Discovering Opportunities for Adaptation in the Arctic

The ambitious December 2015 agreement of the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius was welcome news to many across the Arctic. This is because, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013), the Arctic is warming more than twice as fast, on average, as the rest of the globe. Impacts are already manifest—from rising sea levels, to permafrost and sea ice melting, to increased storms and precipitation, to the advance of southern species—and are creating stress on local populations, especially indigenous peoples who depend on the stability of ice and weather conditions to make their living (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment 2004). Thus, both mitigation (reduction of greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (transformative changes in human systems) are necessary for sustainable Arctic futures.

Adaptation strategies—both autonomous and planned—are already being put in place at the household and community levels (Ford et al. 2010) and beyond. At the same time, maladaptive activities—such as the large-scale industrial extraction of CO2-emitting fossil fuels—continue apace, especially in Russia, Canada, Norway, and the United States. These practices suggest that a more systematic approach to adaptation is needed in order to discover and coordinate sustainable responses to environmental change in this vulnerable region.

The United Kingdom, through its Science and Innovation Network Nordics team and in partnership with the Arctic Institute, has taken the lead in supporting engagement with indigenous knowledge to co-create adaptive solutions to global environmental change. In 2015, this team organized a special session on this theme at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik. Here, I develop themes raised in that session, particularly those concerning adaptation for Arctic peoples, including Inuit, Aleuts, Athabascans, Cree, Innu, Métis, Sámi, Chukchi, Eveny, Nenets, and others.

Northern indigenous peoples have been adapting continuously since making their way to the Arctic thousands of years ago. Adaptation to conditions in the Arctic represents a supreme achievement and an ongoing challenge. What key processes have guided Arctic adaptations, and how might these processes be relevant to future adaptation?

In an earlier article (Thornton and Manasfi 2010), I proposed eight general processes of human adaptation to environmental change. These strategies include mobility, exchange, rationing, pooling, intensification, diversification, innovation, and revitalization. All have been vital to the resilience of Arctic indigenous peoples, and I argue that they should be considered in combination with environmental and other drivers when assessing future adaptation.

Mobility is a critical adaptation strategy, especially among hunting-gathering peoples. The colonization and militarization of the Arctic reduced indigenous mobility by settling groups into permanent villages. Yet people continue to rely on ice for travel, and poor conditions due to rising temperatures can make travel more dangerous. Moreover, some communities will have to move as erosion, melting, and flooding devastate their settlements. More residents are also migrating to regional centers, seasonally if not permanently, to access employment and services. Meanwhile, the decline of sea ice has opened up Arctic sea lanes for increased access and commerce.  As yet there is no integrated plan that connects changing Arctic mobilities with indigenous livelihoods and needs. New regional economies of coastal protection, safety, and monitoring are likely to arise, which, if planned correctly, could benefit local communities and provide opportunities for capacity building, jobs, and further adaptations.

With new mobilities come new forms of exchange, another critical mode of adaptation. Aboriginal exchange consisted mainly of interlinked kinship, travel, and trade networks across the North, but also included neighbors to the south. Colonial penetration reoriented these networks and benefit flows toward southern interests, leaving devastating impacts on the land and dependency in Arctic communities. With the potential decline of fossil fuel development and the local revenue and investment that accompany it, what will drive exchanges in the Arctic? Tourism, shipping, and industrial exploitation of newly accessible resources are on the rise. Will aboriginal economic institutions, including regional business corporations and trade networks, be able to capitalize on new possibilities for exchange without succumbing to the same boom-and-bust pitfalls and pathways as earlier concessions?

Rationing and pooling of critical assets are key adaptation strategies for managing exchange risks, including boom-and-bust cycles, and for fostering sustainable livelihoods and resilient communities in response to change. If remote Arctic village infrastructures cannot be maintained in the wake of climate change impacts, how will resources—financial, material, and human—be allocated to ensure well-being? There is a political ecology to state investments in the Arctic that must go beyond assessments of local vulnerability and needs (see Cameron 2012) to address the systemic inequality and structural violence that perpetuate exploitation of peripheral northern areas by core southern ones.

The so-called Fourth World (indigenous peoples marginalized within modern nation-states) is developing its own capacity to pool collective power through international political organizations, such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council. These institutions must fend off nonlocal interests that tend to favor intensive extraction for short-term profits. Diversification, bioregional innovation, and coordination for the revitalization of indigenous cultural economies, rather than scaled-up intensification of the extraction of nonrenewable resources, will be key to long-term adaptation and resilience as fragile Arctic systems face a warming world. Indeed, these are the adaptation pathways we need to take in order to get from the ambitious targets of the COP21 Paris agreement to genuinely sustainable futures for Arctic peoples.


Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. 2004. “Impacts of a Warming Arctic.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, Emilie S. 2012. “Securing Indigenous Politics: A Critique of the Vulnerability and Adaptation Approach to the Human Dimensions of Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic.” Global Environmental Change 22, no. 1: 103–14.

Ford, James D., Tristan Pearce, Frank Duerden, Chris Furgal, and Barry Smit. 2010. “Climate Change Policy Responses for Canada’s Inuit Population: The Importance of and Opportunities for Adaptation.” Global Environmental Change 20, no. 1: 177–91.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2013. “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornton, Thomas F., and Nadia Manasfi. 2010. “Adaptation—Genuine and Spurious: Demystifying Adaptation Processes in Relation to Climate Change.” Environment and Society 1, no. 1: 132–55.