James Ford has spent eight years researching the effects of climate change on the lifestyles of Inuit people living in the Far North.

He's seen evidence that local temperatures are rising and there's a lot less sea ice floating around, for a much shorter time period each year. Along the Northern Foxe Basin, for example, the ice is taking as much as four weeks as long to freeze than it did 40 years ago, said Ford.

That means it is harder for Inuit people to hunt, fish, and eke out a livable existence, according to their traditional ways.

"Hunting is not just a hobby to Inuit, it's a way of life," the McGill University professor explained in a recent telephone interview from his Montreal office.

In places like Igloolik, Nunavut, where a week's worth of groceries typically cost more than $550 for a small family, there simply aren't a lot of other options.

There are few jobs, many of Canada's 50,000 Inuit live well below the poverty line and there is little opportunity to change the available means of subsistence.

Ford likens the current circumstances for many Inuit to a community where the grocery store moves five kilometers away from your home every year, making it more and more difficult for you to get access to food, as time goes by.

And after enough time passes by, the road starts to crumble away and you're not even sure how to get there with the use of a car -- or in the case of the Inuit, possibly an ATV or a snowmobile.

For Inuit people, "their supermarket is the land," Ford said. The problem is that the supermarket is moving out of reach.

A way forward

In a new study published in the Global Environmental Change journal, Ford and a group of Canadian colleagues have concluded that Inuit must adapt to coming environmental changes that are inevitable and unavoidable.

Climate change, the researchers report, is threatening many aspects of Inuit life, including access to food, the integrity of local infrastructure and the ability to maintain their traditional lifestyles.

But according to Ford and his fellow researchers, things are not completely bleak.

"Despite the fact that our climate is changing, Inuit are adapting," Ford said.

Many Inuit are adapting to climate change on an individual basis through, for example, the use of new hunting techniques that employ modern technology. They are also paying attention to the fluctuations of wildlife populations and migration patterns and adjusting accordingly.

But the researchers contend that individual adaptation is not going to be good enough in the long run, and Inuit people will need government assistance to successfully maintain their lifestyles.

They are calling for all levels of government to work with Inuit communities, taking advantage of both scientific and traditional knowledge, to best develop strategies for dealing with climate change.

The cost for these investments is hard to gauge, as only a small number of researchers are involved in studying Inuit adaptation to climate change and firm cost projections are not yet available.

"That is where the research is lacking," Ford admits.

And while some may assume that Ottawa has dropped the ball on a long-festering problem, Ford said the government has its eye on the situation.

Multimillion-dollar projects are underway with Indian and Northern Affairs, as well as Health Canada, seeking to gather "very, very practical" information about climate change and Inuit people, said Ford.

"The Feds, they are certainly getting up to speed on the adaptation side," he said.

At the Nunavut government level, studies are taking place to determine how climate change is affecting every aspect of Inuit life.

It's this type of progress that keeps Ford "guardedly optimistic" about the future.

"There still is a lot to do…but we're going in the right direction," he said.