Snow in Science, Culture, and Climate

Indigenous Knowledge about Snow

You might have heard the term Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which refers to knowledge acquired, held, and shared by a cultural group, community, or individual about nature and the interactions between living and non-living elements of the environment (ecology). Traditional ecological knowledge includes knowledge about, experience with, and language related to the local environment – including snow. It is not the same as western scientific knowledge, but the two can complement each other.

Indigenous knowledge refers to traditional or local knowledge of Native peoples. It encompasses the specific knowledge and insights that people have acquired through observing and experiencing an area over long period of time. Because it is passed down through the generations, indigenous knowledge provides information about how a certain place has changed over time. It also allows for repeated observations through time, allowing insights based on repeated events and patterns rather than information gained by performing a short-term study that might not capture the normal pattern, or might not capture the range of variability in a certain location. In many communities, families, and cultures, the elders are often those who are the bearers of indigenous knowledge.

A woman kneeling on the ground making snowshoes
Indigenous knowledge includes traditional skills, such as making snowshoes from wood and animal sinew, shown here in interior Alaska, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress USZ62-133502 (Public Domain)

One major way that indigenous knowledge about nature and science differs from western approaches to understanding the world is that it is based in a way of knowing in which science, culture, spirituality are interconnected and inseparable. For this reason, some people prefer to think of traditional or indigenous knowledge more broadly rather than the more limited term “traditional ecological knowledge.”

Because it is linked to a particular geographic area, way of life, and cultural heritage, the subject, breadth, and depth of indigenous knowledge varies from place to place, cultural group to cultural group, and among individuals. Indigenous knowledge is often applied versus theoretical, acquired and shared in the context of human interactions with the lands and waters that have supported their people’s way of life for thousands of years.  

The following examples of Alaska Native knowledge about snow have been selected from published sources. To learn more about indigenous knowledge among Alaska’s Native peoples, visit the Alaska Native Knowledge Network’s website.

Snow as a water source

Person holding coarse sugary snow taken from the bottom of the snowpack
Some people prefer to melt snow from the coarse, crumbly bottom later of the snowpack for drinking water. Source: Havardtl on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In most of Alaska, a thick layer of ice forms on rivers and lakes in the winter. In the absence of modern plumbing systems, people would drill holes through the ice or melt snow to get water for drinking, washing, and cooking. In interior and northern Alaska, new snow is usually very dry, so it takes a lot to yield just a small amount of water. The layer of snow at the bottom of the snow pack is usually made up of depth hoar, larger ice crystals that have changed as a result of temperature and moisture gradients in the snow pack. In the experience of some Alaska Natives, depth hoar is the best type of snow to melt for drinking water water (W. Titus and E. Alexander in Adams, et al., n.d.). Some also say that water from depth hoar can make people sick, however. Hunters and other winter backcountry travelers in Alaska continue to make use of this practical knowledge about snow as a water source today.

Snow as an orientation and navigation aid

long directional snowdrifts on tundra
Long, directional snow dunes caused by prevailing winds can help winter travelers find their way on a flat tundra landscape. Pictured here, sastrugi is the name for features formed by erosion of linear dunes by blowing snow. Photo by Havardtl on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

In many northern areas of Alaska, strong winds create snow drifts and dunes. Depending on the conditions, wind features can be parallel, perpendicular, or at an oblique angle to the prevailing winds. Hunters and other experienced winter travelers apply their understanding of how these features form and change to orient themselves in the treeless tundra landscape, especially during white-out conditions when visibility is limited. For generations, snow formations created by wind have helped people find their way home, and Alaska Native languages include a variety of words for different types of wind-generated snow features.

Snow patterns and change over time

Valley with snow melting and mountains in background
Indigenous knowledge includes observations about how the timing, amount, and distribution of snow has changed over time. Photo from Pexels (Pexels License)

Traditional indigenous knowledge is acquired over generations, sometimes dating back thousands of years. A long (oral) record of observations in one area provides a history of patterns in the environment, including what conditions are typical and how much variation in weather – including snow – there is from year to year. Observations over time allows for detecting changes in environmental conditions, including climate. For example, Native elders in Unalakleet recall that there was more snow and that it snowed earlier in the year when they were children than it has in recent years (Mustonen and Mustonen, 2009).

Snow and weather prediction

A sundog, a bright ring around the sun caused by tiny snow crystals in the air
Some Alaska Natives are skilled at predicting changes in the weather based on atmospheric features such as sundogs, which are caused by light reflecting off of tiny snow crystals in the air. Photo by Tenbergen on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Some Alaska Native people are skilled at predicting the weather based on atmospheric features, such as the shape, type, and location of clouds. Another phenomenon that people use to predict the weather is called a “sundog” in English. A sundog, which looks a bit like a halo around the sun, is caused by the presence of tiny ice crystals, referred to as “diamond dust,” in the atmosphere. A sundog can signal a change in the weather, especially that it is going to be windy, according to some Alaska Native weather experts (Mustonen and Mustonen, 2009).