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Observations of Climate Change from Indigenous Alaskans

Voando sobre Fish Lake. Mayoreak Ashoona, 1987.

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 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.

Espíritos de Pássaros. Napachie Pootoogook, 1960.

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.

Corvo de Shartoweetok. Mayoreak Ashoona, 1983.

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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