Arguably, the most bizarre, fascinating and perhaps groundbreaking of all observations we've heard from Inuit is that they believe our world has tilted on its axis and this contributes to climate change. When Zacharias and I first heard this, we thought it was very strange, yet elders in all the communities we've worked in - Pangnirtung, Iqaluit, Resolute Bay and Igloolik - all believe this phenomenon to be true. In today's blog, we post a video from Igloolik elder Japiti Palluq talking about the impacts of a tilted earth, and unpack the traditional knowledge and science on this issue.
It's been very interesting to see elders and hunters across Nunavut make the same observation about the world having shifted on its axis. In most cases, research participants were not prompted on the issue, yet they began talking about it. Just today, we heard from another interviewee that "the earth has tilted", and Zach looked and me and jokingly said "did you tell him?". As a trained scientist, I know that a key test for "truth" is the repeated replicability of a research finding, independent of who is doing the test. Hearing Inuit across Nunavut make the same observation, using their traditional ecological knowledge, seems to pass this credo for scientific truth. So what data are elders collecting and analyzing to draw this conclusion?
Elders across Nunavut have noticed that the sun and stars have changed their position in the sky. The sun is now rising higher and staying longer than it used to. Importantly, in the far north, you must remember that the sun goes below the horizon for a large part of the year, and therefore Inuit are very familiar with its celestial pattern. Indeed, Inuit we're talking with are telling us stories about how in the old days, during the dark months, they would travel the land by dog team using stars as their navigational tools. So, when Inuit talk about the sun and stars, they do so with an intimate knowledge of these systems.
We've heard that the earth has tilted in the direction of the sun. Elders explain that this is why the sun is higher in the sky and there is increased and more direct heat entering the Arctic ecosystem. As Japiti explains, this has subsequently altered migratory routes of animals, warmed the ocean water, and thinned the ice cover. While this almost sounds like a fringe theory to obfuscate that fossil fuel use increases greenhouse gases, it is actually something has just recently been acknowledged by scientists.
When we began this project, I scanned the academic literature to see if there was any scientific evidence to support Inuit claims that the "earth has tilted" and thus causing climate change, but nothing existed. Now that we're in Igloolik, editing the film, and hearing this observation repeatedly, I hit the literature again. And, to my surprise and delight, two research studies have recently been published that relate to the Inuit knowledge we are collecting with video.
Drysdale et al (2009) published a study in the prestigious journal Science this past August that argues the Late Pleistocene (approximately 141,000 years ago) glacial period came to an end because of changes to the obliquity, or tilt, of the earth. Like Inuit, the study states that this is a possible climate change hypothesis "because of the relatively large and persistent increases in summer energy reaching the high latitudes of both hemispheres during times of maximum Earth tilt". Although Drysdale et al (2009) are discussing past climate change, their findings seem to support present claims by Inuit that a tilting earth may warm climate. In another study, published this past September in Geophysical Research Letters, Landerer et al (2009) indicate that the warming of oceans, exacerbated by melting glaciers that flow into them, is causing "horizontal mass redistribution" of the world's seas. Essentially, the weight and position of the world's oceans have shifted, and this has literally caused the earth to shift its position on its axis! In both the Drysdale (2009) and Landerer (2009) studies, the authors argue that these phenomena have not been previously reported, and that their findings offer new insights into how scientists and society should think about climate
change and its causes and associated impacts.
Indeed, Inuit observations seem tied to the technical science of long-term climate change, specifically the theory of the Milankovitch Cycles, which seem to predict natural planetary warming and cooling periods based on the position of the earth and its axis in relationship to the sun. See Wikipedia for more details:
In many ways, Inuit elders speak with the knowledge of astrophysicists and environmental scientists all in one, and so I'm just trying to catch up. I find it fascinating that for many years, elders and hunters living on the land have been observing and talking about environmental change that is now only being published by scholars working at the cutting edge of science. Indeed, Inuit are climate change experts, and their knowledge complements and in some ways surpasses scientific understanding on this topic. We certainly hope that our work shows how these two "ways of knowing" can work together to better understand climate change, arguably the paramount issue of our time.
Drysdale (2009). Evidence of obliquity forcing of glacial termination II. Science, 325, 1527-1528.
Landerer et al. (2009). Long-term polar motion excited by ocean thermal expansion. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, 1-5.