Indigenous communities adapt as climate change upends ecological calendars globally

9 May 2023

For millennia, Indigenous communities around the world have based their cultural, agricultural and spiritual practices on natural cycles. Today, climate change is upending seasons, and a new collection of papers in the journals GeoHealth and Community Science shows how global communities are adapting their ecological calendars to new climates. Credit: Biegun Wschodni

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Rebecca Dzombak, [email protected], +1 (202) 777-7492 (UTC-4 hours)

WASHINGTON — For millennia, Indigenous communities have timed their cultural, agricultural, and spiritual practices around Earth’s regular cycles — wet and dry, hot and cold, lush and barren seasons reliably indicated by seasonal changes in their environments. What happens when climate change upends these natural cycles, which are also called “ecological calendars”?

Ecologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, social scientists, artists and Indigenous community members (and some who are a combination of these) have collaborated on a series of research papers outlining insights, challenges and solutions from the perspective of Indigenous communities around the world as they confront dramatic changes to their ecological calendars.

The collection of 12 papers, titled “Rhythms of the Earth,” is available with open access in AGU’s journal GeoHealth, which publishes research investigating the intersection of human and planetary health for a sustainable future.

“Rhythms of the Earth arrives at a critical time in the climate crisis, a moment in which our collective work can be a source of hope for intellectual pluralism and for climate change adaptation,” said the special collection’s editor, Professor Karim-Aly Kassam, International Professor of Environmental & Indigenous Studies at Cornell University. “This is truly a transdisciplinary collaboration driven by Indigenous knowledge and supported by science.”

This special collection highlights ecological calendars from dozens of communities from the Arctic north to the searing Sahara — both how they have changed and how the communities have successfully adapted to those changes.

In North America, the peoples of Standing Rock Nation have had their fruit and fungi harvesting schedules changed by increasingly short frost seasons. The Gitga’at people from Northwest North America traditionally sun-dry edible seaweed in May, starting in the afternoon so that the process finishes by sundown. Now, northwestern Mays are too rainy to sun-dry traditional seafood. The Gitga’at face similar issues with other traditional seafoods that are dried, such as Pacific salmon and herring, which are also declining in number. Farther north, the Teetł’it Gwich’in people have adapted their fishing strategies to accommodate later river freeze dates and thinner ice.

On the other side of the world, in Tajikistan, Bartangi communities’ traditional hunting and pastoral calendars were disrupted by Soviet colonization, resulting in a partial knowledge loss. Today, these peoples are updating their traditional ecological calendars in accordance with the changing climate so they can best guide decisions impacting food security.

For the Tuareg people in the Algerian Sahara, extreme weather events in the region that have increased in frequency and severity due to climate change are transforming their way of life. For example, drought has compelled some of these nomadic pastoralists into more sedentary lifestyles reliant on agriculture.

The collection also includes communities in South America, other communities from North America, and historical practices from Italy, including the 3,000-year history of olive tree cultivation. Additionally, two papers explore the role art and education can play in place-based ecological knowledge.


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Notes for journalists:

All papers in this collection can be accessed here. They are published in GeoHealth and Community Science, which are both open-access journals.

Papers in this collection:

  • “Rhythms of the Earth—Editorial Introduction” (Kassam et al., 2023)
  • “Art and environmental struggle curating and exhibition about place-rooted ecological knowledge” (Avril et al., 2022)
  • “Interpreting ecological calendars for the public through exhibits, art, and education” (Skelly et al., 2022)
  • “Warm soil, westerly wind, and wet feet: Feeling and measuring ecological time in the Roman world” (Tally-Schumacher, 2022)
  • “The entangled phenology of the olive tree: A compiled ecological calendar of Olea Europa over the last three millennia with Sicily as a case study” (Ferrara and Ingemark, 2023)
  • “’When the wild roses bloom’: Indigenous Knowledge and environmental change in northwestern North America” (Turner and Reid, 2022)
  • “Ecological calendars of the Pamir Mountains: Illustrating the importance of context-specificity for food security” (Ullmann et al., 2022)
  • “Ecological calendars, food sovereignty, and climate adaptation in Standing Rock” (Ruelle et al., 2022)
  • “Biocultural calendars across four ethnolinguistic communities in southwestern South America” (Rozzi et al., 2023)
  • “Climate change impacts can be differentially perceived across time scales: A study among the Tuareg of the Algerian Sahara” (Miara et al., 2022)
  • “Shifting seasons and threats to harvest, culture, and self-identity: A personal narrative on the consequences of changing climate” (Charlie et al., 2022)
  • “Role of biodiversity in ecological calendars and its implications for food sovereignty: Empirical assessment of the resilience of indicator species to anthropogenic climate change” (Kassam and Bernardo, 2022)
  • “Has the adaptation-mitigation binary outlived its value? Indigenous ways of knowing present an alternative” (Ullmann and Kassam, 2022)