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App helps Inuit hunters navigate thinning sea ice in Canadian Arctic

Leyland Cecco in Toronto
Photograph: All Canada Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

A new mobile phone app has been devised to help Inuit hunters in northern Canada avoid an increasingly dangerous effect of climate change: unpredictable sea ice.

Developed under the guidance of the Arctic Eider Society, the app aims to draw on the catalogue of traditional knowledge that has helped the Inuit thrive in an unforgiving region.

Named after the Inuktitut word for sea ice, Siku is intended to provide an all-in-one system of critical information for hunters.

“We’re copying what our parents used to do, but in modern ways,” Lucassie Arragutainaq, manager of the Sanikiluaq Hunters and Trappers Association in Nunavut, told Canadian Press.

The app was devised to address the growing number of accidents in which hunters unexpectedly plunge through ice. Knowledge accrued over thousands of years has traditionally helped hunters read and test ice, but many have seen troubling changes to ice behaviour in recent years.

A growing body of evidence has found that Canada’s Arctic is warming at a rate much faster than the rest of the world.

The world may have warmed by around 1C (1.8F) over the past century but the Arctic far outstrips this global average and is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the world.

In places, the rate of warming has been astonishing. Novembers in the Alaskan town of Utqiaġvik, formerly Barrow, are now 5.5C warmer than they were in 1979. This past winter, the warmest on record in the Arctic, saw some locations exceed 20C hotter than normal.

The Arctic is dominated by sea ice, unlike the Antarctic which is essentially a huge land-based ice sheet. As the ocean and atmosphere warm, sea ice is shrinking in extent, at around 13% a decade since 1979, according to Nasa. The bright white surface of ice, known as albedo, is giving way to the dark ocean, meaning that sunlight is being absorbed rather than reflected, amplifying the warming effect.

These “rapid and dramatic changes” are introducing a “new normal” to the Arctic, according to US government scientists in a report card last year. Storms are eroding away ice-free coastlines, summer wildfires are becoming fiercer and certain species, such as polar bears, are increasingly struggling to find food. This is all providing a major challenge to communities in the Arctic, but a boon to the shipping industry, which can navigate the area more easily. This task will get even simpler once the Arctic is ice free in summertimes, forecast as soon as 2040s.

By drawing on satellite data and user-submitted tagging, Siku’s developers hope to provide better and more up-to-date information to hunters.

In one example, the society’s executive director, Joel Heath, told how a hunter saw a narrow crack in sea ice. After he tagged it, satellite stats later showed that the crack soon morphed into a cleavage so large that hunters on the ocean side of the ice would have been trapped.

Related: 'Sea, ice, snow ... it’s all changing': Inuit struggle with warming world

“It shows how [a hunter] taking a few photos and tagging can mobilize Indigenous knowledge,” said Heath.

The app also has features that let hunters indicate where wildlife has been spotted – seals, narwhal, rabbits and polar bear – to direct others to bountiful hunting grounds.

Siku also includes a function to upload stories – a nod to the importance of storytelling as a repository of knowledge and information among communities.

The app was unveiled last week at the ArcticNet conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was previously a winner of Google’s 2017 Impact Challenge, bringing in $750,000 in development funding.