BY Zachary Cook

As a young boy, Rex Holwell recalls freshwater ponds and sea-ice in Nain being four to five feet thick by December. Years later, these same ponds and sea ice are freezing much later in the season, making conditions unsafe for travel.

“Once the sea ice forms, it is our highway,” says Holwell, SmartICE Regional Operation Lead for Nunatsiavut. “People rely on travelling to go hunting, fishing and get wood to keep their houses warm.”

Ducks in Botwood Harbour

Ducks in Botwood Harbour. Due to changing weather conditions, many wild-life are migrating later in the season. Photo by Zachary Cook.

Rising average daily temperatures, changes in ice and intensified storm conditions continue to affect Newfoundland, particularly in Northern Indigenous communities in Labrador.

“We’re seeing the impacts on both sides in the salt and freshwater, so it leads to much longer routes on rough terrains along the sea. Or people just don’t do it,” says Holwell.

An infographic of the Newfoundland area

Coastal communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. Media by Zachary Cook.

According to Holwell, communities across the coast of Labrador are experiencing similar conditions. “Makkovik has zero ice so they see it, I see, everybody here in Labrador, we’ve been seeing it for a long time.”

Thinner ice makes travelling to remote areas unsafe. It disrupts travel to Traditional gathering locations and affects the shipment of essential products and services to communities.

“I know a few people are taking trips to those places; they’re either taking the longer route inland, which may take 6 hours,“ says Holwell. “Because they don’t have that highway, they’re taking twice or triple the amount of time to get to their Traditional hunting or fishing grounds.”

Sea-ice Monitoring and Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments (SmartICE) is a social enterprise, founded by Dr. Trevor Bell that provides ice monitoring technologies and equipment to Northern Labrador and Arctic communities for local use.

“It helps keep everybody safe using expertise and Traditional Knowledge they’ve been taught through their parents, grand-parents and friends,” says Holwell.

SmartICE Operator taking the SmartQAMUTIK for a trip

SmartICE Operator taking the SmartQAMUTIK for a trip to gather sea ice data.” Photo courtesy of Michael Schmidt.

SmartICE started with three initial sites in St. John’s, Nain and Pond Inlet. Since then, it has expanded across Canada, to 22 sites.

The enterprise trains operators in communities and accommodates to individual community’s requests. “We’ll meet with the community and listen,” says Holwell. “We consult with Hunting and Trapping Associations (HTA) and Hamlets.”

“We get input from the Elders and the youth that attend these meetings; they’ll tell us what they want, and how we can help them,” says Holwell.

Holwell is also the Northern Productions Lead and trains local Inuit youth through SmartICE’s Employment Readiness and Technology Production Program at the Northern Production Centre in Nain. “I give them resume, cover letter and interviewing skills,” says Holwell. “At the end of the five week course, I will actually teach them how to build a SmartBUOY. That’s something they can’t wait to come in and learn how to build.”

Youth assembling a SmartBUOY at the Northern Production Centre in Nain, Nunatsiavut.

Youth assembling a SmartBUOY at the Northern Production Centre in Nain, Nunatsiavut. SmartBUOYs are stationary sensors deployed in the ice to collect data. Photo courtesy.

The SmartBUOYs are assembled and tested in Nain; they then get shipped to St. John’s, NL and deployed where orders need to be fulfilled. Holwell’s duties as Regional Operations Lead include deploying and maintaining the SmartBUOYs; weekly trips to frequently traveled locations around Nain and training operators in other communities.

Due to ice conditions, Holwell has only completed one trip this year.

Newfoundland and Labrador is home to “Iceberg Alley,” an ocean route travelling from the coast of Labrador to the southeast coast of Newfoundland.

Photograph of a non-tabular iceberg in Notre Dame Bay, NL (2019). Icebergs attract visitors from around the world to Newfoundland & Labrador and prompt residents to visit coastal communities. Photo by Zachary Cook.

Icebergs are large chunks of ice that break off or “calve” from the Greenland ice sheet and Canadian archipelago each Spring.

“Every spring people flock to the shores to see these massive icebergs,” says Cameron Snow, teacher and member of the Exploits search and rescue. “A 10,000 year old piece of ice, floundering and cascading crystal clear water of its edge is something everyone must add to their bucket list.”

Although icebergs are familiar to Newfoundland and Labrador, climate change has increased their frequency in the province.

“We will see an increase in icebergs with climate change,” says Dr. Maxime Geoffroy, a Research Scientist at the Marine Institute of Memorial University.

Photograph of a non-tabular iceberg in Notre Dame Bay, NL (2019). Notre Dame Bay is a popular area for iceberg viewing. Photo by Zachary Cook.

“The reason why more icebergs will be coming down towards latitudes over the decades is because there are more calvings breaking from larger glaciers,” says Dr. Geoffroy. “This is directly related to climate change because the glaciers cause the icebergs to flow faster.”

Icebergs float in the ocean until they are grounded and melt, or collapse.

More icebergs calvings means more freshwater in the ocean, a factor contributing to sea-rise.

“Sea level change is associated with the volume of water, but also the changes we’ve seen with the removal of the glaciers, says Dr. Norm Catto, Geography professor at Memorial University. “That’s been on-going for the past ten thousand years and will continue going forward.”

However, freshwater in the ocean also has the ability to increase the level of primary productivity on a local scale.

“When an iceberg melts, up to 1-2km of freshwater will sink because it’s denser,” says Dr. Geoffroy. “By doing that, it brings all the nutrients that are deeper to the surface. On a local scale, that could improve biomass production,” says Dr. Geoffroy.

“There’s more bacterial activity and primary production like microscopic algae that can use these nutrients and life at the surface to start the beginning of a food chain.”

Icebergs are also a topic of interest to researchers on carbon sequestration, the process of storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“Eventually there may be studies that suggest icebergs can improve carbon sequestration at the local scale, meaning more captivation of CO2 by the ocean in that track of the iceberg,” says Dr. Geoffroy.

Holwell and other SmartICE operators recognize that not everybody has access to a laptop, tablet or smartphone.

“I screenshot my run and print it off; I’ll post it in the local community hotspots, you know at the post office, down at the local Northern store, where I know people are interested in seeing it, and of course social media – I post it on the Nain bulletin board,” says Holwell.

SmartICE SmartQAMUTIK run

SmartICE SmartQAMUTIK run, posted to on Feb. 5, 2021. is an Indigenous social network created by and for Inuit for ice safety, weather, hunting stories, language preservation and knowledge transfer. Screenshot.

SmartICE is just one of several Indigenous focused responses to climate change.

The Indigenous Leadership Initiative is a non-political, Indigenous-led organization dedicated to fostering Indigenous cultural responsibility to land, guiding future generations and working with governments to secure funding for Indigenous protected and conserved areas.

In 2017, the Government of Canada invested $25 million dedicated to the Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program. In 2018, the pilot was taken on by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Three governance bodies have since been established, giving Inuit, Métis and First Nations partners an individual opportunity to decide how they want the program delivered. “The first year we funded 28 proposals; 24 of which were First Nations, three Inuit and one Métis proposal,” says Julie Boucher, Spokesperson for the Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program.

The program provides employment and professional training to Indigenous peoples across Canada who monitor, conserve and protect the land, water and wild-life. “The program’s current focus is on understanding how to use the data collected by Guardians and to collaborate with other biologists and scientists,” says Jack Penashue, Superintendent of the Innu Nation in Sheshatshiu, Labrador.

Along with biology research, data collection and online filing, Guardians work in the field, on the land. “Right now we have 15 individuals that work under the Guardian program in the Sheshatshiu area,” says Penashue.

In 2020, $600,000 was announced to fund 10 new projects under the Indigenous Guardian Program. By May 2021, the final ten First Nations proposals will be announced, indicating the end of funding within the pilot.

The program is currently at the evaluation stage, assessing the effectiveness of programs on an individual basis.

By Fall 2021, an overall evaluation of the pilot will be complete and serve as the base of a business case requesting long-term funding for Indigenous Guardians across Canada. “I definitely see a future for the program.” says Boucher. “If you look at protected and concerned areas and Indigenous Peoples tend to have a higher percentage of success when it comes to recovery and restoration of species at risk.”

In 2019, the Land Needs Guardian campaign was created, calling for long-term investments in Guardian programs and Indigenous-led stewardship. In just one year, 50,000 people have joined.

To sign the Land Needs Guardians campaign, click here.

Main photo by Zachary Cook.
Published June 5, 2021.