Alaska Natives’ Distinct Challenges in the Face of Climate Change

Background

Climate change is threatening to destroy villages in Alaska. The Arctic, which encompasses about one-third of Alaska, is warming around twice as fast as the rest of the world. As a result, ice and permafrost are melting at an alarming rate. This year, Arctic sea ice cover is at its sixth lowest level measured since recording began in 1978. Ice coverage is in a downward trend and the Arctic is losing about 13% of sea ice per decade. Permafrost (permanently frozen subsoil) is a less publicized problem but is just as important as sea ice melt. Over 80% of Alaska is held together by permafrost, but now, due to climate change and warming, the permafrost is melting. As a result, the ground on which Alaska Native villages are built is softening and becoming more susceptible to erosion.

Alaska Natives suffer a wide array of challenges from permafrost melt. To appreciate the challenges, it’s important to know that historically, Alaska Natives migrated throughout Alaska to follow fish and wild game. However, when the Department of the Interior’s (“DOI”) Bureau of Education required Alaska Natives to settle near bodies of water for easier access, this migratory lifestyle had to adapt.

Flooding

The most pressing issue facing Alaska Native settlements is flooding. Heavy rainfall, snowmelt, and the sudden release of water from breaking ice blockages are all causing floods. The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management recorded a much higher number of floods in recent years than ever before. From 1978 to 2008 there were 228 flood disasters. About 40% of these flood disasters occurred between 2000 and 2008.

Permafrost melt exacerbates flooding and flood-induced erosion because it softens the ground. This leads to various problems such as loss of land and contaminated water supplies. The town of Newtok, for example, is losing up to 113 feet of land per year and the villagers are in the process of relocating their entire community to nearby higher ground before their village is completely destroyed. The floods have also exposed their water supply to sewage.

Relocation

Newtok is not the only village relocating; the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) found in 2009 that out of 31 villages in imminent danger, 12 decided to relocate. Relocation is a significant stress on the Alaska Natives. Before the DOI’s settlement mandate, Alaska Natives could move to different locations more easily in order to avoid erosion and flooding. But now it is more difficult to relocate because they have adapted to more sedentary lifestyles. In an analysis of the GAO report, Robin Bronen found that no government agency has the authority to relocate communities, no governmental organization exists that can address the strategic planning needs of relocation, and no funding is specifically designated for relocation. In fact, the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, a federal act meant to assist state and local governments with disaster relief, can only assist Alaska Natives who remain in and repair their original community and not the Alaska Natives who must permanently relocate. This is a problem given the high cost of relocation. For example, Newtok, a village of 350 people, has an estimated relocation cost of about $375,000 per person. And because there’s no single government agency dedicated to relocation, villages must coordinate with multiple agencies, significantly slowing the process.

Subsistence

Another issue Alaska Natives face is river warming’s effects on subsistence hunting and fishing. Hunters primarily use rivers to get around due to the lack of road infrastructure in Alaska. They ride snowmobiles on the frozen rivers in the winter and use boats in the summer. The rivers are too unsafe to use during spring when the ice is melting and fall when the ice is forming. Because ice is now forming at a slower pace, hunters have less time in the year to use these transportation corridors. As a result, groups such as the Athabascan people are finding it more difficult to hunt moose, caribou, and other game.

Some Alaska Native communities’ access to salmonoids will also change. As temperatures warm, glaciers will melt at an increased rate and the melt will increase river flow. However, summer river flow will eventually be much less than it is now for many streams and rivers because there will be considerably less glacial ice to melt. The change in river flow, temperature, and sediment loads will have varying effects throughout Alaska. Some communities recently experienced record runs of salmon and are also enjoying positive outcomes for flounder and pollak. However, western Alaska has experienced substantial decreases in the salmon population.

Increased ice melt is also affecting community interactions. Research indicates that when hunters are forced to relocate they become depressed because the knowledge they can pass on to younger generations becomes less relevant. This stress can lead to an increase in drinking and violence, which are already at concerning levels in this region. A member of the Qikiktagrugmiut discussed with a reporter about how the shorter ice fishing seasons are limiting interactions between village elders and youth and negatively impacting the culture.

 Closing Thoughts

Alaska Natives face many climate change and warming-induced problems. There are many more costal and oceanic issues, which require addressing. For example, a recent report found that increased temperatures in northern waters are allowing pathogens to migrate northward and infect subsistence foods (such as whales) that are important for coastal communities. As the pathogen example demonstrates, the issues facing the Alaska Natives are very broad and can include problems that most of us would never even consider.

Compared to the lower-48, Alaska and its residents are distinctly challenged by melting ice and permafrost and general warming. The United States needs to address the emerging environmental challenges of Alaska Natives and other indigenous Arctic peoples.

 

The title image features the Aialik Glacier in Alaska. The file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, the owner of which, does not endorse this blog.


Sources:

Karen Northon, 2014 Arctic Sea Ice Minimum Sixth Lowest on Record, http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/september/2014-arctic-sea-ice-minimum-sixth-lowest-on-record (last visited Oct. 13, 2014).

Gov’t Accountability Office, Alaska Native Villages: Limited Progress Has Been Made on Relocating Villages Threatened by Flooding and Erosion 7, 12, 24-27 (June 2009), http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09551.pdf.

Robin Bronen, Climate-Induced Displacement of Alaska Native Communities 1-2, 4-9, 12-14, 19 (Jan. 30, 2013), http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Papers/2013/1/30%20arctic%20alaska%20bronen/30%20climate%20alaska%20bronen%20paper.pdf.

U.S. Army Corps. Of Engineers, Study Findings and Technical Report: Alaska Baseline Erosion Assessment 4-7 (Mar. 2009), http://www.climatechange.alaska.gov/docs/iaw_USACE_erosion_rpt.pdf.

Suzanne Goldenberg, Alaska on the edge: Newtok’s residents race to stop village falling into sea, The Guardian, May 13, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/interactive/2013/may/13/newtok-alaska-climate-change-refugees.

Gary P. Kofinas et al., Resilience of Athabascan subsistence systems to interior Alaska’s changing climate (July 8, 2010), http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals/pnw_2010_kofinas001.pdf.

U.S. Forest Service, Climate Change: Anticipated Effects on Ecosystem Services and Potential Actions by the Alaska Region 12 (2010), http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsbdev2_038171.pdf.

John Callaway, A Changing Climate: Consequences for Subsistence Communities, http://www.nps.gov/archeology/months/callaway.pdf (last visited Oct. 13, 2014).

Harvey Liefert, Parasites spread across the Arctic under the “new normal” (July 2, 2014), http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/parasites-spread-across-arctic-under-new-normal.