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Alaska: Climate change threatens indigenous traditions

Krysti Shallenberger
October 22, 2019

Indigenous groups in the US state of Alaska, also referred to as Alaska Natives, have already seen climate change disrupt their subsistence way of life. But they are trying to adapt.

Melting sea ice with mountains in the background
Image: Imago Images/ingimage

Teresa Hunter lives in Chuathbaluk, a Yup'ik village in the southwest of Alaska. The name means "The Great Blueberry."

Chuathbulak is a tiny village of less than 100 people that exists off the road system. The only way to get there is by boat or plane in the summer, and by plane or driving on frozen rivers and the tundra during the winter. 

Like many rural Alaska Native communities, Chuathbulak doesn't have a hospital, and its two grocery stores mostly stock food that doesn't spoil because it has to be flown in. Fresh produce, like oranges or lettuce, is a rare treat. And food there typically costs four times as much as in the Lower 48 — which is what Alaskans call the rest of the US states except for Hawaii.

Read more: Forest fires in Alaska: A ticking climate time bomb

Though some in the local population have swapped the traditional sod houses and dog teams for frame homes, snowmobiles, motorboats and all-terrain vehicles in recent decades, most still fish, hunt and forage for their food. Just as their ancestors did.

Hunter is among them, and says the traditional way of life also helps keep her grocery bills low. But she is starting to notice climate change impacting a well-practiced routine. Summers are hotter, and winters are getting warmer. 

USA Alaska Chuathbulak
The tiny village of Chuathbulak overlooking the Kuskokwim RiverImage: DW/K. Shallenberger
Alaska Native Teresa Hunter shows her blueberry harvest
Teresa Hunter has lived in time with nature for many yearsImage: DW/K. Shallenberger

Hunter said in past years, the salmon would come up first through the Kuskokwim River in June and the berries would be ready for picking in August. But now the berries are ripening earlier, overlapping with the fishing season. That means people have to fish and harvest fruit at the same time in order to store enough food for the winter.

"It's a little difficult to do both at once," Hunter told DW. "[You have to] worry about your fish and then [have to] think of your berries."

Elders predicted climate change

This summer's heat wave was another sign of climate change. It sent temperatures up to 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in early July — a first in places such as Alaska's biggest city, Anchorage. 

When Enakenty Sallison, who lives in Bethel, one of western Alaska's hub towns, went fishing during the spell of intense heat, he found dead salmon. 

"I didn't know why they were dying until I read this article saying the heat wave was what was killing them," Sallison said.

Climate change in Alaska

Following media reports of further sightings in a tributary of the Yukon River, north of Bethel, biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the University of Alaska Fairbanks began to research the die-off. 

But some in western Alaska say climate change is not a surprise. Many have heard the elders passing down stories about climate change and how to prepare for it. 

Hunter remembers an elder coming to her school when she was a teenager and saying "down states weather" would come up here to Alaska.

"I wonder how he [knew] this stuff even though he couldn't read," she said. "Sure enough, we're having the weather that he's talking about."

She worries that the changing weather will make it harder for her grandchildren to fish and hunt, and that it will become even more challenging to travel in the winter as the ice freezes later and is no longer as thick. 

Read more: Alaska's sea ice loss means boom in polar bear tourism

Search and rescue groups, usually made up of volunteers from local villages, are already seeing the consequences of higher temperatures — 2016 was the warmest winter on record for Alaska, and 2018 the second warmest. 

This year, four people died in the southwest of Alaska driving their snow machines into open water or falling through thin ice. Bethel Search and Rescue volunteer Mark Leary recovered some of the bodies.

"People are, they have to, [push] the envelope of safety so that they can start traveling by their own means," Leary said. 

He says airports are becoming ever more crowded as people turn to planes to get to bigger hubs, like Bethel, where they can find medical help or shop for groceries not available in the village stores. 

Thinning ice, shifting communities

Erosion is another big challenge in western Alaska, where most communities have been established near a river or on the Bering Sea coast, close to their main food source. Though erosion isn't new, as the ocean warms the sea ice that acts as coastal protection is weakening. And that means the shoreline is creeping closer to established villages. The thawing permafrost also destabilizes the ground beneath homes.

Read more: Climate change: A village falls into the sea

Newtok, a coastal village that's vulnerable to ocean storms, is already moving its 350 residents 14 kilometers (9 miles) away. The new location, called Mertarvik, is on Nelson Island, on higher ground and is built upon solid bedrock.

USA Alaska Quinhagak
Boat and plane are the only means of accessing some communities in this part of AlaskaImage: DW/K. Shallenberger
The Kanektok River eats away at a road in Quinhagak
In places like Quinhagak, coastal erosion is forcing many to consider relocationImage: DW/K. Shallenberger

South of Newtok, the village of Quinhagak is also facing erosion along its coastline and from the Kanektok River that runs through it. Tribal leaders are also starting to consider a move.

"I think it's time to start preparing. It's coming, there's no way about it," Warren Jones, one of the village's leaders and the main advocate for moving, told DW. "We have to relocate to better ground."

With the 2018 National Climate Assessment — a report drafted every four years and sent to the US Congress and president — stating that Alaska is at the front lines of climate change, and Alaska Natives poised to feel the brunt of our warming world, Jones hopes more villages will consider following Newtok's lead.

In the meantime, tribal leaders in southwest Alaska have been meeting with state government officials and local organizations to draft a climate adaptation plan. 

While she waits for the outcome, Teresa Hunter plans to adapt in her own way, by bartering her berries for more salmon. 

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