Opinions

A sense of urgency in the Bering Sea

Alaska’s Bering Sea coast is suffering from dramatic climate changes, and communities are taking urgent action against these threats. The University of Alaska Fairbanks and its partners are working to support communities in their path toward climate resilience. The success of this work relies on strong local to statewide collaboration and a deep respect for the traditional knowledge and practices of Alaska Native people in the region. Programs like UAF and Alaska Sea Grant’s Adapt Alaska collaborative that work alongside communities to learn, share and build resilience in a changing climate deserve our attention and continued support.

For thousands of years, Alaska Native people along the Bering Sea have hunted, fished and gathered wild resources, relying on the land and sea to sustain their ways of life. A 2017 study found that in Bristol Bay the average person harvests 210 pounds of wild resources a year; the number increases to 379 pounds in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, and 402 pounds in the Bering Strait!

Climate change is having an impact on these traditional harvest activities, affecting access to and availability of culturally and nutritionally important foods. For example, in the northern Bering Sea, lack of stable pack ice makes walrus and seal hunters wary of venturing out. One hunter remarked that in the past, they planned trips weeks in advance. Today, hunts happen at the last minute, when ice conditions are just right.

Adapting to change has always been a means of success and survival. But rapid warming in the Arctic is bringing changes unlike anything in recorded history, and Bering Sea residents are seeking urgent action.

Failing infrastructure and transportation are compounding food security concerns. Sea ice used to buffer coastal communities from early winter storms. Now, ice forms later, allowing wind and waves to erode the soft soils of thawing permafrost along coastal bluffs. The soils underlying infrastructure commonly located along the shoreline, like docks, gasoline and heating fuel tanks, and schools, are washing away. These winter storm effects are felt in far inland upriver systems. For example, in 2019 alone, Napakiak lost 100 feet of shoreline, leaving critical infrastructure exposed.

Adding to these stressors is an increase in shipping traffic and oil and gas exploration in the Bering and Chukchi Sea waters. A 2019 workshop gathered Bering Sea elders to share their knowledge and concerns regarding economic and social disruptions from oil spills. For these elders, it was not a question of if a human-caused disaster will occur, but when. The Bering Sea fishery is one of the largest in the world, with abundant non-salmon fish such as pollock and cod harvested, as well as a multiple crab species. A disaster would have a profound impact on local subsistence users and a fishery important for national food security.

Alaska’s Indigenous communities have always been resilient and adaptive, but climate change and maintaining modern infrastructure are posing new and more urgent challenges that require collaborative solutions.

I work as the Coastal Community Resilience Specialist at Alaska Sea Grant, a 50-year collaboration between NOAA and UAF that helps build capacity for resilience in coastal communities by leveraging university resources. Specifically, I bring data and decision support tools to communities and host workshops that help identify critical needs. My position is also supported by the UAF Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the International Arctic Research Center.

Sharing stories of resilience is another important way that my work supports capacity building in rural Alaska. The Adapt Alaska online tool, which I co-created, provides resources to communities responding to change. Adapt Alaska helps tell stories of people finding unique and innovative ways to build resilience and foster better community well-being, then share them with communities responding to similar threats.

These efforts, and others like Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Program, which embeds agents in coastal communities across Alaska, ensure that both local experiences and voices and university resources are leveraged and shared to collaboratively address some of the most pressing challenges of the day. These collaborations are great examples of how the university, partners and communities are working together for a better tomorrow.

Davin Holen, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and Coastal Community Resilience Specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. You can learn more about Alaska’s changing climate and the impact on rural communities through UAF and Alaska Sea Grant’s website, adaptalaska.org.

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