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Here’s how Labrador Inuit are leading the way by adapting to the curveballs of climate change

The social enterprise SmartICE has been internationally recognized for its ability to combine traditional knowledge with technology in order to help people adapt to thin ice conditions. (SmartICE)

During Ron Webb’s lifetime, he’s felt the force of the shifting winds of change — literally.

“The strength of it is unbelievable sometimes,” said Webb, who lives in Nain, the most northerly Inuit community on Labrador’s coast.

“We always got gales of wind, but it seems to be more now. More, and stronger.” 

Strong winds play a role in Labrador’s thinning ice, an effect of climate change that’s made itself known in Inuit life and which was particularly scant this winter, causing months of travel disruptions for people living along its coastline. 

This year in particular, Webb said, the winds have often blown in from onshore, rather than the prevailing northwesterlies, bringing warmer air and helping keep ice from forming to its usual strengths.

In his work with environmental company Sikumiut, Webb lays markers out on the ice to keep snowmobilers informed of ship tracks from the nearby Voisey’s Bay nickel mine. This year, he estimates only three-quarters of that track was able to be marked. “Out farther, it’s not safe,” he said.

Now, Nain is looking to harness those powerful gales into a new micro-grid wind project, the Nunatsiavut government’s first-ever foray into turning such force into electricity. The project is an example of how Inuit in northern Labrador are turning their eye to the green economy, while navigating their way out of problems caused by climate change. 

The project — currently in the environmental approvals stage, with construction anticipated to begin in the summer — is billed as a “big project with a big impact,” according to Nick Mercer, Nunatsiavut’s regional energy co-ordinator. It would also be larger than any other renewable energy development in the Canadian Arctic, he said.

nain wind turbine project
This visualization from the Nunatsiavut government gives an idea of where the turbine or turbines for the project will be placed, nearby Nain’s water tower. (Nunatsiavut government)

A diesel-free future?

The proposed one or two turbines to be placed near Nain’s water tower could provide up to half of Nain’s electricity needs, and displace a million litres of the diesel fuel the community currently relies upon for power.

Diesel powers much of the Labrador coast, and the five Nunatsiavut communities suck up about seven million litres a year. But the fuel source is not ideal: besides spewing out greenhouse gas emissions, it is also expensive. Shipping diesel in from the outside has caused precarious supply situations in the past, and been suspected of playing a role in environmental contamination.

By replacing a portion of Nain’s diesel power, Mercer said the wind turbines are meant to be baby steps toward a future powered by green energy. 

“We understand that you need to walk before you can run,” Mercer said.

“And what we hope to do is to really test this technology out in a harsh northern climate to prove that it can be done reliably, to prove that it can be done cost effectively, and then really serve as a model for development.”

nain in the winter of 2021
Nain, like all the communities in Nunatsiavut, relies on diesel for electricity. (Hamlin Lampe)

When choices are community-led

The impetus for the wind project was really Nunatsiavut residents themselves, Mercer said, and grew from community consultations asking people how they wanted to power their futures.

“The community members are experts in their own communities, right? And they’re the ones who have the important questions, they’re the ones who can tell us how how these projects can or cannot be compatible with their community,” he said.

Community surveys ranked the most popular renewable ways forward as using wind and solar sources, he said, with little appetite for nuclear and hydro projects — the latter unappealing in part thanks to the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, which apart from being delayed and overbudget was the focus of community protests and concerns.

Wind has always played a role within Inuit culture. “We always take notice of the wind, whether we’re going travelling or if there’s a storm coming, and the direction and all that,” said Webb. Watching the way wind whips snowbanks during whiteouts to guide your path forward long predates relying on GPS technology, and is still used today.

barry andersen
Barry Andersen, the AngajukKak of Makkovik, says communities should turn to renewable energy to help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, as residents in Makkovik and elsewhere feel the disrupting effects of climate change. (Holly Andersen)

The sun holds a similar place, and its power is already being harnessed in Nunatsiavut with success. In Makkovik, the roof of the local arena is home to the territory’s first solar project, which has been soaking up the sun’s rays for about 18 months.

In that time, the modest 50-kilowatt project has saved the community about $13,000, according to AngajukKak Barrry Andersen, who said he’s fielded calls from other communities looking to replicate the success.

“I think that the more we can do, the better now, for renewable energy. And the solar panels, wind energy and that kind of thing is the way to go, if we want to slow down the effects that we’re feeling now from climate change, and the weather patterns changing so quickly,” said Andersen.

Similar small solar projects are planned to be installed in the other four Nunatsiavut communities this summer.

“We strongly believe that these small-scale demonstration projects, you know, which build community familiarity, which enhance literacy, which establish community trust, shows that we can do these projects, in a good way, that are compatible with community culture,” said Mercer. 

makkovik arena solar panels
The solar panels atop the arena in Makkovik saved the community $13,000 last year. (Community of Makkovik website)

Success on ice

The renewable energy activity comes on the heels of another Inuit-led innovation that’s earned accolades from around the world: SmartICE, a social enterprise borne from the crisis of how to stay safe atop increasingly unpredictable ice.

It applies cutting-edge technology to gauge how thick the ice is is by comparing temperatures between the ice, sea, snow and air, using a sensor called a SmartBuoy.

“Imagine just a nine-foot-long thermometer,” said SmartICE’s Nunatsiavut operations lead, Rex Holwell.

That information gets combined with data collected from sensors dragged behind snowmobiles, called SmartQamutiks for a snapshot of what’s happening to the ice.

Holwell takes that data and disperses it to the public, whether with the Siku ice app, community Facebook pages, or even tacked up old school in Nain’s post office. Getting that information into the hands of people setting out on the ice is, for him, the most satisfying part of his job.

“The whole point of SmartICE and doing what we’re doing is to keep people safe. And at the end of the day, maybe knowing that I could be possibly help save somebody’s life, it makes it all worth it for me,” he said.

rex holwell on snowmobile
Rex Holwell, the SmartICE lead in Nain, takes pride in helping keep people safe during their travels out on the sea ice. (Hamlin Lampe)

SmartICE is now being used throughout the Arctic, although COVID-19 has hampered plans to use it more widely in Nunatsiavut as of this year.

No matter where it’s used, SmartICE data is not meant to stand alone, but as a supplement to people’s traditional knowledge. And similar to the renewable energy projects, at its core, the SmartICE crew and technology takes its cues from how locals want to use it.

“When we come to the community, we ask for their input, on what they would like for us to do. What we can provide for them,” said Holwell. “We hire the local operators who have the local knowledge. We train them on how to use our technology. Then after that, it’s up to them.”

Challenges, and innovations, ahead

The continually thinning ice has its challenges for SmartICE.

Holwell said the past two years, he hasn’t been able to get out on the ice until close to the end of January. This year, even when he did begin taking measurements, his instruments drilled through the ice “like it was butter.”

But as climate change presents hurdles, the technology at SmartICE is evolving. This winter, Holwell and two other employees began being trained on software to create ice travel maps. The maps will combine radar satellite imagery, SmartICE data, and traditional knowledge to create an ever-evolving version of the ice, in both Inuktitut and English.

nick mercer
Nick Mercer works with the Nunatsiavut government, coordinating its renewable energy projects. (Regan Burden/CBC)

Once Holwell and the others are trained up, they’ll be teaching younger employees how to use the software and interpret satellite and GIS data.

“This, I think, will be the first time ever that these sorts of maps will be made. and the skills that we’re giving to these Inuit youth are really transferable,” said Trevor Bell, the founding director of SmartICE and a professor at Memorial University.

Combining forward-looking skills while capturing the ice-rich terminology of Inuktitut will be likely continue to come in handy, as Holwell sees future demand for SmartICE’s offerings.

“We’re at the forefront of climate change, and I honestly believe that now. Unfortunately, other northern communities are seeing the same thing — not to the scale that we’re seeing, but I mean, in the future, they’re going to,” he said.

Mercer sees Inuit in Nunatsiavut as “trailblazers” in developing renewable energy initiatives adapted to the north, a part of the world seeing amplified effects of climate change.

Money diverted from diesel bills, thanks to the region’s renewable resources, could then go toward improving language and cultural programming, and dealing with the region’s housing crisis to “help to build the future that Inuit know, and want, and deserve.”

The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change are coming from outside coastal Labrador, and Mercer is calling upon both the provincial and federal government to stick to international targets to reduce them. 

While decarbonizing Nunatsiavut is a worthy goal, Mercer said it’s not the most important one for a region that faces significant social and economic challenges, which become amplified in an unstable environment.

“Emissions reductions isn’t our primary goal. We want to generate revenue, which we can then invest in our own self-determined priorities,” he said.

Thin Ice is a special CBC series about the changing climate along Labrador’s north coast, and the Indigenous-led responses arising from it. Read more in this series in the coming weeks.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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