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Climate-related challenges in the Arctic

May 2, 2014

 Indiana University, in collaboration with Montana State University and the University of Greenland, is conducting a three-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation-funded study of the biological, cultural, and environmental challenges facing an Arctic population. Like many coastal and modernizing communities worldwide, northern Greenlanders are confronted by a changing climate, demographic shifts, and global economic forces that threaten their continued existence.

The research team is led by Virginia Vitzthum, senior scientist at The Kinsey Institute at IU Bloomington, and Elizabeth Rink, associate professor at Montana State University. Through a process known as community-based participatory research, the team will work with local residents to develop a research design that targets pressing local issues, such as migration and family formation, as well as questions of global significance, such as how a changing environment affects health and reproduction.

“Cultural reproduction of communities and biological reproduction of individuals are necessarily linked, but rarely is this intimate connection so clearly revealed as when facing unprecedented challenges to indigenous lifeways,” Vitzthum says.

“Ice is literally melting beneath their feet. There are more accidents, and the shifts in hunting and fishing seasons make it more difficult to earn a living. There’s a changing sense of connection to the land; it’s critical to learn what’s happening there and how it affects residents and the survival of their community.”

Greenland, while roughly a quarter of the size of the United States’ contiguous states, has seen its population shrink below 60,000.

Vitzthum, also a professor in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, has conducted research in Bolivia, Germany, and Central Asia on variation in hormones in these different populations, and how this affects fertility and health.

In Greenland, her focus is on the unique conditions of Arctic residents, who experience months of continuous twilight in winter and continuous daylight in summer. The impacts of extreme changes in light exposure, and thus in sleep rhythms, on human hormone concentrations are not well understood. They may influence, for example, immune functioning, cancer risks, and the effectiveness of, and side-effects from, hormonal contraceptives.

Findings from this study in the Arctic are directly relevant to the health of people wherever technological advances extend waking and working hours, including swing and night shifts, which increase light exposure and leave fewer hours for sleep. Vitzthum notes that Americans, in general, sleep less than they did a century ago.

The international collaborative research team also includes Stephanie Sanders, interim director of The Kinsey Institute and professor in the Department of Gender Studies at IU Bloomington, and Gitte Trondheim, associate professor and chair in the Department of Cultural and Social History and Ruth Montgomery-Andersen, researcher, both at the University of Greenland. The team will gather data on changing kinship and adoption practices; assess contraceptive and condom use and effectiveness; measure hormones in saliva and urine samples; record dietary and activity patterns; and evaluate physical and psychosocial well-being. A central focus is young adults and how they perceive their future, the changes they are experiencing, and their strategies for dealing with these rapid changes in their world.

“It’s critical to understand what’s happening in this far-north community and how it affects people’s lives,” Vitzthum says. “Changes around the globe will be dramatic, and it’s reasonable to think that coastal communities everywhere will be affected. The changes are underappreciated because we don’t see these changes yet in the temperate zones, but they’re happening right now in the Arctic.”

The Kinsey Institute receives support from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at IU Bloomington. The Office of the Vice Provost for Research is dedicated to supporting ongoing faculty research and creative activity and developing new multidisciplinary initiatives to enhance opportunities for federal, state and private research funding.