The Arctic Sounder

Thinning ice and shrinking caribou hurt not only safety and food security but also mental health

Declining salmon and thinning ice affect not only food security and physical safety but also the mental health of the Arctic residents, a new report finds.

Last month, the U.S. government released the fifth National Climate Assessment, a report that describes climate changes, projects future conditions and evaluates adaptation and mitigation options.

The Alaska chapter of the report was created by scientists, residents, as well as experts from health and fishing industries, said Adelheid Herrmann, a researcher who works for the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy under the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks. Warming waters causing a decline in salmon and permafrost thaw and storms damaging the infrastructure were among the topics they discussed.

“It’s happening to all of us, all over the state,” Herrmann said. “It’s happening to all of us. All over the state,” Herrmann said. “Sometimes it appears that more is happening to coastal people because of the loss of sea ice. But ... all the way up the Yukon, there’s erosion.”

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

In the Arctic, the changes to ecosystems have their unique face: Chum salmon and moose appear higher up north than before and caribou shift their migration patterns.

“We prioritized describing the changes that people are already seeing or will see in the future —such as changing population size and/or geographic distribution of fish species—and how that might affect Alaskans’ livelihoods,” Danielle Meeker, a sustained assessment specialist with ACCAP, told University of Alaska Fairbanks. “I believe that this approach aligns better with how many Alaskans are thinking about climate change, based on their own experiences.”


Another example highlighted in the report was how on the North Slope — and in other parts of the state — erosion damages residential and commercial infrastructure. For oil development, industry professionals need to put in more effort “to keep the ground cold and solid to support roads, pipelines, and buildings, and these are short-term solutions,” the report said. Thawing permafrost is expected to drive up the costs of North Slope operations, and then operations elsewhere.

The changes in the environment add stressors to the residents of the Arctic, many of whom are already dealing with historical and personal traumas, Herrmann said. Some are losing their ability to go out and hunt because animals don’t visit their area in the same numbers or at the same time. Others worry that they don’t know how drastically and quickly their environment is going to change.

Even the growing number of requests from scientists to collaborate in numerous Arctic studies can add stress to residents in rural Alaska communities.

“In addition to all that you’re dealing with,” Herrmann said, “you have to deal with climate change and climate grief and losses related to climate.”

[Western Alaska salmon crisis affects physical and mental health, residents say]

Deaths associated with changing ice conditions can pose a challenge not only to those directly affected, the report said. Instead, these effects can ripple across communities, intimately connected by culture and family ties.

Kotzebue Elder Gladys I’yiiqpak Pungowiyi said in the report that over the years, many skilled hunters were lost when they went out hunting and fell through the ice.

“I’ve been called to pray,” Pungowiyi said in the report. “On Facebook, there are mothers, grandmothers requesting prayer for their lost loved ones who fall through the ice and their families who are going through a hard time. Especially when they’re not found. I’ve been called to pray for people that are affected mentally.”

Adapting to these growing stressors can be costly, Herrmann said, and will require collaboration between agencies and tribes. That capacity is often lacking at the local level, but, she said, more and more people step up to help their communities adapt, find solutions and receive funding.

To address the challenges of thinning ice, some communities — such as Bethel Search and Rescue — create online resources to track ice safety. In Utqiaġvik, whalers and scientists annually map ice trails to make sure they are safe for travel.


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.