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Army of volunteers compiles possible evidence of climate change in Alaska

A program with hundreds of volunteers scattered around rural Alaska has been collecting reports of bizarre animals, strange afflictions and unexplained deaths, offering researchers a broad view of how climate change might be affecting Alaska's environment. Pictured is a ringed seal found suffering from a mystery ailment in Northern Alaska in 2011. North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management photo

Dead seals littering beaches, bolts of fur dangling from deer, white worms squiggling in the meat of freshly killed grouse.

Incidents like these are some of the dozens of reports from the front lines of climate change in rural Alaska, where a volunteer army of observers is documenting unusual events to warn of potential health threats as new plants, bugs and animals migrate to the Far North.

Spread across the state in more than 100 villages, 230 Alaska Native volunteers are part of a 2-year-old program organized by the Center for Climate and Health at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

"The environment is changing really fast and these are people who are familiar with the world around them," said Michael Brubaker, a founder of the climate center. "Their reports are flares sent up to say this is something we're seeing that we believe is unusual or new."

Since January 2012, the Local Environmental Observers, as they're called, have fired off photos, notes or specimens of everything from bizarre lightning storms to wayward birds to possibly-invasive creepy-crawlies. Many are environmental managers working for their local tribal office, and they've been trained on how best to document what they're seeing, Brubaker said.

Bizarre reports

Their reports, such as the mourning dove that ended up far from its normal range near the Arctic Circle in Shishmaref village, have been organized onto an Alaska map and database for easy reference.

Odd insects that crawl like spiders and open and close their pincers while walking have been spotted in Kotzebue, said local observer Maija Lukin.

"Insects that we have never seen are a threat to the ecosystem that we have here," she wrote. "We don't need new insects arriving and eating anything except mosquitoes!"

The postings are forwarded to biologists, meteorologists and other scientists. Sometimes, they identify the creatures. Some respond with advice on whether subsistence foods are still edible, such as the several grouse with white worms shot by a hunter last fall.  

The worms in the photos are spread from bird to bird by bugs, said Richard Merizon, a state biologist. "Humans are not susceptible (the worm itself is not infectious to anything, bird or human). The presence of the parasite does not affect the edibility of the bird," he wrote.

As for the Kotzebue insects, they might be scorpionflies, according to the pest management program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but further analysis is needed. And the eagle with a large tumor on its eye photographed in King Salmon this summer? That image awaits an explanation from the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka.

Taken together, the events can provide insight into important trends, such as the geographic range of deaths from sick seals that washed onto Alaska's beaches, part of an "unusual mortality event" that began two years ago and prompted an international investigation by researchers. Why scores of seals got sick and died in that event is still unknown.

Environmental observers in Northwest Alaska provided input on the affliction through the climate center's network, posting five reports of sick-looking seals.

Documenting climate change effects

Some of the events surely have nothing to do with climate change, like the stink bugs that arrived at King Cove in a package sent from the East Coast, or the bears that went on a chicken-killing rampage in Healy in the Interior last year.

But other reports could offer important insight into the effects of climate change, like the growing spruce-bark beetle infestations worrying Alaskans above the Arctic Circle in the villages of Fort Yukon and White Mountain.

"Though the dead trees are good for fuel, we are worried about the effects of large infestation and about wildlife," wrote observer Rocky James from Fort Yukon.

As for the deer losing clumps of fur in the old mining town of Hollis in Southeast Alaska, that may not be unusual.

"It is not uncommon to get reports of patches of hair loss in deer," said state state wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen.

Then again, it may be an advancing wildlife disease. The Sitka black-tailed deer may be experiencing the hair-loss syndrome that has caused deer deaths in the northwestern U.S. and Canada, according to a scientist from Canada, Helen Schwantje, who also weighed in.

"The theory is that it might be moving into Alaska," said Brubaker. "And the idea is now that it's archived on map, if we get another case, we can provide a fuller picture to experts."

That's part of the value of the climate center's effort, which has also recently expanded into Canada and has provided time-lapse cameras to a few erosion-threatened villages, such as St. Michael, to track land-loss.

"It's a place for people to connect and share," said Brubaker, one that combines local and outside expertise to present a fuller picture of climate change.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com.