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July/August 2011 by Henry Huntington

It’s early May in Kangiqtugaapik, or Clyde River, Nunavut. Looking out the window of Shari Gearheard’s house, I see blue sky overhead. At ground level, however, the distant houses are hard to see in the blowing snow. A pennant flying from the neighbour’s roof is standing straight out for the third day in a row. Somehow this is fitting, as we are here to study the weather.

Inuit have noted many changes in weather over the past few decades. Among other things, they report that the weather is harder to predict than it used to be. This complaint echoes observations I’ve heard from Alaska (where I live), Canada’s western Arctic, Nunavut, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Something is undoubtedly going on.

What that means specifically is harder to pin down. Shari and I work with two meteorologists to compare Inuit observations of winds with data from the weather station at the Clyde River airport. The two records do not really agree, with Inuit reporting various changes that are largely undetectable from the wind instruments. We decide to probe deeper, enlisting the help of Glen Liston and Kelly Elder, scientists from Fort Collins, Colorado, who have looked at weather and snow throughout the world. Together, we secure a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to try to connect Inuit observations with weather instruments and models.

At the centre of the project are the Inuit with whom we are working. Esa Qillaq, Joelie Sanguya, Jayko Ashevak, Ilkoo Angutikjuak, and Laimikie Palluq are among those whose observations started the study. They christened our project team Silalirijiit, “those who study or care about weather.”

Our basic idea is that the weather varies greatly over the landscape surrounding Clyde River. The mountains, fjords, and sea all help shape patterns of temperature, wind, and snowfall. While Inuit travel and hunt all across the area, the weather station at the airport captures only one location. So we need to get more data, which means building and maintaining remote weather stations. And we need to better understand how Inuit see the weather. For example, is it wind that really matters, or the blowing snow that makes it hard to see?

With help from local experts, we selected three sites for the stations. Kelly designs the set-up and assembles the parts in Colorado, before shipping all the gear to Clyde River. We install the first in June 2010, and two more in September. Shari and Glen, working with our local partners, set up a website where the data are available in real-time. In addition, Gordon Kattuk, from the Ittaq Heritage and Research Centre, records a weather message in Inuktitut twice daily during the week on a local phone line. Hunters and travellers use the information to supplement what they see when they look out their windows in Clyde River and plan their trips.

That is exactly what we are doing this morning in May 2011. The week before we visited our northern site, conducting routine maintenance and replacing the anemometers and the barometer. The weather was fine on that trip, but as we drew closer to Clyde River on our return, the clouds moved in, the light grew flat, and the wind started picking up. This is now the third morning we’ve been looking out the window at the blowing snow, wondering how much discomfort we’re willing to put up with to get to the two other stations.

And, of course, we have been looking at the data coming from those stations to help us make up our minds. The station at the head of Clyde Inlet reports moderate winds (15 km/h), but to get there we have to travel over 100 km, starting in poor visibility here. The station south of Clyde River is closer, and could easily be done in a day in good travelling weather. But it reports 40 km/h winds, and no doubt the conditions between here and there are much like they are in Clyde River.

So we practice patience, work on other things, and glance out the window every few minutes, hoping to see the cliffs in the distance or some other sign that perhaps we can head out today. As with so many aspects of life in the North, the weather is a huge influence on our activities, our plans, and even our moods. But we visitors also feel lucky to get to spend time on the land and in the company of our local colleagues, making the most of the down days by visiting and eating Arctic char, caribou, and bannock, and reminiscing about the visit the Inuit made to Colorado last October.

The purpose of the Colorado trip was to make the exchange of information and experience a two-way street. Rather than just having the scientists visit Clyde River and see what the locals do, we thought it important for the Inuit to see the working and living environment of the scientists, too. We took in the laboratories where Kelly and Glen work, visited their homes and spoke in the schools of Kelly’s kids, and, of course, took in a Colorado Avalanche game.

Just as the weather stations help give us a multi-dimensional picture of the weather in the Clyde River area, the social exchanges and visits back and forth among the Inuit and academic members of the Silalirijiit team help us understand one another beyond the common interest of meteorology. After all, weather is so often just the starting point, whether in conversation or in our interactions with the land and sea. The more time we spend looking at the same things, the better we are able to connect the ways we measure, talk about, and are affected by the weather.

And now the cliffs are in sight, the roof pennant is no longer straight out. Esa and Joelie say we can get going. Fire up the snow machines, we’re ready to go out to the next station!