While some people might wish for a warmer winter, that isn’t true in Labrador, where many people, especially those on the coast, rely on the cold to create sea and inland ice they can travel, hunt and fish on.
The early part of 2021 saw unusually high temperatures in Labrador, to the tune of 6 C to 9 C above average. This led to dangerously unsafe ice both on the coast and further inland. Now things are closer to the average, but it’s had an impact.
As an example, this year the ice broke on Makkovik bay in late January, much earlier than usual.
Makkovik AngajukKak (mayor) Barry Andersen said no one could remember it ever happening so early, and the thinner-than-normal ice this year has affected people in several ways, including travelling and hunting.
While this year was unusually warm, he said it’s becoming more common to see unusual weather on the coast of Labrador, which he sees as an impact of climate change.
“Climate change, the reality of it this way we’re seeing is extremes in weather patterns from year to year,” he said. “Two years ago, we got hammered with an extreme amount of snow like no one could recall. It broke off trees and buried cabins. We had to raise the telephone lines so people wouldn’t get clotheslined on snowmobiles.”
Andersen said people have noticed many changes to the landscape over the years, including the ice, snow and tides. This year, since not all of the inland streams and lakes had thick enough ice, they couldn’t send the groomers onto the trails, limiting the ease of travel from the community to other towns such as Hopedale and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“It creates a lot of hazard travelling,” he said. “The lakes and ponds and things are freezing much later, and if they do freeze it's soft ice if the snow hits it before the cold weather comes, so you get a lot of slush and slob build-up and you get people bogged down in that.”
He said the unpredictability makes people more nervous when out on the land, which is an intrinsic part of Indigenous culture on the Labrador coast.
Joey Angnatok, who lives in Nain, the most northern community in Labrador, said getting out on the land is a big part of his life, and this year he hasn’t been able to do nearly as much of it as he’d like.
“I use the ice to get pretty well all around the compass, around the community here, up as high as 200 to 300 kilometres away, one way,” he said. “It’s had a hindrance on everything. It places a big load on people's mental health, too, not being able to get out and take in the surroundings and stuff. It’s not just about hunting, it’s the land, the look of it, the animals, the smell. It’s all medicine for the soul.”
Around Nain, the ice is still fairly thin in some places, he said, and he’s heard stories of people who thought they were on good snow-packed ice only to find it's just snow, not ice. He’s been out a few times, he said, but travellers have to be more aware of their surroundings and which areas are dangerous this year.
Angnatok said it’s not unusual for people to travel from his community to other communities on the coast, but, that has changed a lot as well. If he wanted to go to Natuashish earlier in the year, for example, it would have been a comfortable two- to three-hour ride, but if he wanted to go now, with the detours he’d have to take it would be closer to six hours, if it could be done at all, he said.
With the landscape changing more and getting warmer over time, Angnatok said he doesn’t know what impact it will have on the Inuit.
“I’d like to think we’ll be here forever, but it’s just one of those things that we’ll just have to learn to adapt to and change, unfortunately,” he said. “Hopefully, we can still do what we do that makes up our days, but it makes it harder.”
Doug Leonard, a program supervisor at the Canadian Ice Service, said there has definitely been less ice than usual in Labrador this year and while it’s getting back to more average levels, it’s still about 10 per cent thinner than usual. He said that is mostly due to the unusually high temperatures in the region this year.
“The last couple of months, January and February, when we do see a lot of that ice really taking purchase and forming up along the Labrador coast and in the waters off Labrador, it’s been six to nine degrees Celsius above normal, on average, basically across the entire Labrador area,” he told SaltWire Network. “With temperatures like that, that much warmer than normal, the ice is just growing slower, it’s coming in slower, it’s thickening a lot slower. That’s one of the big changes we’re seeing.”
Leonard said he can’t say the changes and abnormally warm weather this year are related to climate change, but over the last few years they are seeing generally warmer conditions in the offshore Labrador Sea, which affects ice formation.
Over the long term, he said, they do see climate change affecting how the ice forms and how quickly it forms.
“Based on the projections of how we’re expecting the climate to change, we’ll definitely see a decrease in ice over the next 30 to 40 years,” he said. “On the east coast of Canada, we’re looking at about a seven per cent decrease per decade. We are projecting that, long range, we are looking at diminishing ice as time goes on.”
Robert Way, an assistant professor at Queen's University who specializes in understanding the impacts of climate change on things such as glaciers, permafrost and ice, said it’s important to understand climate change is a long-term evolution of the system. Year to year there are going to be different conditions where natural factors are leading to something warmer or cooler than if there was no climate change, he said.
“The challenge we run into with this is Labrador, in particular, is a region where atmospherically and oceanically there is a lot of influences on our climate,” Way said by phone from Happy Valley-Goose Bay. “We probably have a more complicated year-to-year variability than a lot of other places in Canada.”
He said as a consequence of that, generally speaking, in the Labrador region there are a lot of periods when there is little change and periods of time when there is dramatic change. If there is a long-term change over the system, but there is a lot of volatility in individual years, it can have effects where average temperatures, adding in the impact of climate change, can take the area to these really high levels, he said.
Evan Careen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram