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July-August 2010

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Weather Front

Traditional Inuit Knowledge Refines Climate Models

For years researchers had heard reports from Inuit communities that weather patterns in the Arctic were growing more unpredictable. Meanwhile, scientific measurements indicated that weather around the world appeared to be growing more persistent with less variation.

A new study takes a closer look at the disparity and reveals that indigenous knowledge offers an important new category of information that will help climate scientists to refine their models.

“I had been hearing about this problem from other environmental statisticians for a number of years,” said the study's lead author Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research scientist with the University of Colorado at Boulder's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, “but the Inuit used a different language than what we statisticians used, and none of us could really figure out what matched up with their observations.”

That's where CU-Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center's Shari Gearheard came in. After 10 years of meticulously collecting Inuit stories and documenting environmental knowledge of Inuit hunters and elders, patterns have begun to emerge. “What was incredibly helpful was Shari's detailed description of what they were experiencing on what sort of timescales,” said Weatherhead. “That really allowed us to start focusing on our statistical tests and try to find exactly what matched their observations.”

KIMBRA CUTLIP is a freelance writer and former assistant editor for Weatherwise.

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