Witnessing climate change in Gambell

I live in Gambell, in the middle of the Bering Sea on St. Lawrence Island, where we are directly affected by climate change. There’s no doubt that climate change is real, is manmade and will not go away on its own. Our people cannot avoid this reality that we are witness to. We are experiencing the traumatic impacts of climate change, which is threatening the future of my people’s existence as we have lived for thousands of years. Therefore, it is imperative that solutions come from all voices, including voices of Gambell. We will not be ignored or silenced.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s voice is critical in Washington, D.C., to both advocate for environmental and health justice for Alaskans and to stop oil, gas and plastic production by industries that cause the most harm to our home, our planet.

As a child, I remember sledding on snowbanks in October and watching sea ice packing during November. With higher temperatures, there is significantly less sea ice than in previous years. As I write, we have yet to see sea ice reach the Utqiagvik shores. This makes our home vulnerable to coastal erosion and flooding. During the fall of 2018, storms have been the worst ever seen, causing coastal erosion of 50 plus feet with visible drastic changes in coastal areas. Gambell’s west coast, on St. Lawrence Island, is washing away into the Bering Sea. I worry: Will Gambell follow a similar fate as Newtok, a village now being relocated due to catastrophic damage from climate change? Gambell has been our home for thousands of years. A fate like Newtok’s would devastate our people, our way of life and our unique culture.

July 2019 was the hottest month recorded in Alaska. It was dangerously dry with a record number of wildfires, burning 2.4 million acres of land. I noticed that St. Lawrence Island and mainland Alaska had alarming numbers of pink salmon die-offs in rivers before salmon were able to spawn. Both the sea and rivers were alarmingly warm. This is NOT normal. For the fifth consecutive year, we’ve noticed dead seabirds washing up on our shores, die-offs due to shellfish poisoning from toxic algal bloom and starvation from a lack of food available to them, a result of rising temperatures due to climate change. It was also reported that walruses were found dead from a similar fate. There is a food chain reaction that not only poisons and kills seabirds but also those animals that eat seabirds.

If this were not enough, toxic chemicals from industry and a legacy of military pollutants and plastics, derived from fossil fuels, have been also linked to climate change, warming our planet and creating health hazards that specifically affect the northern and Arctic regions. The life cycle of plastics will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Tons of pollutants are transported to the Arctic through global distillation, or grasshopper effect. These pollutants are linked to cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive and developmental injury. Marine mammals in the Arctic have been tested positive for PCBs and flame retardants. These marine mammals are our traditional foods. As a result, we are being contaminated without our consent due to our reliance on our subsistence foods. We depend on the sea for our way of life. Marine animals and vegetation also provide us with materials used for our clothing, tools and crafts, art and traditional practices important to our culture.

There’s no doubt that we need to come to the table to bring more powerfully our voices and to raise public and political consciousness on the impacts of climate change, chemicals and plastics. I ask our elected leaders to please hear our voices. We must be a part of a just transition, solution-driven process that protects indigenous culture and our way of life. Let’s take action together!

Erika Apatiki, a Yupik resident of Gambell, is a part-time community health researcher for Alaska Community Action on Toxics. She has served on Gambell’s city council, as well as two terms as its mayor.

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