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Villages help monitor effects of climate change

There are some new faces in rural Alaska these days and they're not necessarily a welcome sight.

As a result of a changing climate, new species of fish, insects and plants are sprouting up in remote areas across the state. That's one of the transformations noted in a new climate and health assessment report released by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium last month.

The latest account focuses on seven communities -- Shishmaref, Unalakleet, White Mountain, Stebbins, St. Michael, Golovin and Teller -- in the Bering Strait region, but over the last several years, ANTHC has released several locally driven studies focused on the Arctic and Southwest Alaska.

While each area is unique, there are overwhelming similarities among the reports, including erosion, flooding, river and lake changes, melting permafrost and a variety of new species.

"The idea was to go out and look at the coastal communities up Chukchi way and all along the coast, and also at least one or two river communities and see what people were experiencing," said Michael Brubaker, the director of the consortium's Center for Climate and Health, of the latest effort.

The goal of the 57-page Bering Strait report, formatted with photographs and quotes from residents, along with a wealth of information on the issues, is to show commonalities among the communities and identify overriding priorities in the region.

Over two years, researchers from ANTHC, the Norton Sound Health Corporation and Kawerak Inc. visited the seven communities to talk with locals, do site visits and hold public meetings. The process also involved advisers from many communities, as well as state and federal agencies.

"What we found was that each community had a story to tell and that all the communities were being impacted in a variety of ways from climate change," Brubaker said. "Our goal was to help develop a conversation around climate change in the region that could be used by the tribes and the cities … to help provide a little traction for beginning to develop plans for addressing the bigger challenges."

Since 2011, ANTHC has released 14 reports from communities and regions such as Kivalina, Point Hope, Selawik, Kiana, Noatak, Nuiqsut, Atqasuk, Bristol Bay and the Upper Nushagak River, all of which are available online.

Spruce bark beetle infestations have been noted from Nondalton up to White Mountain, while species of fish and shrubs have been noted in recent years from the High Arctic to the southwest part of the state.

Rivers are more turbid and shallow, while in Selawik, for example, thawing permafrost has caused obvious damage to homes and infrastructure, according the 2012 ANTHC study.

Another commonality among the various studied areas is the change in caribou migrations and patterns, Brubaker said. While the herds are different, the unpredictability of their whereabouts is a common concern.

Hunters in the southwest have had to find other sources of meat, including moose and more fish and waterfowl, he added.

Travel seasons are becoming shorter and more hazardous, with snowmachines, ATVs and other vehicles falling through thinning ice on a regular basis. In Wainwright, as noted in the 2014 report prepared by the consortium, ice cellars are not staying cold enough and food has a higher potential to spoil.

Community members observing changes are encouraged to sign on to the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network, a statewide network of environmental specialists who track and discuss changes or events that are being experienced across Alaska. The website has a database of occurrences and observations from every corner of the state and helps put locals in touch with experts who can potentially give more information. Changes to flora and fauna are becoming increasingly common, as is indicated by the large amount of firsthand accounts on the network.

"One thing that surprised me when we were traveling around (the Bering Strait region) was the number of new insects," said Anahma Shannon, the environmental coordinator at Kawerak Inc. and a co-author of the Bering Strait report. "That was kind of alarming, as were the number of new fish that have never been in these waters before, but I think that's happening all over Alaska."

Another alarming discovery for Shannon was the unearthing of gravesites with the increase in erosion.

"When these bodies are exposed is there a chance that people can get sick again?" she asked.

With all the information collected in the many reports, Brubaker said he hopes it will allow for not only more conversation on the issues, but usable evidence for future solutions.

Already in areas around the Bering Strait, watershed and river monitoring systems are in place, while efforts are in the works to provide resources for coastal communities that are more susceptible to storm surges and subsequent coastal erosion.

Also in the works is a subsistence monitoring initiative through the Environmental Protection Agency's Rural Alaska Monitoring Program. That program will provide sampling kits that would go out to environmental managers and subsistence hunters to allow some sampling of water sources and allow for some baseline testing for shellfish. The initiative would also offer test strips to dip into the blood of a mammal for testing to see what the animal has been exposed to.

"These villages are literally on the forefront of climate change; they're experiencing it at a faster rate," offered Shannon. "They're seeing lakes drying up, they're seeing holes in the earth where it's collapsing, they're witnessing spots where the permafrost has melted out and banks are eroding, some communities are literally falling into the ocean … and I think it was a relief for many of them to talk to experts and voice concerns and be linked up with resources."

The document can be used as a tool when communities are seeking funding or more scientific studies and collaborations, Shannon added.

The reports will also offer some planning guidance for engineers hired by local and regional governments for the construction of new homes or infrastructure.

"Every time a new dollar comes into the community for development, we're hoping that planners and engineers work to integrate climate change protections and have thoughtful planning discussions about where they're going build and how they're going to build," Brubaker offered.

In Golovin, the community leaders are pushing for more construction above the village's known flood zone, the first step in a multiphase relocation process.

With airstrips, sewage lagoons, landfills and holding tanks especially susceptible to flooding and storm surges, it's especially important for those working to move or rebuild in these communities to use up-to-date information.

"What's lacking for most communities in Alaska is information that engineering and design companies can use based on, not what's happened in the past, but what's happening now and in the future," Brubaker said. "We're encouraging communities to be aware of this."

For all the climate woes faced by many in remote Alaska, Brubaker pointed out that there is a silver lining to some of the impacts.

Earlier breakup and later freeze-up means a longer maintenance season for crews to work on necessary improvements and general upkeep, while lower snowpack means less money spent on snow management. Warmer temperatures also result in lower energy costs in places where heating fuel is astronomically expensive.

"One of things we're trying to do, too, is turn the conversation a little bit from highlighting all the concerns and problems to starting to talk about the opportunities and important changes that we have to make," he said.

The most recent document was recently brought to Shishmaref and shared with some IRA council members, who responded with gratitude, said Jennifer Demir, with the Norton Sound Health Corporation. Demir was also a co-author on the project.

"They feel like they're finally being heard," Demir said. "And now they have resources to look to. It was very positive to see how involved people were; they want to find solutions for the problems."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.