Heat waves. Coastal erosion. Shortened salmon runs. Across Alaska, there are clear signs that the climate is changing.

What’s not always so clear is how different regions and individual communities will be affected, or how they should prepare for the changes still to come.

At the 2019 Alaska Tribal Conference on Environmental Management, known as ATCEM, in November, climate change was a common thread woven throughout the weeklong event.

“Before this year, we had a specific track just for climate change issues,” said Oxcenia O’Domin, who co-leads ATCEM with her colleague Desirae Roehl.

This year, organizers of the 25-year-old conference, which attracts about 500 environmental and community health professionals and local leaders from around the state, decided that climate change could no longer be considered a standalone issue; it’s relevant to every subject the gathering covers, from community health to public utilities to contamination support.

“We realized that climate change isn’t just one topic,” O’Domin said. “It touches the whole community and every aspect, from the natural land to infrastructure.”

The conference also draws attendees from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other state and federal agencies. Topics range from household water use and tick-borne pathogens to spill response, historic preservation, and how to hire the right environmental consultant. The gathering is an opportunity to have what O’Domin calls “let’s sit down and have some tea” conversations -- in-depth discussions about environmental health topics.

Increasingly, those conversations share a common theme: responding to the challenges raised by climate change.

Storytelling and science

ATCEM is a conference developed specifically for and by Alaska Native people, and its structure is deeply rooted in cultural traditions. Storytelling plays a central role as presenters from around the state share perspectives and events from their communities. The stories shared at this year’s conference ranged from fish die-off in White Mountain to last summer’s emergency wildfire evacuation in Levelock.

“They were very, very touching,” O’Domin said. “(Levelock council member Janice Chukwak) talked about how grateful they were for all the volunteers to come in from across the state, and how they worked tirelessly to save the homes so people who had to evacuate had a home to go back to.”

But the stories shared at ATCEM are more than personal experiences; they’re learning opportunities. Chukwak talked not just about the fire, but about the steps the village has taken -- and the steps other communities can take -- since the evacuation.

“They didn’t have an emergency evacuation plan,” O’Domin said. “She talked about how they’re now working towards having a plan and encouraged everybody else to develop plans and know what resources they have available. She brought in some of the health effects of breathing in the wildfire smoke.”

Chukwak presented alongside representatives from the State of Alaska who talked about wildfire prevention and response. The combination of first-person sharing and technical information is common in ATCEM presentations.

“When we’re planning, we try to pair up those community stories with the scientific story and the technical story so that our audience can pull from both sides -- relate to that emotional side of what’s going on in the community, but also understand the science behind it,” O’Domin said.

Statewide data collection underway

The stories shared at ATCEM from around Alaska are compelling, but even the best anecdotes don’t necessarily translate to data. Conference organizers are trying to change that.

“We get observations from all over the state about a really wide variety of phenomena -- unusual species sightings, unusual weather, things like that,” said Erica Lujan, who coordinates ANTHC’s statewide network of local environmental observers, the LEO network. “Sometimes we don’t get a lot of information about what happens after that in terms of impact to the community and what work they have done, or plan to do, to address those impacts.”

In order to start assembling a more complete picture of what’s changing and where, this year’s ATCEM attendees were invited to complete a survey about what’s happening in their regions.

“These are people who know their communities very well,” Lujan said. “We’re hoping that they’ll be able to comment on what sort of environmental challenges they’re facing, what work they’ve done, and what resources they need to make their projects successful.”

Respondents are being asked about the environmental health issues that have most impacted their communities, like fires, water security, infrastructure damage related to erosion and permafrost thaw, or changes to the subsistence harvest.

“Alaskan environments are changing very rapidly, and this survey will hopefully give us an opportunity to better understand what is happening where, and how that has changed from previous years,” Lujan said.

While specific challenges vary by region, she added, they’re all part of an overall pattern of change: “It’s important to be able to stitch those together into a larger picture of environmental health across the state.”

The survey data will be compiled and analyzed in early 2020. While the results aren’t yet available, informal polling done at the conference hinted at the likely responses.

“We did do just a hand raise in a plenary (session) with probably over 400 people in the room, asking, ‘Did you experience significant impacts from this or that,’” said Mike Brubaker, director of ANTHC’s Community Environmental Health Services department. “As you might expect, two of the big ones were changes in air quality and also changes in harvest success for subsistence foods.”

Regionally, he added, most of southern Alaska also reported drought conditions and increased need for water conservation measures due to decreased rain and snow pack.

“I don’t think there are any communities in Alaska that are not significantly impacted,” Brubaker said.

ATCEM’s data should help quantify the effects of climate change and track them on an annual basis.

“We will use the survey results to create an ATCEM environmental statement that we will post on the website as an educational resource for Tribes, agencies and policy makers,” Lujan said.

Accepting and adapting to change

Brubaker, whose department organizes the conference, said in its 25-year lifespan, ATCEM has seen a major boom in rural problem-solving. Around the time ATCEM was launched, he said, the EPA also started providing funding for Tribes to establish their own environmental programs. As those programs have grown, innovation has started to flourish at the local and regional level. Communities have come up with alternative energy solutions, solid waste cleanup and recycling programs, and spill response systems, among other creative initiatives.

“The people at this conference are very front-line,” Brubaker said. “They are first-person witnesses to climate change impacts. It’s written into their job description to help deal with it.”

O’Domin recalled how one ATCEM attendee, Jaclyn Christensen, spoke in a general session about recent events in Port Heiden. There the community has been feeling the impacts of coastal erosion for decades, moving homes, buildings and even gravesites further inland as the shoreline recedes. This fall, the strip of land separating Goldfish Lake and Bristol Bay eroded, causing the lake to spill into the ocean.

“It was a hard ask to say ‘Can you get up and share your story?’” O’Domin said. “It was so raw. She talked about how some of the solutions were to ‘Well, just move your village.’ But they already did that, and they’re wondering how far they need to go.”

Although it was an emotional story, she added, it ended with a message of hope.

“Jaclyn talked about how resilient they are, that they weren’t leaving the community, that they were going to adapt no matter what it took,” O’Domin said.

And that’s the goal of sharing these stories, ATCEM organizers say: to look at the challenges facing Alaska and work together to find solutions.

“One thing we’ve learned is when you talk about big environmental impacts, whether it’s an oil spill or climate change, it can be very concerning and you can feel a certain sense of hopelessness about it when you look at the big picture,” Brubaker said.

That hopelessness starts to fade, he said, when you hear from communities that are finding innovative ways to address everything from coastal erosion to air quality to wastewater management to emergency preparedness.

“When you get to the ‘roll up your sleeves and let’s do something about it,’ it’s very empowering,” Brubaker said. “They’re moving beyond the emotional trauma of having to face loss of the traditional place where you’re from and thinking strategically about how to make their communities better and more resilient in a new location or a new way.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.