Northern Knowledge for resilience, Sustainable Environments & Adaptation in Coastal Communities

Identifying the impacts of rapid environmental and social change in indigenous and non-indigenous northern communities

Northern Knowledge for Resilience, Sustainable Environments and Adaptation in Coastal Communities (NORSEACC) is an interdisciplinary, international research project that will investigate the role of knowledge and governance in promoting resilience and adaptation to rapid environmental and social change in northern coastal communities.

The overarching goal of NORSEACC is to increase knowledge concerning the consequences of climatic, social, economic, and other related changes and implications for governance of northern coastal societies. A further research goal is to understand present and potential future linkages between climate processes and social adaptations in coupled social-ecological systems.

NORSEACC is identifying outcomes and impacts of rapid social change on Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in northern communities, as well as the role of knowledge systems in governance to ensure sustainable responses to those changes and their impacts.


The ability to bounce back from unexpected negative events is as important for communities, cultures, and countries as it is for individuals. Without resilience, a single catastrophic incident can spell doom (Homer-Dixon, 2006).

 For coastal northern communities, in particular, climate change is a serious test of their resilience. A rapidly warming world brings with it sudden dramatic fluctuations in marine populations that have been historically reliable sources of nutrition, rising oceans and extreme weather that increases the risk to coastal villages and towns, and retreating sea ice that has been traditionally critical to both indigenous hunters and their prey.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

When people first hear of TEK, they often think of the knowledge of plants and animals indigenous peoples possess, as well as how this natural capital could be used to their (and humanity’s) benefit. This definition of TEK isn’t wrong, but it is narrow. “Traditional Ecological Knowledge consists of the body of knowledge, beliefs, traditions, practices, institutions, and worldviews developed and sustained by indigenous, peasant, and local communities in interaction with their biophysical environment..” (Toledo 2002Berkes 2004).

Traditional ecological knowledge doesn’t just manifest itself as a catalogue of local resources and their traditional uses. As Houde (2007) points out, in addition to serving as a source of factual information about the environment and informing contemporary management decisions, TEK is also a source of “values and ethics”, a “vector for cultural identity”, and a “cosmology” (or worldview). In addition to providing a window into the past and offering us a glimpse of the many beneficial uses the natural world has to offer that we may have overlooked, TEK can also provide us with ethical insights that can be indispensable to our efforts to achieve sustainability. 

Social Ecological Systems

For a long time Western cultures, in particular, treated humanity and nature as separate. However, in most societies, no major distinction between people and nature ever truly existed. The concept of social ecological systems (SES) reflects a growing recognition within both the social and environmental sciences that humanity and the environment are indeed profoundly connected to one another. As the ecologist C.S Holling put it (2001), “We are now in an era of transformation, in which ecosystem management must build and maintain ecological resilience as well as the social flexibility needed to cope, innovate, and adapt.” SES reflects this reality.


The NORSEACC project is built upon the premise that both the long-term sustainability and adaptability depends upon the development of relationships between peoples and institutions at all levels. Management decisions that involve indigenous communities, local governments, as well as regional and national decision-makers are far more likely to produce positive enduring results than policies developed remotely by officials with few if any significant ties to the land in question. As the original NORSEACC grant proposal states, the project strives to answer the question “How can governance systems and strategies be designed and implemented to incorporate local, indigenous/traditional and scientific knowledge in order to promote resilience and adaptation in the face of rapid social and ecological change in northern coastal communities?”

Northern coastal regions are among the most heavily impacted by climate change. Already communities within these areas are experiencing dramatic changes to traditional hunting and fishing practices related to warming temperatures and diminishing icepacks. In addition, some communities built upon permafrost are already facing relocation due to subsidence and increased erosion. Only by developing solutions to these growing challenges together and incorporating TEK into their implementation can we maximize the preservation of both culture and environment upon which the peoples of the north depend.

Our Research Sites

The NORSEACC project is working cooperatively with coastal communities in four northern countries to identify both the challenges and adaptations these diverse communities are coming up with as they face of rapid environmental change. The research team is documenting the ways in which Arctic processes and changes create significant impacts both within and beyond the Arctic, including northern coastal communities in lower latitudes and societies globally.


Research areas include the northwest coastal cluster of communities of Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii (Masset), Nisaga’a Nation (the Nisga’a coastal communities of Gitwinsilk & Gingolth), and the First Nation of T’Sou-ke located on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. In addition, the NORSEACC Project will include the Canadian arctic community of Iqaluit, Nunavut. In coastal Pacific northwest communities changes to marine resources resulting from both overexploitation and climate change are a concern. In addition, changes in annual precipitation patterns and amounts could have significant consequences for terrestrial resources.


Communities in Iceland including Húsavík (pop. 2,200) in the northeast and Vopnafjörður (pop. ca. 800) in the east have been selected to complete NORSEACC’s broad-brush analysis. Both communities are small and resource-dependent, particularly with regard to fish stocks. Each is vulnerable to changes in ecosystem stability and the exploitation of marine resources.


The towns of Honningsvåg in Finnmark (pop. 2,440) and Svolvær on the island of Austvågøya in the Lofoten Archipelago (pop. 4,190) have been selected for NORSEACC’s broad-brush analysis. One of these two communities will be selected for an in-depth case study. Both have relied heavily on local fisheries for centuries. However, each is now undergoing rapid change. In addition to ecological change, tourism has become an increasingly important part of the local economy and the prospect of future oil and gas development has the potential to bring additional significant changes.


The Orkney Islands will be the site of NORSEACC’s regional broad-brush analysis. Additional more detailed case studies will be carried out in the mainland community of Stromness and the adjacent island of Hoy. Orkney contains unparalleled archaeological resources that allow documentation of change going back centuries. In addition, rapid economic change associated with rapid out-migration, rising sea levels, oil and gas development, and tourism make this region ideal for the NORSEACC study.


Our work is made possible through the Social Studies and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Stefansson Arctic Institute.