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Mi’kmaw Moons

A crescent moon against a black sky.
Alex Cadel

June 3, 2024

Image Credit: Adege from Pixabay/Canva

Introduction

Traditional Indigenous knowledge is an important source of information for understanding the climate. The Mi’kmaq have thrived for well over 13,000 years in the region of Mi’kma’ki, which stretches across the colonial borders of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, eastern New Brunswick, the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec, and Newfoundland. The Mi’kmaw language is strongly connected to nature and demonstrates a deep understanding of ecological patterns in this region. One example of this knowledge is the Mi’kmaw calendar, based on lunar cycles, where each moon is named for an important biophysical indicator of the changing seasons.

This series of posts will explore the Mi’kmaw calendar from the perspective of the changing climate, including some analysis of climate data trends that relate to each moon. Learning from traditional knowledge helps us understand how the climate is already different from what was normal in this region for thousands of years. Analyzing climate data helps us understand the changes still to come.

Any climate data shown are from the latest downscaled projections for Canada (CMIP6), accessed via ClimateData.ca. Values are the median results for averaged 30-year periods, and are geographically specific to the community mentioned.

A map displaying and listing the names of First Nations communities in Mi'kma'ki.

June

In the Mi’kmaw calendar, the June moon is known as Nipniku’s (nib-nee-goos), the trees fully leafed moon. This period covers the approximate date range of June 5 to July 6. With longer days and warming temperatures, this is the time when buds on trees unfurl into full new canopies of leaves.

Growing degree days are a measure of whether climate conditions are warm enough to support plant growth. In Pabineau First Nation, there were an average of 1568 growing degree days (base of 5ºC) per year during the period of 1951-1980. The number of growing degree days then increased during the period of 1981-2010, averaging 1676 growing degree days. The following table shows projected changes for the number of growing degree days over time under both low and high emission scenarios for this area.

Tree leaves budding

Image credit: famingjia inventor/Pexels/Canva

Number of Growing Degree Days (base 5ºC)

(Pabineau First Nation)

Time period
Low emissions
(SSP2-4.5)
High emissions
(SSP5-8.5)
1951-1980 1568
1981-2010 1676
2011-2040 1913 1931
2041-2070 2144 2313
2071-2100 2320 2965

By the end of the century, growing degree days in Pabineau may increase by around 50% under a low emissions scenario, or around 90% under a high emissions scenario. This represents a substantial increase in the energy available for plant growth, meaning that certain plants may start to flower, develop leaves, and produce seeds or fruit earlier in the year.

Keep an eye on this post for the next edition of Mi’kmaw Moons in July.

May

In the Mi’kmaw calendar, the May moon is known as Sqoljuiku’s (skoalch-ooh-we-goos), the frog croaking moon. This period covers the approximate date range of May 5 to June 5. Sqolj is the Mi’kmaw word for frog, after the sound of their croaks. This is the time when frogs and toads sing their springtime song to attract a mate. Their behaviour is driven by warming temperatures and increased rainfall, which creates new ponds and puddles to safely lay eggs in.

In Eskasoni First Nation, an average of 324 mm of precipitation fell in the spring during the period 1951-1980. This amount was nearly the same during the period 1981-2010, averaging 325 mm. The following table shows how the amount of spring precipitation is projected to change over time under both low and high emission scenarios for this area.

Two green frogs on the surface of a body of water. The frog in the front is puffing out its cheeks.

Image credit: AttaBoyLuther/Getty Images Signature/Canva

Spring Precipitation (mm)

(Eskasoni First Nation)

Time period
Low emissions
(SSP2-4.5)
High emissions
(SSP5-8.5)
1951-1980 324
1981-2010 325
2011-2040 339 343
2041-2070 356 365
2071-2100 355 371

Warmer air holds more moisture, resulting in higher typical precipitation amounts across the region. By the end of the century, spring precipitation amounts in Eskasoni may increase by around 10% under a low emissions scenario, or around 15% under a high emissions scenario. More rain falling could create wetter conditions for creatures like frogs, but higher temperatures also increase evaporation rates, meaning that ponds and soils could dry out more quickly.

April

In the Mi’kmaw calendar, the April moon is known as Penatmuiku’s (ben-a-dim-ooh-we-goos), the birds laying eggs moon. This period covers the approximate date range of April 4 to May 5. This is the time when birds collect twigs, grass, and other materials to build and repair their nests in preparation for egg laying. The timing of egg laying is often matched to the increasing availability of food sources, such as insects that start to emerge in greater numbers as the harsh conditions of winter recede.

Another indicator of the coming spring during this time may be the final frost event, signalling a return to consistently warmer temperatures. In Lennox Island First Nation, the last spring frost occurred on May 9, on average, during the period of 1951-1980. With climate change this last frost has been occurring earlier, with May 4 being the more typical date during the period of 1981-2010. The following table shows how the date of the last spring frost is projected to change over time under both low and high emission scenarios for this area.

Image of four blue robin's eggs in a brown nest surrounded by green leaves.

Image credit: AttaBoyLuther/Getty Images Signature/Canva

Date of last frost in spring

(Lennox Island First Nation)

Time period
Low emissions
(SSP2-4.5)
High emissions
(SSP5-8.5)
1951-1980 May 9
1981-2010 May 4
2011-2040 April 29 April 27
2041-2070 April 19 April 15
2071-2100 April 14 April 3

Rising temperatures will continue to push the average date of the last spring frost earlier in the year. By the end of the century, the last spring frost may occur over three weeks earlier under a low emissions scenario, or around five weeks earlier under a high emissions scenario. Species may adapt their behaviour to align with these changes, with some studies showing that many bird species have already started laying eggs earlier than they did historically.

March

In the Mi’kmaw calendar, the March moon is known as Siwkewiku’s (see-uke-ay-we-goos), the spring time moon, also known as the maple sugar moon. This period covers the approximate date range of March 5 to April 4, which is typically the time when maple sap was distilled from sugar maple trees, practiced by the Mi’kmaq long before settlers arrived. Sap flow in maple trees is dependent on temperature, typically requiring temperatures to drop below freezing (0°C) at night and rise above freezing during the day. When air temperatures fluctuate between freezing and non-freezing temperatures on the same day, it is known as a freeze-thaw cycle.

In Elsipogtog First Nation, there were an average of 86 days per year with a freeze-thaw cycle during the period of 1951-1980. The average number of annual freeze-thaw cycles is already slightly lower, with an average of 83 freeze-thaw cycles during the period of 1981-2010. The following table shows how the number of freeze-thaw cycles is projected to change over time under both low and high emission scenarios for this area.

Image of a sugar maple tree tapped to collect sap for maple syrup. There are 3 taps and 3 bucks on the tree.

Image of sugar maple trees with taps and buckets to collect sap for the production of maple syrup.

Number of freeze-thaw cycles

(Elsipogtog First Nation)

Time period
Low emissions
(SSP2-4.5)
High emissions
(SSP5-8.5)
1951-1980 86
1981-2010 83
2011-2040 80 81
2041-2070 77 78
2071-2100 77 70

The number of freeze-thaw cycles per year is projected to decrease slightly across Mi’kma’ki. By the end of the century, it may be more typical to see a total of 77 freeze-thaw cycles per year in this community under a low emissions scenario, or 70 freeze-thaw cycles per year under a high emissions scenario. As temperatures continue to rise, the timing of these freeze-thaw events may also change, with more freeze-thaw cycles taking place during the winter season and fewer taking place during spring and fall. The changing climate could impact the timing and viability of maple syrup production in the region.

February

In the Mi’kmaw calendar, the February moon is known as Apuknajit (ah-boo-gah-na-jit), the snow blinding moon. This period covers the approximate date range of February 3 to March 5. Apuknajit is a legendary Mi’kmaw spirit or wizard that can shapeshift, taking on the appearance of any animal. It is customary during this full moon to leave food out as an offering to Apuknajit to ensure the survival of the entire ecosystem. Traditionally, this is the hardest time of year for the Mi’kmaq, as heavy snow falls made hunting more difficult. It is the brightest time of the winter due to the sun reflecting off the snow, which can cause snow blindness – a painful sunburn to the eye’s cornea.

In Miawpukek (Conne River) First Nation, there were an average of 50 days per year with snowfall during the period of 1951-1980. Warmer temperatures have already slightly reduced the number of snowy days, with an average of 47 days with snowfall during the period of 1981-2010. The following table shows how the number of days with snow is projected to change over time under both low and high emission scenarios for this area.

An image taken from the top of a snow covered hill. Trees and a body of water are seen in the distance. There is a trail of footprints through the snow and the sun is shining.

Birch Brook, Labrador.

Number of Days with Snow

(Miawpukek First Nation)

Time period
Low emissions
(SSP2-4.5)
High emissions
(SSP5-8.5)
1951-1980 50
1981-2010 47
2011-2040 41 39
2041-2070 34 31
2071-2100 31 21

Warming winters will significantly reduce the frequency of snowfall across Mi’kma’ki, as precipitation would instead fall as rain if temperatures are above freezing. By the end of the century, there may be an average of 31 days per year with snowfall in this community under a low emissions scenario, or only 21 days per year with snowfall under a high emissions scenario. Winters across the region will look and feel quite different with fewer snowy days.

January

In the Mi’kmaw calendar, the January moon is known as Punamujuiku’s (boo-na-moo-jooey-goos), the tomcod (frost fish) moon. This period covers the approximate date range of January 5 to February 3. This is the time when the punamu (tomcod) run from river estuaries upstream to spawn. Fishing for tomcod was an important food source for the Mi’kmaq during this time.

This period is typically when the coldest day of the year might occur. In Sipekne’katik First Nation, the average coldest temperature of the year was -25.3°C during the period 1951-1980. The coldest temperature has already been slightly higher during the period 1981-2010, at -24.2°C. The following table shows how the coldest temperature of the year is projected to change over time under both low and high emission scenarios for this area.

A watercolour painting of a greenish yellow fish with its red mouth agape.

Tomcod illustration from “Fish from American Waters series (N8)” issued by Allen & Ginter. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/RawPixel.

Coldest temperature of the year
(Sipekne’katik First Nation)

Time period
Low emissions
(SSP2-4.5)
High emissions
(SSP5-8.5)
1951-1980 -25.3°C
1981-2010 -24.2°C
2011-2040 -21.6°C -21.5°C
2041-2070 -19.4°C -18.0°C
2071-2100 -17.6°C -13.3°C

This reduction in extreme cold is one of the most notable impacts of the changing climate across Mi’kma’ki. Even under a relatively optimistic low emissions scenario, the coldest day of the year in this region may be nearly eight degrees warmer by the end of the century. Under a high emissions scenario, the typical coldest day may be 12 degrees warmer. While extreme cold can pose human health risks for those who are not adequately prepared, cold winter temperatures are important for many native species and environmental processes.

December

In the Mi’kmaw calendar, the December moon is known as Kesikewiku’s (ges-ig-gay-we-goos), the winter moon. This period covers the approximate date range of December 6 to January 5, which includes the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the full moon that rises highest in the sky. Typical winter conditions across Mi’kma’ki include colder air temperatures, freezing waters and snowfall.

As the climate warms, these typical winter conditions become less common. In Abegweit First Nation, the average temperature during winter (Kesik) was -5.8°C during the period of 1951-1980. The average winter temperature has already been slightly warmer during the following period of 1981-2010, averaging -5.2°C. The following table shows how the average winter temperature is projected to change over time under both low and high emission scenarios for this area.

Snowy winter scene of Eastern Passage, NS

Drone photo of Eastern Passage, NS, February 2023. Photo courtesy of David Jones.

Average winter temperature (Abegweit First Nation)

Time period
Low emissions
(SSP2-4.5)
High emissions
(SSP5-8.5)
1951-1980 -5.8°C
1981-2010 -5.2°C
2011-2040 -3.6°C -3.3°C
2041-2070 -2.2°C -1.2°C
2071-2100 -1.1°C 0.9°C

The season of Kesik (winter) is the time of year that is warming the most rapidly. Compared to what was normal historically, winters by the end of the century may be around 4.7°C warmer under a low emissions scenario, and 6.7°C warmer under a high emissions scenario. Milder winters mean that, on average, communities across Mi’kma’ki will experience more frequent temperatures above freezing (0°C), less extreme cold, and less snow and ice.

November

In the Mi’kmaw calendar, the November moon is known as Keptekewiku’s (geb-deg-gay-we-goos), the rivers freezing over moon. This period covers the approximate date range of November 7 to December 6. This was the time when temperatures started to regularly drop below 0°C and surface waters across Mi’kma’ki would first start to show signs of freezing over.

In Natoaganeg (Eel Ground) First Nation on the Miramichi River, there were an average of 80 ice days each year during the period 1951-1980. Ice days occur when temperatures remain below freezing for the entire day, meaning thicker, stable ice can form and persist. As the climate has warmed the number of ice days has already started to decrease, with 75 ice days being more typical during the period 1981-2010. The following table shows how the number of ice days is projected to change over time under both low and high emissions scenarios for this area.

A river scene in winter, with ice covering part of the water and snow on the trees and ground.

Image credit: Winter on the Kennebecasis River, Hampton, New Brunswick, Canada — Greenseas, Getty Images/Canva

Number of annual ice days (Natoaganeg First Nation)

Time period
Low emissions
(SSP2-4.5)
High emissions
(SSP5-8.5)
1950-1980 80
1980-2010 75
2011-2040 62 60
2041-2070 50 41
2071-2100 42 22

Compared to what was normal historically, the number of ice days is projected to be nearly halved by the end of the century under a low emissions scenario, and only a quarter of what used to occur under a high emissions scenario. Fewer ice days may result in freeze-up occurring later in the winter, and could mean rivers may not freeze over consistently or for as long. This may cause impacts on freshwater ecosystems and cultural practices such as ice fishing.

October

In the Mi’kmaw calendar, the October moon is known as Wikewiku’s (wig-gay-we-goos), the animal fattening moon. This period covers the approximate date range of October 8 to November 7. This is the time when animals across Mi’kma’ki are foraging and feeding to fatten up for the long, cold winter ahead.

One of the main indicators of the coming winter during this period is the first frost event in fall. In Bear River First Nation, the first fall frost occurred on October 12, on average, during the period of 1951-1980. With climate change this first frost has been occurring later, with October 17 being a more typical date in the period 1981-2010. The following table shows how the date of the first fall frost is projected to change over time under both low and high emission scenarios for this area.

A patch of frosted-covered green plants on the ground, with one orange fallen leaf among them.

Image credit: Daizuoxin from Getty Images/Canva

Date of first frost in fall (Bear River First Nation)

Time period
Low emissions
(SSP2-4.5)
High emissions
(SSP5-8.5)
1950-1980 October 12
1980-2010 October 17
2011-2040 October 28 October 28
2041-2070 November 2 November 10
2071-2100 November 8 November 24

The first frost event in fall occurring several weeks later in the year may impact when and how animals prepare for the winter. More food may be available later into the year, and winters may not be as long or as harsh. Some animals may be able to adjust their behaviors for these changing conditions, but others will struggle with this rapid rate of climatic change.