Temperatures in the Arctic have risen on average 0.6 °C per decade over the last 30 years, causing sea ice to shrink and thin. Such loss of ice is thought to be bringing changes in sea and land ecosystems that are affecting indigenous people’s commerce and subsistence. The ice loss and changing weather conditions are also believed to have affected transportation, the maintenance of infrastructure, and the prevalence of pests and disease.

Researchers are keen to know how people have been adapting to these new conditions, and they are aware that various programmes, policies and practices exist. However, this is the first systematic review of adaptations taking place across the Arctic.

“Our analysis addresses this gap, providing broad-level insights on the current state of adaptation as well as a basis for assessing progress over time,” said Graham McDowell, who helped perform the study at McGill University, Canada, but who is based at the University of Oxford, UK.

McDowell, together with geographer James Ford and librarian Julie Jones at McGill University, performed keyword searches on academic search engines. Having identified which papers were relevant to Arctic adaptation the team went through each one with a standardized questionnaire to extract similar data. Finally, a statistical analysis revealed any trends or associations in the adaptations.

The team found 157 different adaptations between the years 2003 and 2013. In general they describe Arctic adaptation as being “in its infancy”, although they did identify some trends: that it is being driven by both climate and non-climate factors; that there has been an emphasis on reducing vulnerability; and that the adaptations have been led by individuals and communities, rather than governments.

The researchers also noted that the literature is “dominated” by studies of the North American Arctic, where there have been effects on subsistence harvesting in Inuit communities.

“We were surprised to find that most adaptations – as reported in the English language scholarship – are constrained to North America and the indigenous/harvesting sector,” said McDowell. “We are hopeful that our analysis will prompt action on building up a more comprehensive profile of Arctic adaptation.”

McDowell and colleagues are now expanding their review to include vulnerability as well as adaptation in the Arctic and elsewhere. In the meantime, McDowell says that the study could help guide environment policy, by “collating available information and highlighting adaptation priorities”.

The findings are published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

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