Losing Ground: The Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Culturally Significant Coastal Landscapes of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region

Photo Mike O'Rourke

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Canadian coastal histories, which considers intersections of nature and culture along the saline shores of the land and tidewaters currently known as Canada, the country with the world’s longest coastline. Guest-edited by Sara Spike.

Situated in the western extent of Inuit Nunangat, the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) contains some of the most dynamic shorelines in all of North America.[1] While coastal processes are typically restricted to the short summer season when ice has retreated from the shore, the cumulative impacts of anthropogenic climate change have begun to prolong warm weather conditions in the region and amplify the rate and severity of changes taking place there.

Climate change forecasts warn of substantial implications on the global scale, but the circumpolar Arctic is already experiencing marked changes as a result of a phenomenon referred to as “Arctic Amplification.”[2] Coastal landscapes throughout the ISR consist almost entirely of unconsolidated sediment, ice-bound soils, and ground ice,[3] making them highly susceptible to erosion, permafrost melt, sea level rise, and a host of other processes which are forecast to intensify in the years ahead.

Pingos near the community of Tuktoyaktuk. These ice-cored conical landforms are particularly abundant along the southern shores of the Beaufort Sea, the result of natural processes playing out between ice, soil, and water. Map of the ISR and Inuit Nunangat for reference.

Inuvialuit have occupied this region since time immemorial, and entered into the first modern land claim agreement in the Northwest Territories on June 5, 1984. The Western Arctic Claim (more commonly referred to as the Inuvialuit Final Agreement) defined the boundaries of the ISR, mandated the creation of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, and continues to ensure Inuvialuit harvesting and resource rights, while promoting among its principle goals: “the preservation of Inuvialuit cultural identity and values within a changing northern society.”[4]

Rates and scales of landscape change have increased in recent years, but Inuvialuit ancestors have been adapting to similar changes for centuries. The material traces of these earlier lifeways persist in many areas of the ISR. Some of these remains are still remarkably intact due to the protective qualities of permafrost soils, yielding a uniquely detailed record of the past. These well-preserved material remains can yield a wealth of information and hold great value for Inuvialuit communities, due in part to their “touchstone” qualities: the ways they enrich the lived-landscape and act as physical linkages between past and present, ancestor and descendant.  

Decorated illalyautit (comb) made of antler, recovered during the excavation of an actively eroding igluryuaq.

As an archaeologist, my research has primarily focussed on identifying Inuvialuit ancestral sites and other culturally significant locations which are vulnerable to the numerous and diverse impacts of climate change. While conducting this research over the last ten years, I’ve had the tremendous fortune to experience the singular beauty of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region first hand, and witnessed the effects of climate change on Inuvialuit cultural landscapes along the southern shores of the Beaufort Sea.

Permafrost melt is one example of the anthropogenically driven impacts taking place in the region. As deeper levels of soil thaw in the warm summer months, delicate organic remains, such as the illalyautit (comb, in the Inuvialuktun language) pictured above, can begin to rapidly decay. These illalyautit are often quite ornate, with heavily stylized forms and delicate decorative elements which are only preserved on account of having remained frozen, in this case for upwards of 500 years.[5] Additionally, when permafrost is exposed along riverbanks and shorelines by erosion, the melt-extent can expand into massive “retrogressive thaw slump” features,[6] which are capable of liquefying and removing enormous areas over the span of a single warm season. One of these thaw slump features can be seen in the image below, which shows the scattered wooden remains of what was likely an igluryuaq (an ancestral Inuvialuit sod house)[7] in the debris flow of an active thaw slump—all that remained of an old village site at the mouth of the Mackenzie River’s East Channel.

Dr. Max Friesen (University of Toronto) investigates a thaw slump containing what little is left of an igluryuaq at the old village of Tchenerark. The inset image shows a wooden crosstimber from an umiaq (a large skin-boat), which were sometimes incorporated into igluryuaq as architectural elements.

Shoreline erosion is having the greatest impact by far on the stability of Inuvialuit ancestral sites today. Numerous coastal erosion studies have been conducted throughout the ISR over the past fifty years, yielding long-term average shoreline change rates as high as ten metres per year for some study areas,[8] with much higher rates associated with sporadic high-impact storm events. Some of the highest coastal retreat rates on the continent have been measured along the shores of the Beaufort Sea: a result of the susceptibility of low-lying and frozen landscapes to alteration, longer and warmer summer seasons, more abundant and impactful storms on the Arctic Ocean, and the gradual subsidence/sinking of much of the Beaufort Sea mainland, which is compounding the influence of global sea-level rise.

The ring-like structure in the image below is a buried igluryuaq which was situated fifteen metres from the shoreline in 2004.[9] While the house was slightly exposed at the retreating shoreline in 2014, over the next two years it was truncated and then undercut so badly that it completely tipped over onto the beach in 2016, with the wooden floor still largely intact when visited that summer.

The gradual erosion of an igluryuaq along the shores of the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. Rates of erosion in the area averaged roughly 1.5 metres per year, but a storm event in 2016 caused nearly six metres of erosion between site visits, forcing the total collapse of the feature onto the beach below.

Inuvialuit ancestral sites are significant for a wide range of reasons, and their loss can be considered tragic for just as many. It is vital that management responses to the threats faced by these locations are informed by a rigorous understanding of how they are deemed significant by the people who most closely identify with and draw meaning from them. Proactive management strategies must be designed and implemented in a culturally appropriate manner, driven by descendant community notions of value and perspectives on management practice.

Anthropogenic climate change is poised to have a significant impact on the ISR in the years ahead, but the Inuvialuit are well positioned to meet these challenges, as their ancestors have done since time immemorial. I’m looking forward to better understanding the manifold ways in which the Inuvialuit past is valued in the present, so that the results of my work might be deemed meaningful by the people who call this beautiful region home.

[1] N. L. Couture, D. L. Forbes, P. R. Fraser, D. Frobel, K. A. Jenner, G. K. Manson, S. M. Solomon, B. Szlavko, and R. B. Taylor, A Coastal Information System for the Southeastern Beaufort Sea, Yukon and Northwest Territories, Geological Survey of Canada, open file 7778 (Ottawa: Natural Resources Canada, 2015).
[2] M. Meredith, M. Sommerkorn, S. Cassotta, C. Derksen, A. Ekaykin, A. Hollowed, G. Kofinas, A. Mackintosh, J. Melbourne-Thomas, M. M. C. Muelbert, G. Ottersen, H. Pritchard, and E. A. G. Schuur, “Polar Regions,” in IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, ed. H.-O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, and N. M. Weyer (In press).
[3] B. R. Peletier and B. E. Medioli, eds., Environmental Atlas of the Beaufort Coastlands, Geological Survey of Canada, open file 7619 (Ottawa: Geological Survey of Canada, 2014).
[4] Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA), Western Arctic Claim: The Inuvialuit Final Agreement (Ottawa: Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1984).
[5] Personal conversation with Max Friesen.
[6] See, for example, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/the-national-permafrost-thaw-inuvik-tuktoyaktuk-1.5179842
[7] For a description and illustration of an igluryuaq see, for example, Inuvialuit Artifacts from Kuukpak (Yellowknife: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, 2011), 6–7, https://issuu.com/northern-heritage-centre/docs/kuukpak_book_2011-150dpi_single_pages/13.
[8] T. M. Friesen and M. J. E. O’Rourke, “Biogeographic Barriers and Coastal Erosion: Understanding the Lack of Interaction between the Eastern and Western Regions of the North American Arctic,” World Archaeology 51, no. 3 (2020): 484–501.
[9] M.W. Betts, “The Mackenzie Inuit Whale Bone Industry: Raw Material, Tool Manufacture, Scheduling, and Trade,” Arctic 60, no. 2 (2007): 129–44.
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Mike O'Rourke

Mike is an anthropological archaeologist who holds a W. Garfield Weston Postdoctoral Fellowship in Northern Archaeological Research at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, in Yellowknife, NT. His research is focused on how people ascribe value to the various tangible and intangible aspects of heritage, and how those notions of value are implicated in lands / heritage management frameworks. He is coordinating with the territorial ‘Cultural Places Program’ on a number of management and climate change planning initiatives, and is working in partnership with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation to facilitate the ‘Inuvialuit Place Names Project’.

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