Doctors say Canadian Arctic already feeling health impacts of warming climate

Dr. Courtney Howard. Photo by Pat Kane

While the effects of climate change may seem far off to some, doctors are warning that rising global temperatures are already taking a toll on peoples’ health in the Canadian Arctic.

As the permafrost has started to thaw, people have not been able to depend on their traditional knowledge of the land that used to guide them over frozen rivers, creeks and lakes.

This has meant that more travellers have been falling through the ice, doctors say.

“What that creates is increased instances of trauma,” said Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in a Yellowknife hospital that serves patients across the Northwest Territories and up into the high Arctic.

The change in temperature in a place where people depend heavily on travelling over ice has pushed them to take much longer routes. For indigenous people in the Arctic, who get their healthiest food from the land, this has made hunting less fruitful and more dangerous.

“It causes a lot of hardship for people that are navigating the land and moving where there were traditional trails,” said Francois Paulette, a Denesuline elder and a member of the Smith’s Landing Treaty 8 First Nation.

Many remote communities in the Northwest Territories do not have all-weather roads and depend on ice roads in the winter. The warming climate has delayed winter roads from opening in the fall, and shuttered them early in the spring. 

Paulette said it took his friend, who lives in a cabin 21 miles away from him, three days to return home on his Ski-Doo last fall — a trip that usually lasts just four hours. 

The warmer temperatures have also led to changing migration patterns and shrinking populations of certain species, said Paulette.

“It changes everything,” he said.

Howard said the Arctic’s changing landscape has also impacted peoples’ mental health. It has created a feeling of home nostalgia for some elders, in which they feel homesick even though they are still at home because of how rapidly the land is changing around them, she said.

She added that it is not just people in the Canadian Arctic who are experiencing health impacts from climate change. Howard pointed to wildfires in western Canada, and an increase in cases of Lyme disease that has come with the spread of a particular species of ticks.

“There seem to be more Canadians who are feeling climate change in their bodies in a way that they didn’t a couple years ago,” she said. “It definitely seems to be leading to increased worries about what this means for them, their families, their kids.”