Climate change and immobility are damaging to Inuit health | Polarjournal
Eco-anxiety is the phenomenon where some people experience stress over environmental issues. Often discussed in our media, this form of stress also affects Inuit but not in the same way. Photo: Folke Mehrtens / AWI

A recently published study focuses on how global warming, by reducing the mobility of Canadian Arctic Inuit, is affecting their mental health. As the Arctic warms, it no longer supports traditional activities, which has a direct impact on Inuit well-being and mental health.

Going out on the ice, hunting, fishing, sharing food and being in contact with the land are all important elements of Inuit culture. But global warming is making the ice thinner, delaying freeze-up and bringing fog and rain. Environmental changes are having a major impact on mobility, with consequences for general lifestyles. “Inuit report a decline in their ability to partake in land-based activities (e.g., hunting, foraging, trapping) and in their ability to visit culturally significant sites due to the climate-related immobility.”, notes Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, senior researcher with University College London and lead author of a study published February 16 in the journal Humanities & Social Sciences Communications. “This subsequently impairs intergenerational transfer of Indigenous Traditional Knowledge (ITK) (‘Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit’).”

This phenomenon has a name: “trapped” populations. Global warming is bringing environmental changes that have an impact on our ability to get around. Sometimes reduced to immobility, the populations concerned see their living conditions change and their identity sometimes disrupted. A breeding ground for increased distress, anxiety and despair.

To arrive at these conclusions, the researchers looked at qualitative studies published between 2000 and 2021 (about fifteen articles). By analyzing the Inuit’s speeches, the authors have identified three general themes relating to the loss of health and the issue of climate-related mobility: identity and cultural loss, land connection as a source for healing, and changing environment triggering emotional distress.

Coupled with the ever-present consequences of a brutal colonial past, which included the establishment of residential schools, generating real intergenerational trauma, reduced mobility has an impact on the physical and mental health of the Inuit. With addiction or suicide as consequences. Photo: Makivvik

Snowmobiles are replacing dogs, and supermarket food is increasingly replacing traditional fare. All these factors play on people’s morale and upset social interactions linked, for example, to sharing food: “The conditions were horrible. People didn’t get what they normally get for caribou and then you rely on store food junk […] the foods sources that you usually get to, you can’t reach. There is not enough snow, there is not enough ice. It’s alarming that we are just seeing the beginning of climate change”, notes an Inuk interviewed for a study published in 2015.

The authors highlight the strong connection between the Inuit and the land (Nuna in Inuktitut). A relationship so strong that the land is part of the Inuit identity and considered a source of healing. Getting out into nature is not just for morale: “[…]for the Inuit, going out on the land is just as much a part of our life as breathing. Really, we are so close to the land. We are land people. So if we don’t get out then, for our mental well-being, it’s like taking part of your arm away.”, reports an Inuk interviewed for a study published in 2013.

The land is part of the Inuit identity, but also of the individual. Climate change therefore poses not only an environmental problem, but also one of identity: “Many described ‘being one with the land’, meaning that the climate-induced changes to the land were embodied as individual loss of Inuit culture and identity “, note the authors. In the end, it’s all about Inuit’s ability to adapt to a drastically changing environment. And for the authors, the need to include the issue of loss of mobility in studies on the link between climate change and mental health.

Link to study: Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Hoad, A. & Trueba, M.L. ‘My appetite and mind would go‘: Inuit perceptions of (im)mobility and wellbeing loss under climate change across Inuit Nunangat in the Canadian Arctic. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 11, 277 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-024-02706-1

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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