‘The sun is a problem’: Search and rescue member warns of Nunavik’s warm weather

Spring has brought beautiful weather to Nunavik but with melt comes risk, says a local leader from Kuujjuaq.

“The sun is a problem,” said George Kauki, president of Kuujjuaq’s Niqliit wildlife committee and a search and rescue team member.

He’s been using Facebook to raise awareness over the changing weather conditions.

Kauki said hunters and travellers should be even more careful than usual when going out on the land.

“The melting snow, which creates water and slush, increases the risk of people travelling alone getting stuck or wet,” he said.

Getting wet is the dangerous part, especially in the evenings when the temperature drops.

Some creeks and rivers have become dangerous to travel over because ice can be thin enough for snowmobiles to fall through, stranding the driver.

For Kauki, the weak ice is a clear sign that the climate is changing.

“All winter there have been these three holes” on the Koksoak River near Kuujjuaq, he said, adding one can be seen from Isuarsivik Recovery Centre in town.

The river is now dangerous to cross due to those holes and the thinning ice. Across the river is a favourite spot for goose hunting.

That spot has been used for generations because it’s accessible and it doesn’t take much gas to drive there.

“There were always, like, five hunters around that hole, it provided a lot of food for the spring,” he said, adding “I don’t think anybody is going to risk going there this year.”

Nunavik had 11.5 deaths per 10,000 residents due to on-the-land accidents in 2015, compared to three per 10,000 deaths province-wide, according to data compiled by Laval University that was included in a recent Kativik Regional Government report.

These mishaps often require a search and rescue team to be deployed.

“We risk our lives travelling through thin ice in the spring and rough waters in the summer,” said Kauki.

“You need proper training and you have to have a good understanding of what Mother Nature is capable of.”

In the past, helicopters and ski-equipped aircraft frequently landed on the ice to perform search and rescue missions, according to the report, which cites an example from 2013 when two hunters were stranded near Arviat in Nunavut. A Jet Ranger helicopter arrived and attempted to land on the ice, but immediately sank.

The stranded hunters had to rescue the pilots. And then another search and rescue team eventually came to pick everyone up.

Kauki recommended people heading out on the land bring tools like ropes, axes and snow knives to help get out of risky situations.

“Be aware of your surroundings, and what you are doing, and advise someone of your destination,” he said, adding newer model phones have satellite SOS features that can be used to contact emergency services if needed.

The snow season in parts of the North has shortened by around 40 days since the 1950s, says a report from ArcticNet, a research network from Laval University.

ArcticNet analyzed data from weather stations in Goose Bay, Cartwright and Nain in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as Kuujjuaraapik and Kuujjuaq, and used that data to publish the Nunavik and Nunatsiavut Regional Climate Information Update in 2020.

Results show snow disappeared earlier in the spring at a rate of 3.9 days per decade since the 1950s. In the fall, the onset of snow arrived later at a rate of 3.4 days per decade.

The study also found a typical sea ice season that’s deemed a “safe period” is 180 to 200 days long on the Hudson Bay, and 180 to 240 days on the Ungava Bay.

However, the study projects that the duration of that safe period might be reduced by three to four months over much of the Nunavik coastline due to delayed ice formation and earlier melt.

In Makivvik’s recently released Nunavik Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, land safety is a priority for Inuit.

It calls for strengthened travel safety on the land, better sharing of knowledge and skills, improved access to ice and trail condition information, and more effective search and rescue through improved access to equipment, training, emergency communications and personnel.

Cedric Gallant, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunatsiaq News