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Observations of Climate Change from Indigenous Alaskans

Posted on 18 September 2011 by John Hartz

This is a reprint of a news release posted by the US Geological Survey (USGS) on Sep 13, 2011

Personal interviews with Alaska Natives in the Yukon River Basin provide unique insights on climate change and its impacts, helping develop adaptation strategies for these local communities.

The Village of St. Mary's, Alaska
The village of St. Mary's, Alaska where USGS scientists conducted interviews with hunters and elders to document their observations of climate change. The village lies in the Yukon River Basin on the banks of the Andreafsky River, a tributary of the Yukon River.
Photo Credit: School District of St. Mary’s, Alaska. (High resolution image)

The USGS coordinated interviews with Yup'ik hunters and elders in the villages of St. Mary's and Pitka's Point, Alaska, to document their observations of climate change. They expressed concerns ranging from safety, such as unpredictable weather patterns and dangerous ice conditions, to changes in plants and animals as well as decreased availability of firewood. 

"Many climate change studies are conducted on a large scale, and there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding how climate change will impact specific regions," said USGS social scientist Nicole Herman-Mercer. "This study helps address that uncertainty and really understand climate change as a socioeconomic issue by talking directly to those with traditional and personal environmental knowledge." 

By integrating scientific studies with indigenous observation, these multiple forms of knowledge allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the complex challenges posed by climate change. The indigenous knowledge encompasses observations, lessons and stories about the environment that have been handed down for generations, providing a long history of environmental knowledge. These observations can also help uncover new areas for scientists to study. 

The Arctic and Subarctic are of particular interest because these high latitudes are among the world’s first locations to begin experiencing climate change. 

The most common statement by interview participants was about warmer temperature in recent years. It was observed to be warmer in all seasons, though most notably in the winter months. In previous generations, winter temperatures dropped to 40 degrees Celsius below freezing, while in present times temperatures only reach 25 C or 30 C below freezing. Moreover, in the rare case that temperatures did drop as low as they had in the past, it was a brief cold spell, in contrast to historic month-long cold spells. 

The considerable thinning of ice on the Yukon and Andreafsky Rivers in recent years was the topic of several interviews. Thin river ice is a significant issue because winter travel is mainly achieved by using the frozen rivers as a transportation route via snow machines or sled dogs. Thinning ice shortens the winter travel season, making it more difficult to trade goods between villages, visit friends and relatives, or reach traditional hunting grounds. One interview participant also discussed how the Andreafsky River, on whose banks their village lies, no longer freezes in certain spots, and  several people have drowned after falling through the resulting holes in the ice. 

The unpredictability of weather conditions was another issue of concern, especially since these communities rely on activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering wild foods for their way of life. One does not want to "get caught out in the country" when the weather suddenly changes.

Vegetation patterns were also observed to be shifting due to the changes in seasonal weather patterns, and this leads to increased difficulty in subsistence activities. Interviews showed the unpredictability from year to year on whether vegetation, particularly salmonberries, could be relied upon. Those interviewed spoke of a change in the range of species of mammals (moose and beaver) as well as a decrease in the number of some bird species (ptarmigan). This is of special concern because of the important role these animals play in the subsistence diets of Alaska Natives. Many also rely on hunting or trapping for their livelihoods. 

Participants also discussed lower spring snowmelt flows on the Andreafsky and Yukon Rivers, meaning less logs are flowing down the river. This hampers people's ability to collect logs for firewood and building materials, placing a strain on an already economically depressed region through increased heating costs and reliance on expensive fossil fuels.

An article on this topic was published in the journal, Human Organization. The full article with additional quotes and observations from indigenous people is available online.

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Comments 1 to 12:

  1. Thanks for posting this, John. I'd skimmed over it when it first came out & had neglected to get back to it with the proper justice and diligence. OT: ptarmigan always reminded me of tarmangani...
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  2. I suppose there is a noticeable difference between -25C and -40C to those who live with and depend on frigid winters. The only time I experienced such temperatures was in 1950's in Igurka on the Ob river in northern Siberia. Never again!
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  3. This article highlights the changes probably everyone will eventually need to face. I fear for us in the States, its more about dealing with +100 deg F weather for extended periods, rather than warming from deep freezes. On a slightly related note, I have had serious debates with a friend at work recently over CO2 and climate change. My friends opinion has changed over the months (I guess that is progress) from denial, to realizing that there is warming, that it is manmade, but now that progression has hit a significant snag. He now claims that humans can engineer the temperature rise away by introducing aerosols into the upper atmospshere or some other technique that is far cheaper than addressing rise CO2. His argument that CO2 levels will plateu with the consumption of all available carbon mass on the planet, and we will be able to engineer away the temperature increases if they become a problem. So it looks like there's a new potential climate myth in the budding: We can fix global temperature by geo-engineering. Are there good peer reviewed articles that critic the geo-engineering argument? What are the downside risks of massive climate engineering? As always, thanks for the informed debate!
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    Moderator Response: [John Hartz] Go to the Yale Environment 360 website and put "geo engineering" into the site's search box. You will get a list of links of a number of excellent articles on this topic.
  4. 3, nuclearscience, You might point out to your friend that aerosols are actually responsible for currently holding temperatures down (or so Hansen theorizes), but that aerosols only stay in the atmosphere for a few years. And even so, the vast increase in aerosols resulting from a billion Chinese creating 2 new coal plants a week is only slowing down the warming, not stopping it. Lastly, such an effort would require the continual injection of aerosols into the atmosphere. What might that source be if we've consumed all available carbon on the planet? And, more importantly, where will the energy come from to power such an effort? Renewables? If that's the case, then why the heck not switch now?
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    Moderator Response: kdkd - removed an ad-hominem to make an otherwise useful comment acceptable to the comments policy
  5. nuclearscience. The issue for your friend now gets more complicated. CO2 is not going into the atmosphere alone. What acid/base balance will the ocean be at by the time we reach this apparently benign state of converting geological solid carbon fossils into gaseous carbon compounds? In one way, your friend is right(-ish). We've been accelerating a geological process. The geological method of converting fossil carbon compounds into gaseous ones is by volcanic activity. The geological method of reabsorbing that carbon is by reactions (weathering) of some kinds of rocks. (The biological processes cannot do this on their own.) So we can stop blowing up mountains or quarrying huge holes to release carbon and start doing the same thing to different rock formations to absorb it. Seeing as our petroleum use each year amounts to 93 million years of sequestering carbon, we've got quite a lot of rocks to blow up already. Don't know how ready your friend is to start considering ocean acidification, but you've brought him this far already. You might see how ready he is for the next step.
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    [DB] Fixed text (the Preview function works in lieu of a 2-minute edit window).

  6. kdkd, Sorry. I get cranky when people finally shed their denial of the science, but then put on rose-colored denial-glasses to imagine maybe it won't be so bad after all, or that there's an easy way out and they don't have to make any sacrifices at all today.
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  7. nuclearscience. I remember reading an article, (will have to go hunting) on geo engineering which talked about the difficulties. It had a lot to do with any unintended side effects. How do you engineer the planet for a specific temperature when everything has different and overlapping effects and different life times in the atmosphere, from a few days to hundreds of years. You then have opposing feedback effects etc. It is just crazy to think that we can develop that kind of control, we are more likely going to send weather crazy and then as mentioned there is the huge acidification of the oceans issue. Way simpler is to transition as fast as practicable to renewables and not put our planet through that much unnecessary stress. Much better to leave our carbon where it is, why would we want to use it all and then adjust? We may need it for different reasons in the future. Makes no sense.
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  8. agnostic: the noticeable difference between -25C and -40C is mainly the amount of heating one needs, more important, i guess, is the way the ice forms, without snow the ice becomes harder and thus f.e. changing the location for ice fishing becomes harder. coldest I've experienced is just -37C so what do I know.
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  9. Having lived in both Arizona and Alaska for several years, I find it much easier to adapt to cold weather than hot. At forty below (same in deg C or deg F) one can always put on insulated clothing and face and extremities protection. Relatively milder temperatures of minus 30 or 20 degF seem quite pleasant with such protection. I have often worked outdoors on ice or snow or cross-country skied at those temperatures without discomfort when properly dressed. Temperatures over 100degF and 100% humidity are truly life threatening. There is little one can do once excess clothing is removed save lie in water or lurk in air conditioned rooms or transport with protection from cancerous sunshine. Arctic winter daylight is short, but after solstice daylight increases by 6 minutes per day on average. Ten days gives an extra hour, that’s three more hours daylight by end of January. So even cold temperatures seem tolerable with increasing daylight. Spring is coming earlier and 24 hours of summer sunlight leave lots of time for outdoor sports and work. Plants grow almost visibly fast. Alaskans like to tell stories of a Texan asking for 10 pounds of potatoes to be told ‘Sorry we don’t cut potatoes’ Cabbages the size of a wheelbarrow are slashed in the barrow and taste like lettuce at summer barbeques. High temperature variability has been a feature for many years. Supermarkets in winter had freezer goods sales outside the store in the parking lot. I used to store ice cream, frozen peas etc in my camper van outside. One February I went out to get something and noticed the camper had brown lino floor covering that I’d didn’t remember. On investigation, I found chocolate ice cream cartons empty. A warm snap of above freezing temperatures a few days earlier was the cause. That variability was apparent in winter 2010 when record Christmas low of minus 40deg was reported near Fairbanks. The maximum low temperatures generally occur in January and February. However by New Year the temperature was a record high with above freezing temperatures. That is a really huge temperature swing in a few days. It clearly makes travel very risky especially over river or sea ice even in the depths of winter as the natives report. Huge annual temperature swings of nearly plus to minus forty degrees F are normal, so Alaskans are used to adaptation. The jet stream appears to drive warm Pacific air into interior Alaska while bending south to carry arctic air to the Great lakes and plains states. These conditions have persisted for long periods in the past and appear to be increasingly common now. There is support for the poleward shift of storm systems over the last 30 year so this may well underlie native observations (eg Changes in extratropical storm track cloudiness 1983–2008: observational support for a poleward shift Bender, er al Climate Dynamics DOI: 10.1007/s00382-011-1065-6) Alaska was ice-free during the last ice age, so one should perhaps expect a return to similar conditions. The population is scattered over this largest US state so no state-wide electrical grid is feasible. Alaska Power and Telephone Company have pioneered a unique Alaskan solution. They have developed river turbines maintained by a village in their local river. This is believed to be the first village supplied entirely by renewable energy and displacing almost completely the existing fossil fuel power. Turbines mounted on floating platforms have little environmental impact. Power is taken from the river throughout the winter from under the ice and in summer ice-free conditions. Annual maintenance is scheduled for spring breakup when fast flowing ice floes and debris could damage the installation. Diesel backup is used till breakup and maintenance is over. It seems like a neat solution. With hydro power it is feasible to use heat exchangers to extract ground heat for heating buildings (or for more electrical power). Ground heat is asymmetric with dark earth absorbing heat almost 24/7 in summer, while insulating snow cover retains heat in winter. Heat exchanger power return is about 3:1 so one can lever up the hydropower. It is feasible to produce diesel fuel locally from the vast quantities of vegetation. This could go a long way towards maintaining customary self-sufficiency. No innovation is needed. All equipment is currently commercially available. Traditionally villagers have had specialist skills, so that only one will be an expert boat builder and work exclusively on that task, while other hunt geese, moose, caribou, build houses etc as their specialist contribution to the community. So the idea of adapting and having specialist skills such as electrical plant maintenance will not be new. I suspect those communities that remain will survive. They will certainly adapt subsistence hunting and gathering to changing species diversity and supplement it as they already do. However, the worldwide trend is to move to larger towns and cities with the consequent loss of community. My guess is that small communities like St Mary’s in the Arctic and sub Arctic stand a better chance of long-term climate change adaptation, than more southern urban communities in the subtropical drought belt remote from food sources and dependent on fossil fuels. But that’s just my view as high latitude adapted person.
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    Moderator Response: [John Hartz] Thank you for taking the time to provide us with a personal-witness account of cliamte change impacts in two very different environments. Would you be interested in truning your comment into a guest post article?
  10. I would be interested in turning it into a guest post if you think it would be useful. However I do not know how to do this. My internet skills are still in the punched card era of two pass Fortran I'm afraid. Thanks for the invite.
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    Moderator Response: [John Hartz] With your permission, I would like to post your comment as the "Reader Comment of the Week" in the next edition of the SkS Weekly Digest.
  11. For another chilling first-hand account of climate change's impact on the Arctic, check out: "Rare Arctic creatures in trouble" posted on CNN today (Sep 20, 2011).
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  12. Modeator: Permission hereby given. Thank you for your interest.
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