing conditions. This adaptive capacity allowed the Inuit’s Paleolithic ancestors to follow the ice into the Arctic region, and learn how to subsist on the resources of the polar ecosystem (Sørensen 2010). Given sufficient time, this highly adaptive culture might be equally adept at surviving in the warmer Arctic of the Anthropocene; but the present pace of anthropogenic climate change is straining the capacity of the traditional Inuit ways of life to remain viable, for both current and future generations. Herein lies the potential for management and policy strategies in preventing a regime shift: from traditional livelihoods centered on subsistence hunting, of culturally and ecologically significant species; to one of wage based employment, and reliance on the global economy and institutions. Ford et al. (2010) suggest a number of targets for policy management, aimed at increasing the adaptive capacity of Inuit culture [in Canada], including:“... supporting the teaching and transmission of traditional skills, enhancing and reviewing emergency management capability, ensuring the flexibility of resource management regimes, economic support to facilitate adaptation for groups with limit household income, increased research effort to identify short and long term risk factors and adaptive response options, and promotion of awareness of climate change impacts and adaptation among the policy making community."

Restoring the regime where traditional livelihoods dominate requires the survival of the living repository of the knowledge, methods and practices upon which they are founded. Such information is preserved in the oral traditions and experiential learning techniques of the Inuit. Once ceased being used, theywill be irretrievably lost. Possible management efforts like the Igloolik Oral History Project (IOHP) (Ford 2008), consisting of over 500 interviews, may preserve some of the cultural heritage necessary to reconstitute traditional livelihoods, but this remains uncertain.

Key References

  1. Aporta, C. (2004) Routes, trails and tracks: trail breaking among the Inuit of Igloolik. Etudes/Inuit/Studies 28:9–38.
  2. Dicks, L. Arctic Climate Issues (2011) Changes in Arctic Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP).
  3. Ford, J. (2008) Vulnerability of Inuit food systems to food insecurity as a consequence of climate change: a case study from Igloolik, Nunavut. Regional Environmental Change. Springer.
  4. Ford, J. et al (2010) Climate change policy responses for Canada’s Inuit population: The importance of and opportunities for adaptation. Global Environmental Change 20, issue 1: p.177–191.
  5. Gearheard, S. Matumeak, W. Angutikjuaq, I. Maslanik, J.A. Huntington, H.J.L. Matumeak, D.G.T. Barry, R.G. (2006) It’s not that simple: comparison of sea ice environments, observed changes, and adaptations in Barrow Alaska, USA, and Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada. Ambio 35:203–211. doi:10.1579/0044-7447(2006)35 [203:INTSAC]2.0.CO;2
  6. Hastrup, K. (2009) Arctic hunters: climate variability and social flexibility. Chapter 12 in Hastrup, Kirsten. The Question of Resilience, Social Responses to Climate Change. The Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters. 362p.
  7. Hastrup, K. (2013) The nomadic landscape: People in a changing Arctic environment. Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography, 109:2, 181-189, DOI: 10.1080/00167223.2009.10649606
  8. Hinzman, L.D. et al (2005) Evidence and Implications of Recent Climate Change in Northern Alaska and Other Arctic Regions. Climatic Change 72: 251–298 DOI: 10.1007/s10584-005-5352-2
  9. Huntington, H. & Fox, S. (2007) ACIA Secretariat and Cooperative Institute for Arctic Research University of Alaska Fairbanks, chapter 3, accessed on 2014-11-25
  10. ICC (2008) The Sea Ice is Our Highway - An Inuit Perspective on Transportation in the Arctic. A Contribution to the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment. Inuit Circumpolar Council, Canada.
  11. ICC (2009) Circumpolar Inuit Health Summit. Yellowknife, Canada. Accessed on 2014-11-25
  12. IPCC (2007) 4th assessment report, Climate change 2007: synthesis report. Accessed on 2014-11-20
  13. IPCC (2014) 5th assessment report 2013: AR5 Synthesis report.
  14. Kral, M. (2003) Unikkaartuit: meanings of well-being, sadness, suicide, and change in two Inuit communities. Final Report to the National Health Research and Development Programs. Health Canada, Ottawa.
  15. Laidler et al (2009) Travelling and hunting in a changing Arctic: assessing Inuit vulnerability to sea ice change in Igloolik, Nunavut. Climatic Change 94:363–397 DOI 10.1007/s10584-008-9512-z
  16. Nuttall, M. Berkes, F. Forbes, B.C. Kofinas, G. Vlassova, T. & Wenzel, G. (2005) Hunting, Herding, Fishing, and Gathering: Indigenous Peoples and Renewable Resource Use in the Arctic. Pp. 649-690 in: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  17. Sørensen, M. (2010) Inuit landscape use and responses to climate change in the Wollaston Forland—Clavering Ø region, Northeast Greenland. Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography 110:155–174.
  18. Takano, T. (2004) Connections with the land: land skills courses in Igloolik, Nunavut. Ethnography 6:463–486.
  19. UNESCO (2009) Climate Change and Arctic Sustainable Development: scientific, social, cultural and educational challenges. UNESCO: Paris, 376 pp.
  20. Willox, A. et al (2013) The land enriches the soul: On climatic and environmental change, affect, and emotional health and well-being in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada. Emotion, Space and Society 6, 14-24.


Tove Björklund, Cláudia Florêncio, Rawaf al Rawaf, Rawaf al Rawaf , Juan Carlos Rocha. Arctic mobility. In: Regime Shifts Database, Last revised 2017-02-07 11:30:32 GMT.
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