Using indigenous knowledge to advance research

Using skills passed down through generations, Inuit forecasters living in the Canadian Arctic look to the sky to tell by the way the wind scatters a cloud whether a storm is on the horizon or if it’s safe to go on a hunt. Thousands of miles away in a lab in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, scientists take data measurements and use the latest computer models to predict weather. These are two practices serving the same purpose that come from disparate worlds.

Now researchers are combining indigenous environmental knowledge with modern science to learn new things about what’s happening to the Arctic climate.

Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research scientist with CU-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), is chief author on a new study on the subject. “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,” she said.

That’s where Shari Gearheard, a scientist with CUBoulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, part of CIRES, comes in. Gearheard lives in an Inuit community on eastern Baffin Island, and for the past 10 years has been collecting stories told her by the Inuit and making systematic records of indigenous environmental knowledge. Through this, patterns began to emerge.

Gearheard’s records created a resolution of detail for Arctic weather observation that, by bringing the two studies together, gave Weatherhead the information she needed to bridge indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge.

“When we first started talking about this, indigenous knowledge didn’t have the place it does now in research,” Gearheard said. “It’s growing. People are becoming more familiar with it, more respectful of it.”