The Arctic Sounder
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
News

Annual Arctic Report Card focuses on Indigenous knowledge and resilience after warmest summer on record

With the warmest summer ever recorded in 2023, Arctic communities and ecosystems are continuing to see dramatic changes. Spikes and declines in salmon populations, stronger and more frequent storms and eroding coastlines all correlate with the warming climate.

Yet the shifts also brought about resilience and collaboration between scientists and Indigenous knowledge holders.

Those were some of the takeaways from the 2023 Arctic Report Card, released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This year’s report — which annually documents changes in snow cover, sea ice and air and ocean temperatures — showed that the average summer surface air temperature was 43 degrees Fahrenheit, the warmest ever observed in the Arctic.

Overall, the Arctic saw its sixth-warmest year on record, the report says. Sea ice extent also continued to decline, and heavy precipitation events broke records across the region, continuing the trend for a warmer and wetter Arctic — with some exceptions, such as a dry summer in northern Canada, which led to record wildfires.

[5 signs the far north endured a record-hot summer]

Extreme highs and lows in salmon numbers

One of the consequences of warmer temperatures the report zoomed in on was salmon numbers, crucial for the food security of many Indigenous communities in Alaska, as well as for commercial fishing.

ADVERTISEMENT

In recent years, king and chum salmon in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers saw record lows in abundance, while sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay and the Kuskokwim River thrived in warmer conditions and reached record high numbers.

“This isn’t just numbers on a spreadsheet or just lines on a graph; this really affects peoples’ lives,” said Erik Schoen, lead author of the salmon chapter and a fisheries scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center. “People have been linked to salmon in Alaska for over 12,000 years. ... People rely on different species of salmon in different areas for food, for cultural value, for jobs and cash income.”

King salmon runs have been declining for years, but in 2022 the Yukon River bottomed out at all-time record low returns, with less than 20% of the average run coming back.

The chum returns, which had been doing well for a long time, abruptly collapsed in the past five years across the region, falling to a record low in 2021, when only 8% of the long-term average fish returned, Schoen said.

“It was like they were missing a zero on the total numbers of fish that came back,” he said.

The decline led to fishery closures on the Yukon River and other tributaries and hurt Indigenous communities relying on the harvest for subsistence.

“In a lot of places, those are the main two fisheries resources: There’s kings and there’s chums,” Schoen said. “When both of them didn’t come back in enough numbers to allow any fishing for several years in a row, that had huge impacts on people.”

Declining fisheries and some fishing closures have continued into 2023.

While the cause of the decline is complex, it is likely linked to changes in the water temperature, Schoen said.

Research shows that when Yukon River kings swim upstream to spawn and encounter above-average water temperatures and low flows, they don’t produce as many offspring, Schoen said. Plus, in high temperatures, king salmon also produce proteins that show heat stress.

For chum salmon, marine heat waves in the Bering Sea have been linked to the collapse: When juvenile chum salmon were experiencing warmer water temperatures, they ate lower-quality food and put on less fat.

Meanwhile, the commercial fishery in Bristol Bay and the Kuskokwim River almost doubled the 30-year average of sockeye salmon in 2022, catching more fish than any other year. The spike might be connected to young sockeye growing faster in warmer lakes with more plankton.

“These extreme ups and downs (show that) the traditional patterns that Alaskans are used to, that we rely on, are being disrupted, and it’s linked in part to climate,” Schoen said.

While changing climate is a global issue, Schoen said there are actions people can take locally “to help give salmon a fighting chance in a bad situation.”

“That includes things like incorporating Indigenous perspectives and local knowledge into fishery science and management that can improve the outcomes,” he said. “It can also help local communities have more buy-in and more trust in the process.”

Centering local Indigenous knowledge in Arctic research

The 2023 Arctic Report Card focused heavily on working with local communities in Arctic research and decision-making.

The report highlights the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub — the partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers and Iñupiaq observers who, since 2006, have documented the changing environment and how those changes affect infrastructure, traditional harvests and travel safety.

ADVERTISEMENT

“We are putting the perspectives and voices of the observers and their knowledge center stage,” said Roberta Glenn, lead author of the chapter and AAOKH’s project coordinator and community liaison. “When you speak about your home community, when you speak about the changes you see, that’s effective, that resonates with people, and when it’s coming from someone who lives in the Arctic, you know, that can create change.”

[Indigenous knowledge holders share thousands of observations on the changing Arctic in a new study]

Each paragraph in the report chapter — called “Nunaaqqit Savaqatigivlugich,” Iñupiat for “working with communities” — begins with quotes from the observers and includes local history and scientific information, said Glenn who was born and raised in Utqiaġvik.

“Pairing local observations with scientific data gives us an opportunity to tell a more complete story of what changes are happening,” Glenn said.

Through the partnership, observers have shared how increasing coastal storms contributed to flooding and erosion in communities, damaging roads and buildings, as well as community ice cellars critical to Indigenous food security and cultural preservation.

“The waves and storms that we get now are now going over the high water mark and back into a tundra,” said a Kotzebue observer Bobby Schaeffer. “It exposes a lot of permafrost, and we lost a tremendous amount of acreage on our coastline.”

Schaeffer said he is concerned about how the warming environment is going to affect the salmon, birds and marine animals crucial for Northwest Alaska residents’ food security.

“We’re are ringside right now, watching the worst of it,” he said. “Nothing is going to change until the world accepts the fact that we have a problem and then they start making public policies to try to save our planet.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Observers have also described how weather changes led to shifts in where and when they can fish and hunt waterfowl, caribou and marine mammals. One section described how changing wind patterns in the Utqiaġvik area pushed the sea ice west of town, closing the open water. That led polar bears and seals east and improved access to hunting areas.

“We don’t think of ourselves as victims of climate change or the environment,” Glenn said. “We’re able to go out and hunt animals and live lifestyles rich with cultural tradition.”

In the long term, the Knowledge Hub strives to build collaboration between wildlife co-management organizations, tribal governments and federal agencies that could use observations to improve forecasts, inform hunters on ice conditions and support decisions on subsistence harvest regulations.

“Climate change is happening,” Glenn said. “But we are strong. We have ideas about how to move forward and we’re ready to share with whoever wants to listen.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.