Garfield Giff – an expert in Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, at Aurora Research Institute – has been appointed to the position of Research Chair in Climate Change Adaptation.
His appointment was announced in March. The position is a first in the territory and will be based at the institute’s Western Arctic Research Centre in Inuvik.
As research chair, Giff intends to work with Beaufort Delta communities to expand their capacity to collect climate change monitoring data. He also hopes to learn from communities and integrate Western science with Indigenous knowledge to come up with the most suitable climate change adaptation strategy for individual communities.
Since 2017, Giff has served as the manager of ARI’s GIS division in Inuvik. GIS deals with how geographic information – where things are, and what they are – is managed, analyzed and mapped.
His career to date has largely focused on the socio-political, socio-economic and technical aspects of GIS – dealing with questions such as how much it costs to set up GIS, how to ensure it’s achieving its goal, and whether it should be freely available. He has studied and worked in Jamaica, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Arab Emirates.
Last week, Cabin Radio caught up with Giff to learn more about his new role.
This interview was recorded on May 10, 2023. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Chloe Williams: You’ve done work all over the world. What brought you to Inuvik?
Garfield Giff: New adventure, I think. What was happening in Inuvik was also the next step from what I was doing prior. One of the things I was working on prior to this was something called the Arctic Spatial Data Infrastructure. That was looking at how to make all the data collected in the Arctic available to the participants, to the communities, to the different Arctic nations. When I saw the job in Inuvik became available, it was very similar. This job started out as a job to grow the whole concept of spatial data in the communities.
You were previously the manager of GIS programs with ARI, but you were appointed to Research Chair in Climate Change Adaptation earlier this year. What was your reaction to that announcement?
When it was first discussed, I thought it was a big, big task that I didn’t think was a one-man task. Then we looked at it and said the focus would still be on the communities – because we have ECC and all these other agencies that are looking at climate change adaptation at the territorial level. What we really focus on here in the Beaufort Delta is how to assist the communities, and how to learn from the communities on how to be climate resilient, and what kind of adaptation is necessary.
The research chair position is a learning experience for ARI, because the communities have been resilient and have been adapting to climate change. How can we learn from them and how can we integrate Western science into what they have been doing to grow climate change adaptation? The communities have been doing it, but climate change is getting so rapid now that more assistance is required. Based on that focus, and the fact that I’ve been working with the communities for a while now, and I’ve developed some relationships with them, it’s doable.
What I’m hoping to achieve is to work with the Beaufort Delta communities, probably selected communities, to develop climate change adaptation strategies. I will be starting to develop this dialogue with some communities – and some community groups – to really grow their capacity to do climate change monitoring. They are already monitoring and have been collecting all this data. So how do they use this data to develop an adaptation plan and adaptation strategy? That’s my aim.
It’s a short-term program, so I’m just thinking of using a couple of pilot communities to do this to see how it goes, and then see if it can be transitioned across to other communities. Transition needs to be well thought through, because all the communities are different. All the communities are affected by different kinds of climate change effects. We have to identify the interests of the particular community and work with them on developing some form of climate change adaptation plan for their particular area.
Could you tell me a bit more about how that could be done or what it would look like in practice? I know you’ve been involved with a drone project, and some education and outreach work. Would it look something like that?
It would continue to look similar to what we have been doing so far. Because for us to develop an adaptation strategy, we have to know what’s there. So it would grow on past monitoring programs – it would involve growing the community capacity to collect climate change data, whether it’s going to be water samples, soil samples, or spatial data in terms of mapping the changes in the environment. We’ve been doing that, and it’s been very successful. We have trained a number of community members in the Northwest Territories so far, and these guys now are working with the community groups in collecting this type of information.
Once there’s a community group that has collected this data – this is the stage where we’re at now – we need to analyze the data and develop some form of adaptation strategy. So the work will continue because the capacity needs to grow on how to collect the Western science data, and then we need to integrate it with local knowledge. So we’re going to work with community groups on doing that.
It’s going to be a similar thing to past programs, but now the focus is going to be on the actual adaptation. So we’re going to still continue to train monitors to collect data, but we’re going to now train people to analyze the data. And we are going to learn from communities how they’ve done it and how we can integrate Western science and traditional knowledge to come up with some form of adaptation strategy.
How do you see GIS or spatial data fitting into climate change adaptation?
Well, climate data is going to inform any adaptation policy. You have to have the data, and GIS is one of the easiest, most effective ways to collect and display data. It allows you to visualize what’s changing. A lot of the community groups are visual. They’re used to going out and seeing changes on the land. With GIS, they can look at integrated maps, models, plans, StoryMaps, all that kind of thing. So GIS allows the community to see the effects of climate change, and they can run the data into models to predict future effects. GIS allows that kind of illustration, it allows for the analysis to be done and it allows for actual numbers to be represented, too, in different formats. So that’s the real beauty of GIS.
We can also combine GIS with remote sensing. The drone work, what we call RPAS work, is just a large-scale view, so it’s really like you’re seeing it in your eyes. The satellite imagery gives us a wider view, but it’s not as one would expect to see the area. It does require some training to be able to interpret. We have a number of projects that we have used to get communities interested in imagery. The North is vast and the only way to capture that data is through satellite images. We can’t do it any other way.
I guess you’re a little less than two months into this new position, is that right? How is it going so far?
So far, it’s super busy. I have to be meeting with everybody [laughs]. Meeting with people from the GNWT because they are doing their own climate change adaptation, meeting with the communities, meeting with researchers. And then trying to get my head wrapped around what direction I’m going and how it’s going to be done, to best be inclusive to the communities and best address the community needs. It makes no sense to create a climate adaptation strategy if it’s not something that a community wants. It requires a lot of community engagement.
Do you have a sense of where the pilot projects will be, to start with?
Beaufort Delta communities. We want to work with communities that have been affected by different aspects of climate change. I think we may end up working with Aklavik, since their effects are slightly different. I think they are a bit underserved, as well, in terms of how people view or know about the effects of climate change on their community.
We may also look to one of the further northern communities, probably Paulatuk or Sachs Harbour. We haven’t made any decisions yet, but it’s going to be one or two Beaufort Delta communities. The decisions will be based on community needs and willingness to participate in the program. We’re not here to say, “OK, here’s your climate change adaptation strategy.” We’re here to work with the community to help develop a climate change adaptation strategy. We want to work with a community that wants to develop one, and work with them on doing it and then implementing it.