New Book Reveals Human Face of Climate Change in the Arctic

December 09, 2010 - News Release

Revealing the human face of climate change is the focus of a new book co-authored by University of Guelph geography professor Barry Smit.

Community Adaptation and Vulnerability in Arctic Regions
paints a picture of the impact of rising temperatures on Arctic communities across the North and how these communities are struggling to adapt.

“Essentially the message is that the world has to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down climate change because it is having serious consequences for people living in the Arctic,” said Smit, who wrote the book with Grete Hovelsrud of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway. “These people are bearing the brunt of a problem that was not brought on by them.”

The book has been released during the United Nations Climate Change Conference underway in Cancun, Mexico.

“If there is one area where we need to focus on climate change adaptation, the Arctic regions are definitely the place,” said Smit, Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “However, when it comes to international negotiations, the Arctic communities are not represented because they are not a country on their own and must work through their national governments to have their voices heard.”

The book examines 11 Arctic communities affected by thinning ice cover, melting permafrost, shifting animal migratory patterns and more erratic weather.

“Now more than ever, these communities are undergoing rapid and traumatic changes as a result of globalization and the effects of southern culture and regulations, which are threatening their way of life,” said Smit. “Climate change is exacerbating all of this.”

The book’s case studies were drawn from a research group called Community Adaptation and Vulnerability in Arctic Regions (CAVIAR). That group was developed as part of the International Polar Year by Smit and Hovelsrud, and involves academic partners from all eight Arctic countries.

The case studies describe communities in Canada, Russia, Finland, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and Norway.

“Arctic communities vary across the North. For the most part, the Inuit still depend on the land for their food and their livelihood. Communities in Norway, however, survive through commercial fishing, and in northern Russia, they herd animals, so the impacts of climate change are different for each region.”

Within each case study, researchers work with local people to document important environmental and social conditions, how those conditions have changed under warmer temperatures and how these changes affect livelihoods.

The researchers then project future changes and their impacts, and work with the community representatives to develop adaptation strategies.

Smit helped develop this “vulnerability approach” and began applying it in the Canadian Arctic in 2002.

“We were one of the first groups to really look at the human dimensions of climate change in the Arctic in a systematic way. The approaches we have developed have become of interest internationally. It’s a mix of social science and natural science. We investigate not only the physical climate and ecosystems but also human behaviour.”

These research studies have been incorporated into the communities’ day-to-day decision-making, from setting of hunting quotas to building on melting permafrost, said Smit.

“With a majority of the CAVIAR research projects near completion, the next step will be for the international community to assist in implementing these Arctic adaptation strategies.”

Prof. Barry Smit
Department of Geography
University of Guelph
519-824-4120, Ext. 53279

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982 or

University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1