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Inuit communities document sea ice terms for safer ice travel

Qaingu: "When ice is forming on the high tide line," according to a booklet that documents Inuktitut sea ice terms in Mittimatalik. Katherine Wilson/SmartICE


A committee of sea ice users in Mittimatalik, or Pond Inlet, and researchers put together a booklet of 67 Inuktitut words that describe sea ice earlier this year. Now, other northern communities are taking on similar projects.

The work provides a foundation for sharing Inuit knowledge of sea ice and safe ice travel with younger generations.

Sea ice is a vital part of life in the North. Inuit use it to gather food, visit neighbouring communities and practice cultural activities. A warming climate is making sea ice unpredictable, however, and travelling on it is becoming increasingly risky. During a particularly warm winter between 2009 to 2010 in Nunainguk (Nain), a community located in the territory of Nunatsiavut in Labrador, 1 in 12 people surveyed said they had fallen through the ice on their snowmobiles.



Climate change isn’t the only challenge to safe ice travel. The legacy of colonialism adds to the issue. When generations of Inuit left or were taken from their families to attend residential school, they did not have the opportunity to learn how to travel safely on the ice. The shift to wage employment has also made it harder for many people to spend time on the ice.

“Not all the young guys here have a father figure who can show them the ropes or show them what to look for when they’re out on the ice,” said Andrew Arreak, an Inuit youth researcher in Mittimatalik, Nunavut.

Arreak is a regional operations lead for SmartICE, an organization that integrates Inuit knowledge and ice monitoring technology to help northern communities make more informed decisions about ice travel. Typically, this work involves deploying buoys or towing a sensor behind a snowmobile to measure ice thickness in real-time, which provides sea ice users with information on where the ice is thick enough to travel.

Data provided by SmartICE can help people plan their travels, according to Trevor Bell, SmartICE’s founding director and a geography professor at Memorial University. But once people are out on ice, it’s Inuit knowledge that helps them navigate and stay safe, he said.



Strengthening Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit

In 2017, a committee of Inuit sea ice users that guides SmartICE’s work in Mittimatalik – called Sikumiut – expressed the need to improve the intergenerational transfer of sea ice Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. IQ is often used to describe Inuit knowledge, but it encompasses all aspects of Inuit culture, including values, worldview and life skills.

Sikumiut decided to start by documenting Inuktitut sea ice terms, which form the basis for identifying and communicating about conditions. “The terms tell you, inevitably, whether the ice is safe or dangerous,” said Katherine Wilson, director of knowledge co-production for SmartICE, who led the pilot work in Mittimatalik as part of her PhD at Memorial University.

Often, sea ice users share information about sea ice conditions over radios or at gathering spots in the community. If someone says one of the ice terms because conditions are dangerous, others will understand right away, Arreak said. “That is one of the reasons there are so many words for ice,” he said.

Andrew Arreak facilitated workshops in Mittimatalik to validate sea ice terms. Katherine Wilson/SmartICE

Starting in 2018, members of Sikumiut, along with invited Elders and youth gathered to document and validate Inuktitut sea ice terms. During the workshops, southern researchers provided training and support so that Arreak could conduct the research himself. The group wrote sea ice terms and their definitions on index cards and arranged them according to the seasonal cycle of sea ice. Arreak also facilitated a series of validation meetings to revise spelling and definitions, as some of the words had never been written down.

Altogether, the work took four years to complete. In March of 2022, the group published a booklet of sea ice terminology, which was distributed to every classroom and household in Mittimatalik.

“This is one of the first sea ice booklets that I’ve seen in my lifetime up in the North,” Arreak said.

To make the content accessible to Inuit youth with varying language skills, the group wrote the booklet in two Inuktitut writing systems — Roman orthography and syllabics — as well as English. Many of the ice terms are also accompanied by a picture or an illustration, which Arreak said is helpful since many northerners are visual learners.

In English, there are only about a dozen terms that describe sea ice, and they tend to characterize it from a structural perspective, according to Bell. Inuktitut terms, in contrast, provide clues as to how the ice was formed, how it might break up and whether it is safe to travel on, he said.



Aputainnar, for example, refers to a thin layer of slush over open water that is covered by snow, which presents a hazard to ice users because it is very hard to see if you don’t know what to look for, Wilson said. Nuvujaqarninga Imauninga, meanwhile, refers to dark clouds that form over open water, which can indicate that the edge of a piece of ice is near.

During the workshops, the group also created maps based on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit that show areas where sea ice is typically safe or hazardous as well as spots that travellers can seek shelter. In addition, the team hired a local artist to develop posters that highlight important advice and tips on how to prepare for travelling on sea ice, since some of the knowledge shared during the meetings did not fit on a map or in the terminology booklet, Wilson said.

A safety poster that outlines tips for safe ice travel. Sikumiut Management Committee for SmartICE in Mittimatalik

Different communities, different ice terms

According to Bell, documenting and mobilizing Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit of sea ice is a climate adaptation tool. Around the world, Indigenous peoples have been pointing out that Indigenous knowledge has helped them survive for centuries to millennia under changing conditions, he said. In the North, strengthening Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit can empower people with the knowledge they need to stay safe under changing ice conditions.

Bell suspects that’s why other communities have asked SmartICE to help them with similar projects. After seeing the work in Mittimatalik, management committees in Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven), Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay), Qikiqtarjuaq and Nunainguk (Nain) have already started developing their own terminology books, maps, and posters. Several more communities — including Talurjuaq (Taloyoak) and Tuktuuyaqtuuq (Tuktoyatuk) — have indicated that they are interested in doing something similar, Wilson said.

Since different communities have different dialects and sea ice conditions, altogether they have documented more than 280 ice terms so far.

Sikuliaq: A layer of ice that people can walk on. Gita Ljubicic/McMaster University
Aputainnar: A thin layer of a thin layer of slush over open water that is covered by snow, which appears as a slight depression. Gita Ljubicic/McMaster University
Karngusirsimajuq: Crystals that look like flowers (karnguq) and that cover the surface of the sea ice as it forms. Katherine Wilson/SmartICE

In Uqsuqtuuq, the first workshop to document sea ice terms was held about a year ago, according to Leanne Beaulieu, a mapping specialist for SmartICE who is based in the community. Now, Beaulieu is putting together a draft of a terminology booklet to bring to the group’s next meeting, which will be held in November.

Although Beaulieu has yet to receive feedback from the wider community, she said that there has been a lot of positive encouragement among people involved in the work.

“This is really special to have, especially for the younger generations,“ she said. She hopes the work helps preserve knowledge that is quickly slipping away. “We are losing our Elders, we can’t have them forever,” she said.



According to Arreak, after the booklet was released in Mittimatalik, he felt a sense of accomplishment.

“I heard from a couple of Elders that they’re really proud of the booklet, which means a lot to me,” he said. Sometimes, Arreak wonders if anyone is even looking at the data he collects. “It’s nice to get a ‘good job’ once in a while,” he said.

This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.