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Qapiragajuq: An Update on "Tilting of the Earth"

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06 janvier 2010


If you've been following our work, you'll know that elders across Nunavut believe that "the earth has tilted" and this is the cause of climate change. To better understand this, we've been in constant dialogue between scientsists and elders, and have discovered that a warming northern atmosphere has actually altered the visual landscape of the Arctic, which has caused the sun, moon and stars to appear out of position in the sky. An optical tilt of the earth caused by refraction rather than a physical one!

Inuit knowledge regarding the sun, moon and stars is incredible. We've heard life-and-death stories about navigating the land by dog team, in the middle of winter, only using star light. Remember, in the high Arctic, as the earth cycles around the sun, during some of the winter months the pole faces the blackness of the universe, and depending on your location returns in the New Year. Here in Igloolik, the sun disappears for about a month and a half from early December to mid January. The "return of the sun" is a community-wide celebration and ceremony and is remembered year-after-year. Elders know the exact location that the sun has been returning on the horizon over the course of their lifetimes. And, now, through our project, they are beginning to speak about how this is changing.

Working with Igloolik elder Augustine Taqquraq - who we've hired to help us with the film - we mapped in detail how the sun has shifted in his lifetime. Today, January 6, Augustine turned 66 years old. In 1957, when he was 13 years old, he remembers the exact location on the horizon where the sun returned when he was living on the land in camp. Now, viewing from the exact same location, the sun returns in a dramatically different place on the horizon. In 52 years, the sun has shifted southward by 19 KM, which is a 44 degree movement relative to the position of the observer. This is an example of the massive visual shift that elders across the north have observed, leading them to each conclude that the earth has tilted.

When we explained this to climate scientists, including researchers working at NASA, most had never heard of such an observation before. However, all the scientists indicated that a physical tilt of the earth was impossible, and could not have happened the way our elder Augustine described. So, like an unfolding mystery, we went back to the drawing board to learn more about what might be causing this observation.

Wayne Davidson, a weather scientist and meteorological observer working Resolute Bay, helped solve the problem. In the late 1990s, Wayne also began to notice a change with the sun. He, like the elders we have documented, saw that the sun was moving southward. And, based on his scientific understanding and discussions with local Inuit, began documenting and better understanding this "low altitude refraction". In the video clip posted in this blog, Wayne describes how the sun changing its position in the sky - moving consistently in one direction - is actually a metric to measure anthropogenic, or human caused, climate change.

Essentially, as climate change warms the atmosphere and alters wind patterns, hot southern air is moving northward. As we know, hot air rises over cold air, which causes a very complex atmospheric structure with different air densities. The molecules of the lower cold air are much more dense, whereas the molecules of the upper hot air are expanded and more diffuse, and each have different "refraction indices". This literally means that light bends differently through hot and cold air respectively, which causes objects in the sky to change their shape and position, especially at the horizon. In the video, look at Wayne's computer screen to see some of the strange images he has captured of the sun as a result of this phenomenon.

Inuit are noticing the sun, moon and stars change their position in the sky and this actually measures the degree to which climate change has affected the Arctic environment! What a mind blower! As we further spoke with Augustine about this, we realized that refraction is a well known concept to Inuit, based on their knowledge of spear fishing in water. Inuit know that the water bends light and you are to aim at a different location than where you see the fish at the surface of the water, if you are to catch it. This hunting technique, which calculates for refraction, is called "qapiragajuq", which literally means to "spear strangely".

Not only have we solved the mystery of why Inuit believe the earth appears to have tilted, but in doing so, we have also discovered that Inuit have techniques for adapting to a changing visual world. When things appear strange, a new technique is required. Fortunately, Inuit are telling us that they have the skills and knowledge to adapt to climate change, and despite the challenges it presents, like any good hunter, they will be prepared.


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