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Science - Reuters
As Ice Thaws, Arctic Peoples at Loss for Words

Mon Nov 22, 8:08 AM ET
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By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (Reuters) - What are the words used by indigenous peoples in the Arctic for "hornet," "robin," "elk," "barn owl" or "salmon?" If you don't know, you're not alone.

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Many indigenous languages have no words for legions of new animals, insects and plants advancing north as global warming thaws the polar ice and lets forests creep over tundra.

"We can't even describe what we're seeing," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (news - web sites) which says it represents 155,000 people in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia.

In the Inuit language Inuktitut, robins are known just as the "bird with the red breast," she said. Inuit hunters in north Canada recently saw some ducks but have not figured out what species they were, in Inuktitut or any other language.

An eight-nation report this month says the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and that the North Pole could be ice-free in northern hemisphere summer by 2100, threatening indigenous cultures and perhaps wiping out creatures like polar bears.

The report, by 250 scientists and funded by the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, puts most of the blame on a build-up of heat-trapping gases from human use of fossil fuels like coal and oil.

The thaw may have some positive spin-offs for people, for instance by making chill Arctic seas more habitable for cod or herring or by shifting agricultural lands and forestry north.

But on land, more and more species will be cramming into an ever-narrowing strip bounded to the north by the Arctic Ocean, threatening to destroy fragile Arctic ecosystems from mosses to Arctic foxes or snowy owls.


In Arctic Europe, birch trees are gaining ground and Saami reindeer herders are seeing roe deer or even elk, a forest-dwelling cousin of moose, on former lichen pastures.

"I know about 1,200 words for reindeer -- we classify them by age, sex, color, antlers," said Nils Isak Eira, who manages a herd of 2,000 reindeer in north Norway.

"I know just one word for elk -- 'sarvva'," said 50-year-old Eira. "But the animals are so unusual that many Saami use the Norwegian word 'elg.' When I was a child it was like a mythical creature."

Thrushes have been spotted in Saami areas of the Arctic in winter, apparently too lazy to bother migrating south.

Foreign ministers from the eight Arctic countries are due to meet in Reykjavik on Wednesday but are sharply divided about what to do. The United States is most opposed to any drastic new action.

The U.S. is the only country among the eight to reject the 127-nation Kyoto protocol meant to cap emissions of greenhouse gases. President Bush (news - web sites) says the U.N. pact would cost too much and unfairly excludes developing states.

In some more southerly areas of the Arctic, like Canada's Hudson Bay, receding ice means polar bears are already struggling. The bears' main trick is to pounce when seals surface to breathe through holes in the ice.

The Arctic report says polar bears "are unlikely to survive as a species if there is a complete loss of summer-ice cover." Restricted to land, polar bears would have to compete with better-adapted grizzly or brown bears.


"The outlook for polar bears is stark. My grandson will lose the culture I had as a child," said Watt-Cloutier, referring to Inuit hunting cultures based on catching seals, bears or whales.


Around the Arctic, salmon are swimming into more northerly waters, hornets are buzzing north and barn owls are flying to regions where indigenous people have never even seen a barn.

Watt-Cloutier said indigenous peoples lacked well-known words for all of them.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) report says that the region is set to warm by 7-13 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, twice the rate of the rest of the globe. The Arctic warms fast partly because dark ground and water, once uncovered, soak up much more heat than snow and ice.

"Overall, forests are likely to move north and displace tundra," said Terry Callaghan, a professor of Arctic ecology at the University of Lund, Sweden. "That will bring more species -- birds that nest in trees, beetles that live in bark, fungi."

The lack of words to describe newcomers does not stop at animals and plants. "Words like 'thunderstorm' don't exist because they are phenomena indigenous peoples have never known," said Robert Corell, chair of the ACIA study.

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