Anna Stammler-Gossmann - Current research

(Community Adaptation and Vulnerability in Arctic Regions), funded by the Academy of Finland

The project Finnish CAVIAR is part of the Pan-Arctic IPY CAVIAR project undertaken by a multidisciplinary international team, representing all the Arctic nations (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, USA, Canada, Russia). The CAVIAR project is a large research effort to study community adaptation and vulnerability to cumulative changes across the Arctic. Although many impact studies in the Arctic have been undertaken and there is general agreement that changes in climate and associated conditions are likely to pose significant challenges for communities, there are still many important questions unanswered about the most effective means of dealing with these challenges.

The CAVIAR project aims to reach a high level of integration in the comprehensive assessment of strategies employed to deal with changing conditions in communities across the Arctic countries and their effectiveness. The research proposes a comparative analysis of vulnerability shaped by various forces or drivers across scales from local to global. The aim of the project is also to analyse the conditions that facilitate or constrain the adaptive capacity or resilience of northern communities. Each study will provide answers to a common set of questions. It is important to compare results among Arctic communities and identify commonalities and differences in order to contribute to further developing the concept of vulnerability and developing practical guidelines for adaptations to cumulative changes in Arctic. Insights into sensitivities, vulnerabilities or resilience of communities compared across the Arctic countries contribute to integrating knowledge on adaptive decision-making from the local to the international level. The scope and structure of CAVIAR allow all of these areas to be addressed in a systematic, integrated program cross cutting all levels. For more information about CAVIAR see: Smit, B., Grete K. Hovelsrud and J. Wandel, 2008. CAVIAR: Community Adaptation and Vulnerability in Arctic Regions [pdf].

Community agency and adaptive strategies of northern communities is of particular interest to FIN-CAVIAR. The local response on cumulative changes in northern communities, variable patterns of human decision making, reactive or proactive adaptation to changes should be understood in a comparative context. See for more information about FIN-CAVIAR

Climate change and tourism: snowmobile safari in Rovaniemi (Finland). Photo: A. Stammler-Gossmann

Case studies

Nenets Autonomous District, Russia
Republic of Sakha Yakutia, Russia
Finnmark, Norway

For facilitating comparison and integration of results, fieldwork was conducted in different Arctic communities in different regions. This diversity gives a challenging possibility for comparison. My comparative research areas within CAVIAR are selected to provide maximal insights when applying place-based methods with a particular interest on two important aspects: 1) high-risk areas with direct and indirect climatic and social impact; 2) areas with subsistence economy and industrial sectors related to natural resource use.

Within the general framework of Pan-Arctic CAVIAR and the Finnish CAVIAR projects I focus my current research on social and cultural parameters of vulnerability. I analyse how people in specific circumstances perceive, conceptualise and negotiate change. I examine local and regional patterns of present day vulnerability and existing adaptation strategies as socially-constructed phenomena. I examine changes in human-environment relations as relations influenced by social and economic dynamics and cultural values as well as filtered through local experience, sensitivities to changes and ways in which individuals and groups within society interact with each other.

Most of the research done on the components of socially and culturally determined vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies of Arctic communities bases on case studies from North America. Material from Russia is not sufficiently represented in studies on these particular issues as well as on climate change issues in general. However, the majority of northern inhabitants reside in the Russian North and Russian northern regions have been affected by environmental as well as societal changes with particular force. A place-based research on community’s concern about ongoing changes in regional and national context which may differ from western views can greatly contribute to widening and deepening of academic concepts.

Nenets settlement Nelmin Nos in Malozemelskaya tundra. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Northern communities in the European and Asian parts of the Russian North were of particular interest for my fieldwork in 2008: Reindeer herders and fishermen communities in the Nenets Autonomous District of the European Russian North, and cattle- and horse breeders’ communities in the Republic of Sakha Yakutia in Northeastern Siberia. Both of the regions present cases of extreme exposure to environmental and societal changes. These remote settlements are located in an ever-moving and frequently harmful natural environment.

Among different highly dynamic environmental changes, variations in freeze-thaw cycles pose a real and immediate threat to the Nenets people in Nelmin Nos village. The village, located on the left Pechora river bank and around 100 km from the Barents Sea coast, is built on swamp in the tundra and is totally dependent on sea and river travel roads - because goods and services are not available locally.

Passenger tank as a means of transport in the tundra (Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann)

Drinking water from Pechora river in Nelmin Nos (Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann)

Interviews conducted with people from relocated settlement (Varandei) on the Barents Sea coast affected by coastal erosion are an example of possible response to environmental and societal changes. Recent return migration shows how people connect their relations to the land to their mental and physical well-being.

Safety of travel and access and utilization of services is also a challenge for the Sakha communities in the Tatta District of Republic of Sakha Yakutia. Spring floods become one of the most frequent hazards in this region. Fieldwork was conducted in agro-pastoralist communities (Ytyk Kuel and Uolba) which have experienced within last three years exceptionally heavy flooding. ‘Small rivers’ like Tatta River cause big problems for rural areas damaging infrastructure and buildings, facilities, agricultural- and hay fields. One possible scenario of responses for the nearby located village Chimnai which has been completely flooded in the last years is relocation.

Flood in Ytyk Kuel. 2007. Photo: Fedor Postnikov

Flood in Ytyk Kuel. 2008 Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Impact of flood on hay fields and grassland in Uolba. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

In both northern regions the concern about biophysical changes is compounded by cultural issues. Direct and indirect impacts of biophysical changes are likely to have significant impacts on the social and cultural cohesion of these communities. At the same time Nenets and Sakha communities epitomise the respective cultural identity for the whole region.
Fieldwork in 2008

  • Nenets Autonomous district, European North of Russia (second fieldwork planned for 2009)
  • Tatta Ulus, Republic of Sakha Yakutia, Russia (second fieldwork planned for 2009)
  • Finnmark, Northern Norway (second fieldwork planned for 2009)

Planned fieldwork

Based on my fieldwork experience in Sakha Yakutia, North East Siberia, (fieldwork during 1995-2008), Murmansk region, (fieldwork during 2006-2007), Kamchatka region (fieldtrip 2007), Nenets Autonomous District, European North of Russia (2008), Northern Norway (2008) the current research project will take me to communities in different parts across Arctic:

  • Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. (fieldwork planned for 2009)
  • Nenets Autonomous district, European North of Russia (second fieldwork planned for 2009)
  • Tatta Ulus, Republic of Sakha Yakutia, Russia (second fieldwork planned for 2009)
  • Finnmark, Northern Norway (second fieldwork planned for 2009)

The planned trips are of particular importance, as the stated goal of the whole project is providing comparative empirical knowledge from case studies for the larger framework of social and environmental impact assessment. I am also concerned with the issue of determinants of vulnerability as well as with social, cultural or political limits to the implementation of vulnerability and adaptation measures in different communities.
The research looks at consequences and responses to environmental and social changes at the local level basing on participant observation and in-depth analysis. Anthropological fieldwork reveals to what extent the perception of and ideas about nature influence the scope for adaptations of northern communities and the socio-economic systems surrounding them to changes in the physical environment. How do they respond to the changes they perceive, and what are their likely responses and adaptive capacities in the future? A community’s sensitivities and adaptive capacity are studied in the context of interaction of local conditions and forces at broader scales of local, regional and federal levels. The main aim of my fieldwork is to understand the whole process of ongoing or future adaptation, planning efforts, alternatives and anticipated consequences, uncertainties and role of social and cultural parameters of vulnerability. Co-operation and mutual respect between researchers and community partners are an important basis for successful fieldwork.
Place-based research
A wide array of adaptation options is available, but here, it is particularly important to move from overly general models to more specific characteristics in a way that makes sense to residents. More realistic targets help to better design response strategies. There is already a big demand in developing practical guidelines for adaptations to climate.

‘To-be-worth-the-risk’: Hunting on ice. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

The projected impacts of climate change can vary greatly due to the development pathway assumed. Current research in the human dimensions of climatic and socio-economic changes notes the importance of locally grounded, context-sensitive assessments. Different variables in interactions between humans and ecosystem potentially can strongly determine the level of vulnerability to climatic and societal changes. Cultural responses to landscape changes may be productive in fostering a variety of perspectives on the natural environment. The planned fieldwork is concerned with the question of vulnerability indicators with regard to conceptual or value issues from a humanities point of view.

Caviar market in Kamchatka: vulnerability to mafia? Photo: A.Stammler-Gossmann

When we apply adaptation models we have to talk not only about patterns of adaptation but also pay attention to regional, social and culturally specific factors of adaptation. It is those factors that can potentially change patterns significantly. Related to human components we have to consider socioeconomic variables e.g. in governmental regulations, social changes, economic situations in identification and assessment of key vulnerabilities.

Community perspectives on climate change

Nuances of local knowledge are unavoidable to understand the links between potential climate change and related consequences for population across the Arctic. The broad observational basis of continuous every day practices and life histories contribute to the unique wealth of local environmental monitoring. Considering the broad range of different scenarios in numerical climate models, there is no reason why we should not trust a similar broad range of environmental perceptions among local land users. In many cases the memory of changes and continuities by local experts reaches back longer than the record of scientific observations, if we include oral history of communities into our analysis. These memories are often so detailed and broad at the same time that taken together they represent a huge hardly tapped potential resource for our understanding of climate change in the Arctic. There is already an established respect among many northern specialists of the expertise of indigenous arctic residents, particularly in areas such wildlife management.
The human-nature interaction in the northern coastal communities which actively engage in sea ice travel or harvesting has important implications for the success of daily activities and personal safety. Knowing about and dealing with weather is an integral part of community life, but with changing environmental conditions these practices could be challenged. Integrative knowledge of northern communities and science allow a broader and more confident assessment of relationships between observed environmental changes and their impacts. Incorporating multiple sources of knowledge is crucial to enhance understanding about what makes a community vulnerable or resilient to changes and about the nature of the opportunities to better deal with changing conditions. This would contribute to the development of appropriate adaptive strategies for the population that is most affected by changes. We consider the joint monitoring of changes, community agency and disseminating the accumulated information through researchers to the public and relevant authorities from the local to international level. This, we believe can significantly contribute to making the results more relevant for our communities partners.

Drinking water from the lake. Photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Safety on ice: fisherman in Monchegorsk (Kola peninsula). Photo: A. Stammler-Gossmann.