Current Problems


A vanishing world: Winter sea ice is melting away from Labrador. For the Inuit way of life, it’s a death knell

February 28, 2023
Winter sea ice is melting away from Labrador. For the Inuit way of life, it’s a death knell

CBC News: Crystal Allen-Webb hangs strips of moose meat to dry above her sink, her infant daughter babbling in a high chair beside her.

It’s a frigid January evening in Nain — so cold the wind burns your eyelids raw — but the Allen-Webb house, warmed by a woodstove and a hot dinner, glows with comfort. “This ain’t our traditional food, but it’s traditional food now for us. We’re growing on it, the moose meat,” she says, stirring some in a cast-iron pan.

For Allen-Webb, the costs of sustaining this warmth and putting meat on the table are quickly becoming untenable. Nain is home, and she doesn’t want to move away. But it’s crossed her mind lately, she says: the family, despite its double income, is struggling. Even the moose she’s preparing comes from the community freezer, a donation from a hunter in Newfoundland.

There’s a long list of reasons the prices of food and fuel have spiked across Canada, including here in northern Labrador, forcing much of the working population nearly to its knees. But at the heart of that financial strife, in Nain at least, is a climate that grows warmer and more chaotic by the year.

A woman at a stove
Crystal Allen-Webb cooks dinner in her home in Nain. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

In the Inuit communities along Labrador’s north coast, the sea ice season traditionally lasted up to eight months of the year.  As the ocean freezes over each winter, an entirely new landscape appears.  From Nain to Rigolet, a highway emerges: a way of moving between communities, of getting out onto the land, of hunting and fishing, trapping, collecting firewood. 

Geographically, with no roads cut into the rocky vast tundra, there’s no simple way to travel along the coast without the sea ice. But it’s late, again, this year in Nain — this time, by six long weeks.

A boat on ice with houses in the background
The frozen harbour in Nain in late January. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Allen-Webb isn’t alone in her struggle to pay the ever-rising cost of living along the coast. Others in the community say they’re only scraping along these days.  Michael Earle, a father of three, stands outside one of Nain’s two grocery stores, visibly overcome by sticker shock.

Earle explains how even with a double-income household, his bank accounts are stretched nearly to breaking. When his kids come along to do the shopping, even they decline treats, he says. Corn dogs and pizzas are so costly even the children can’t justify the expense.

It’s far worse this year, Earle says. The late ice means hunting and wooding are delayed. Locals normally get resources from the land. Country food like arctic char, seal and ptarmigan, and dry wood from places accessible only by snowmobile, supplement their kitchens and homes. The land provides what they need to survive here, and without a solid layer of sea ice, they simply can’t get to it.

For weeks now, people have been relying on imported groceries and fuel instead, and their frustration shows. “I know there’s freight and overhead and storage,” Earle says, pleadingly, “but things shouldn’t be 100 per cent more.” 

Michael Earle, top left, says climate change is directly impacting the cost of living in northern Labrador. There’s another cost to the warming climate in Labrador.

For Rutie Lampe, it’s the close ties between the sea ice and well-being in remote Nain. Lampe, now an elder and mental health co-ordinator with the Nunatsiavut government, grew up in fishing camps. Living off the day’s bounty is how she was raised and taught. She’s seen the arrival of gas-powered snowmobiles, of electric heat. But the thought of seeing the sea ice disappear forever has left her dabbing at her eyes.

A woman in a parka with a backdrop of snowy trees
Rutie Lampe was overcome with emotion when talking about what the future holds for Nain. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

“It breaks my heart to even think about that,” she says quietly.  “It’s not survival. It’s a way of life, and what we always grew up with. Our ancestors, our grandparents. It’s sad to mention our children may not see it.”

Lampe runs a wood harvesting program for the community. Every Tuesday, the group heads onto the land, over the sea ice, cutting wood and hauling it home for elders. They have boil-ups, making coffee and sausages, and chatting among each other, like families in this part of the world have always done. She witnesses the grief, anxiety and depression melt away on these outings, their faces lighting up with joy in the crisp air.

The land and sea is who I am. It’s what keeps me alive

“You can see the change in a person, you know. Even ourselves: how you feel being out in the nature and the peace, to see the snow,” she says. “We’re all happy out there.”

But this year, it was the end of January before Lampe and her group could set out across the ice. It has to be thick enough to support their weight. People have fallen through before. Winters along the coast are unpredictable now. For a subpolar region, getting rain weeks into the new year has shaken society to its core.No sea ice, after all, means no way out.

In the last 50 years, the Labrador coast’s winter has warmed by about 1.5 C per decade on average. The most recent years have been the warmer, suggesting accelerated rises in temperature.  Those changes have meant fewer freezing days for the ice, and more vegetation growth on land, further isolating locals.

Derrick Pottle, a hunter, consultant and bear guard trainer, lives in Rigolet, a few communities south of Nain. As of late January, it was covered in barely a dusting of snow.  “I just can’t get out,” Pottle says.  “I’m just barred here in the community. All I can do is go around and around in a circle, almost like a caged animal.”

A man smiles sitting at a table
Derrick Pottle describes himself as a man of the land and sea, and wants the province to pay more attention to climate impacts on the north coast. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Rigolet’s trails need major upgrading for the winters Nunatsiavut is projected to face, he says. He likens it to a snowstorm blocking off all the major roads out of metro St. John’s. Imagine, he says, that the city didn’t bother plowing for two months. That’s exactly how he feels.

It’s something local researchers agree with.  “The observed changes in ice and snow conditions … have very likely had negative impacts on the physical and mental health of people in the region,” write the authors of a 2021 Nunatsiavut climate update report. “Model simulations of continued warming and declining snow and ice cover suggest that these impacts may be exacerbated in the future.”

Pottle, too, describes the deep connection between the ice and Inuit health. He later shows me pictures of sealskins stretched out to dry outside his home. “It’s our identities, where we come from. It’s where we belong. It’s our calling,” Pottle explains, eloquent and sincere. “The land and sea is who I am. It’s what keeps me alive. It’s my heartbeat.”

Like Lampe, Pottle can’t picture Nunatsiavut without the sea ice that serves as a road and a platform to the ocean’s winter bounty. How could he hunt seal without it? How could he visit the places his grandfather trapped and fished, or get wood to keep his family warm? “My generation could be the last generation that knows this lifestyle,” he says.  “That’s scary, when you take a culture’s identity away from them.”

Labrador’s north coast can expect its winters to only become warmer and more erratic as time goes on. A 2021 Vital Signs report from Memorial University projects a nearly 13 C increase in Nain’s average winter temperature by the end of the century. But it’s not clear exactly how that might affect sea ice in Nunatsiavut specifically. Researchers have called for more observation stations, meant to collect data that will help Inuit leaders plan for whatever the future may bring, in the region.

That forecast has already prompted one Inuit-led company to develop a now-essential technology. “We’re going to have to provide more and more data as climate change gets worse throughout the years,” says Rex Holwell Jr., leaning back in his workshop chair one morning in late January. He leads SmartICE, a Nain-based tech company that’s created sensors that detect how thick the sea ice is. 

Some of those sensors feed information back to the user in real time, as they travel. The data is fed back to an app, notifying the rest of Nunatsiavut about safe ice routes on any given day. Holwell is training a new group of SmartICE operators to use the technology themselves. He’s now done this in 24 communities across the Canadian North and expects to expand globally, he says.

Outside, surrounded by half a dozen trainees, Holwell boards his snowmobile, and the group whips along Nain’s snowy roads.  The transition from the shore to the solid sea is visible where the current and waves have pushed up hunks of ice. Then, quickly, it’s utterly flat. Snowmobile tracks recede into the distance, past the narrows. Everything is white and still.

After they stop, a student drills into the ice to drop a sensor. Holwell fiddles with the screen attached to it but can’t get the sensor to work. He needs a new cable: it may not come on the plane for weeks, he says, finally giving up. It’s just another challenge of tackling climate change in the isolated North, and one Holwell believes isn’t quite fair.

Rex Holwell Jr., top left, tinkers with the SmartICE measuring system.

“The Inuit population, we’re a very small population, some of the people who don’t contribute a whole lot to climate change,” he points out.  “But we’re going to be one of the first people who are going to be very affected by climate change.”

He’s matter-of-fact about it all. The only thing to be done, he says, is adapt: to invent tools to foster Inuit traditions, to keep people safe in unpredictable conditions. “Not travelling on the sea ice, that’s one of the biggest things of our culture. People say it’s a part of culture — it is our culture to travel on the sea ice. “In 20, 30 years, when people can’t travel on the sea ice, that’s going to be the last of our culture.”

Women form a line on a snow covered road with mountains in the background
Elders parade toward Nain’s harbour on a crisp day in late January. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

From reducing the cost of living, to maintaining mental health, to composing the deepest roots of Inuit history and culture — the sea ice is at the heart of Nunatsiuvut. Its loss, in very real terms, can even kill.

Elsie Russell, a Nunatsiavut government mental health worker, says there are notable spikes in calls for services in the fall and spring, when there’s no ice to travel on and isolation peaks. “There’s a relationship between the land and the people. So when the land and the people [are] disturbed, especially when ice breaks up or is not forming, we’re seeing more people with anxiety. We’re seeing more sadness, we’re seeing more grief,” she says.

This year, people were fretting about the harbour ice not forming at all, Russell says. And if the winter one day comes when it doesn’t? “Devastation,” she says.  “This is real. We depend on that sea ice. If it’s not there, if it doesn’t form, we’re going to need support.”

One in four deaths — 25 per cent — are due to suicide in Nain, says Russell, speaking softly. “If we have more grief and loss and sadness, especially with the loss of sea ice,” she says, “we’re going to see higher numbers.”

About the Author

Malone Mullin: Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John’s who previously worked in Vancouver and Toronto. News tip? Reach her at