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Warming climate triggers sweeping change for some Alaska Natives

Doug O'Harra
School District of St. Mary’s, Alaska

Warmer winters, thinner ice, stranger weather -- climate change has begun to undermine subsistence life along the Yukon River, according to a new federal study that collected and analyzed observations by Native residents in two southwestern Alaska villages.

"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," say the researchers in this story about their work that was posted by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The study, published this month in the journal of Human Organization, found that hunters and elders in the Yup'ik communities of St. Mary's and Pitka's Point noticed a litany of dramatic climate shifts over the course of their lives, forcing changes in how they gather food and wood while making it more difficult to read the sky correctly before heading out into the tundra.

Among the findings:

  • The weather seems to change more quickly than it used to -- sometimes growing unexpectedly worse -- making it harder to plan trips into the country to hunt or gather food.
  • Spring snow depth has decreased, leading to failures in the summer crop of salmonberries -- an important food staple -- once the tundra dries out.
  • Spring flooding doesn't last as long, and the quicker plunge in river levels following breakup has an unexpected consequence. The year's new supply of driftwood logs -- traditionally used to replenish firewood caches for heating homes -- now sometimes gets stranded away from the riverbank in brush, where it's harder to find, haul out and cut up.
  • Rivers themselves don't freeze as hard or as long during winter, and contain larger and more frequent spans of open water, making travel by snowmachines and dog team dangerous. During summer, more extensive gravel bars make boating more difficult.
  • Lots more moose; fewer ptarmigan.

"From what I remember, you'd be lucky if you went out hunting and you'd see maybe eight (moose)," one long-time hunter told the scientists. "Today you can see eight in a bunch."

Seeking indigenous knowledge of climate change

The fieldwork took place in the spring of 2009, when the scientists conducted in-depth interviews with 10 men and three women from the two villages, located a few miles apart near the confluence of the Andreafsky and Yukon rivers, almost 450 miles due west of Anchorage.  Part of the goal was to focus on an inland subsistence community -- most previous studies of Native perceptions of climate change have scrutinized coastal villages.

The scientists also compared the observations to records of temperatures and precipitation, as well as studies of changes in vegetation and game, and found the Native observations tracked and illuminated those made by western scientists.

"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," explained USGS social scientist Nicole Herman-Mercer, who conducted the project with two co-authors, in this story. "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." 

Almost all of the people interviewed noted that the weather has become much warmer and more unpredictable than when they were young.

"Those old people noticed it first," one respondent said. "They're not around anymore, they're all underground. They used to tell me, 'What's going on with this weather?' They noticed, sometimes it's too hot, sometimes it's too cold."

"You can't plan," added another. "You don’t know what's going to happen, cause like I said, it will be bad a couple of days, then clear up, and you think it's going to be good, it'd clear up for a day or two and then just right back again. And you don't know want to get caught out in the country in weather like that."

An elder added: "… Trees get green too fast, things growing underground too fast, so fast."

Eight of the 13 people told the scientists that they had noticed a transformation in the amount and kind of precipitation over their lifetimes, with far less snow falling during warmer, rainier winters. Others noted changes in game and plant growth.

"There's no more ptarmigan," one said. "We don't see even the birds like the ducks and geese, especially the ducks, you hardly ever see the ducks."

"Salmonberries getting fewer, that's due to lack of snow," added another. "See what's happening is, after the snow melts right away the tundra dries up … and they can't grow when it's dry."

Some elders also told the scientists that they thought people were not treating animals properly, leading to scarcity in some species. Some said salmon were running fewer and smaller. Others mentioned that they thought some of the harvested game and fish had been unhealthy.

Dangerous open water

A woman told them: "… in the moose meat they look like warts that are in the fatty tissue and also in the salmon, the chum, or chinooks, they start to have what look like pus pockets underneath the skin. And that's something really new that I have not seen before, the fact that I've been cutting fish just about my whole life."

Wood gathering for fuel has become more difficult due to lower flows in the spring, several people told the scientists. Summer sandbars have become more common.

"Spring time we count on high water to get our logs coming down the river, up the Yukon, collect our wood come spring," one person told the scientists. "Last spring it was a little bit but water came and then dropped, just dropped and the wood ended up back inside the trees and we couldn’t get to them."

Open channels and thinner ice has made a challenging travel corridor even more treacherous, increasing the chances that people will drive into frigid, fast flowing water during the long winter nights.

"It doesn't freeze, it doesn't freeze, people keep drowing there," one person lamented about a hole where the Andreafsky flows into the Yukon.

"I don't know how many people now, especially young people. They've been falling in that hole, I don't know how many people now down there … because that place never freezes. I hate that, other people hate that."

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com