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Population research can provide increased understanding of climate change


 A link between folk research, good local knowledge and scientific methods is important for understanding and being able to quickly adapt to changing environmental conditions on Svalbard, shows a new study in which UiT researchers have contributed. 

Arctic communities, such as Svalbard, are particularly vulnerable to climate change. In the study "Rich local knowledge despite high transience in an Arctic community experiencing rapid environmental change", the researchers point out that a combination of scientific methods, folk research and local knowledge is necessary to provide a more holistic understanding of the changes that are taking place. 

Among those who have contributed to the joint project are Ann Eileen Lennert, Francisco Javier Ancin Murguzur and Vera Helene Hausner, who are all connected to the research group " The Arctic Sustainability Lab " at the Department of Arctic and Marine Biology at UiT. 

The study is part of the SVALUR project (Understanding Resilience and Long-Term Ecosystem Change in the High Arctic: Narrative-Based Analyzes from Svalbard) and was recently published in Nature Humanities & Social Sciences Communications .  

Got over 750 observations
According to the study, even in a society characterized by high population mobility, valuable local knowledge can be gathered with the help of various population research methods and mapping tools. To gain insight into climate change in Svalbard, the researchers used various approaches, including a web-based Maptionnaire survey, focus groups, interviews and cognitive maps. Both permanent residents and people temporarily living in Longyearbyen contributed to the study. 

The Maptionnaire survey resulted in 460 separate observations, and gave a comprehensive picture of the changes in Svalbard. The observations included everything from retreating glaciers to an increased number of polar bear sightings near settlements.  

The observations cover the entire archipelago, and are a unique source of knowledge with the help of ethnographers

- In addition to the observations in the online survey, we received around 300 observations through interviews and focus groups. The observations cover the entire archipelago, and are a unique source of knowledge with the help of ethnographers, says Ann Eileen Lennert.

Delayed flowering
A summary of the feedback tells, among other things, this about the situation on the archipelago:

"Instabilities in the active permafrost layer have affected buildings and roads, but land collapses have also affected the birds' nesting areas. Some participants noted a delay in the flowering of plants, while teal was reported to flower early in the unusually warm summer of 2020. Geese arrive earlier due to changes in the start of spring and associated earlier snowmelt, which contributes to greener areas. Decreasing sea ice and therefore more coastal erosion was also observed by several participants".

Climate change is causing the population of geese to grow in Svalbard. This in turn leads to the population of arctic fox also growing as a result of access to more food.

Interviews with focus groups supplemented the observations, both through historical perspectives and deeper insight into the environmental changes, but also by filling in knowledge gaps that monitoring can have as it is often linked to a area. 

« Where can I really go? »
Mobility proved to be a key theme in the study. The participants emphasized how physically traveling in the landscape leads to observations that are often linked to concerns about safety, especially in light of changes in ice and weather conditions.

The study indicates the need to predict and monitor extreme weather events, changes in wildlife behavior and changes in the landscape to ensure safe mobility. As one of the residents of Longyearbyen says in the study: 

" We can never predict which way you can drive. We are so used to driving specific routes, such as to the east coast or even to Pyramiden . But then I couldn't do it, a) because it's closed, or b) because there's no ice, so we can't drive. (…) Every year you have to start assessing where you are going, what you are going to do, how you can drive and what is safe. So it's very interesting because I feel like just a few years ago you didn't think about it that much and now we're there thatyou ask yourself: where can I really go? » 

Crucial for safety and well-being
Another important finding was the importance of belonging to the place. Cognitive maps that were created during the study visualized how observations and experiences are connected with the environment, and how the participants construct meaning and knowledge through traveling in the surroundings. 

According to the study, a combination of scientific monitoring and local knowledge can provide a more comprehensive approach to understanding and responding to environmental changes. The study identifies snow and ice conditions, landscape changes and weather prospects as crucial for the safety and well-being of the local community. 

Fills knowledge gaps
In the conclusion of the study, it is emphasized that despite challenges linked to high mobility in the population of Svalbard, valuable local knowledge can be gathered effectively through collaborative methods.  

- We also began to ask ourselves whether monitoring and research done on Svalbard is visible, accessible and relevant to those who live there, and whether what has been done actually meets the needs identified by the residents, says Lennert.

The researchers believe there are great opportunities to increase relevance and inclusion in long-term monitoring of environmental changes on the archipelago.  

- The holistic insight and observations of the locals can help in a unique way to fill the many knowledge gaps that exist in today's long-term monitoring. And not least help us researchers to make our research a more valuable resource for the citizens, says Ann Eileen Lennert. 

« From mountain to fjord»
The researchers encourage an approach that not only captures scientific aspects related to the environmental changes, but also includes the local community's experiences and perceptions. Such an approach will provide a more robust and adaptable response to the rapidly changing environmental conditions in the Arctic, it says.

The idea of a holistic approach is now being continued in the project " From Mountain to Fjord ", according to the study.

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