Climate change is altering the lives of Alaska's natives

October 25, 2011 By Joel N. Shurkin, Inside Science News Service
Winter snow blankets southwest Alaska on January 12, 2011, bringing the varied topography of the region into sharp relief. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite captured this true-color image at 23:20 UTC that same day. Near the upper edge of the image, just left of center, the white arc of the Yukon River Delta protrudes into the ice-covered Bering Sea. The spreading branches of the Yukon River appear blue-white within that arc, creating a design which looks much like a stylized leafless tree on a snowy background. Credit: NASA Goddard

Climate change has altered the lives of Native Alaskans in the state's interior in dramatic, sometimes dangerous ways.

Although the effects of change are well documented along the coast, where higher tides and ferocious storms have threatened native communities, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey has found indigenous people in Alaska's interior also have felt the transformation to a warmer climate during the past several decades of their lifetimes.

The study, appearing in the October 2011 issue of the journal Human Organization, is a rare, but increasingly common kind of research that tried to match the "traditional knowledge" of people at the site -- hunters and village elders -- with scientific data.

"They pretty much agreed," said Nicole Herman-Mercer of the USGS in Boulder, Co.

Herman-Mercer and Paul F. Schuster, also of USGS, along with Karonhiakt'tie Bryan Maracle of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in Fort Yukon, traveled to two outlying villages in the Yukon Delta, St. Mary's and Pitka's Point, to interview the people on how their lives have been affected. Like most of the villages in the delta, the population is entirely Yup'ik Eskimos who have a subsistence-based lifestyle.

The researchers interviewed 13 people, eight of them men. The number of subjects was small because of logistical and cultural difficulties, the researchers said, and they plan to go back.

All of the subjects remarked that the weather has been warmer in recent years, most notably in the winter. Temperatures once commonly fell to minus 40 degrees F for days. Now if they sink that low, it is for shorter periods of time. The weather also has become less predictable, the men said, as well as more dangerous.

The Yup'iks believe they could accurately predict the weather sometimes a week in advance by looking at the moon, but can no longer with any reliability, they said.

This makes it more likely hunters would be caught out in the tundra when the weather changes for the worse, particularly in dark winter days. They also noted a decrease in precipitation, especially snow.

“Maybe in the 80s, late 70s, there was this gradual change started, and it seemed like the winters were getting a little warmer, less snow, rain in December and January. It seemed like there's hardly any snow, frozen tundra, ice,” said one of the men. (The researchers did not publish the names of the interviewees.)

The Yup’ik also saw a change in the populations of animals in the area, important to subsistence hunters. Ptarmigan and ducks have disappeared, while beaver and moose, not seen before in that part of the delta, are now common.

According to lore, everything in Alaska moves east to west, so the Yup’iks are convinced the new species are coming in from the east, not just reproducing at greater rates.

Flora also has changed, with salmonberries (berries that look like orange raspberries) smaller and harder to find, they said.

Herman-Mercer said correlating what the hunters said with scientific studies wasn't solid because there are very little data on local areas that remote.

Changes to the area's rivers are even more extreme. Frozen rivers are the highways that link communities in the winter and the ice is now almost half as thick as they remember it, making travel more difficult and considerably more dangerous.

Breakup, the thunderous release of river water when the ice melts, now comes earlier in the spring and instead of a sudden, clamorous event, the ice just quietly melts.The rivers also contain much less driftwood, used by the villagers for heating, greatly upsetting the economics of living on the tundra.

The USGS researchers said almost everything the Yup'iks were telling them matched what data exists.

Since the average temperature in Alaska over the course of the year is at about the freezing point of water, warming by even a few degrees can completely alter life there.

The average temperature in the area has increased by one degree C since 1966, and Arctic temperatures are now at a 400-year high. There is less snow and more rain.

Researchers in other interior areas have found similar results. Yup'iks in Newtok, northeast of St. Mary's, are being forced to move upriver because changes to the river are now washing away their village. Evacuation of 400 people has begun at a cost that could reach $100 million.

"Indigenous knowledge and scientific research must work in concert to further understand specific impacts in specific locations in order to develop appropriate adaptation strategies," the researchers wrote.

Craig Gerlach of the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks said local lore was valuable to scientists because the lives of the native population in the upper latitudes is intricately linked with the climate, weather and ecosystem.

"Unexpected changes and unprecedented environmental conditions are easily noticed," Gerlach said. What the USGS survey found matches what scientists know is happening elsewhere.

Explore further: Observations of climate change from indigenous Alaskans

Related Stories

Winter Ice on Lakes, Rivers, Ponds: A Thing of the Past?

January 11, 2008

If you're planning to ice skate on a local lake or river this winter, you may need to think twice, according to scientists John Magnuson, Olaf Jensen and Barbara Benson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Their research ...

Indigenous peoples adapt to climate change

December 6, 2010

The climate in the Northeastern United States changed drastically more than five times before the first Europeans arrived. A new study suggests that the indigenous people in the area were able to adapt their culture and agriculture ...

Arctic sea ice declines again in 2004

October 4, 2004

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have found that the extent of Arctic sea ice, the floating mass of ice that covers the Arctic Ocean, is continuing its rapid decline. The latest satellite information ...

Winter forecast cold north, dry south, heavy snow

October 20, 2011

(AP) -- Winter looks to be cold and wet across the northern tier of states, and the drought will worsen in the South, where conditions are expected to be warmer and drier than usual, government forecasters said Thursday.

Recommended for you

Researchers make coldest quantum gas of molecules

February 21, 2019

JILA researchers have made a long-lived, record-cold gas of molecules that follow the wave patterns of quantum mechanics instead of the strictly particle nature of ordinary classical physics. The creation of this gas boosts ...

Quantum dots can spit out clone-like photons

February 21, 2019

In the global quest to develop practical computing and communications devices based on the principles of quantum physics, one potentially useful component has proved elusive: a source of individual particles of light with ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.3 / 5 (14) Oct 25, 2011
Thanks for the story.

Today there is encouraging news from Princeton of studies that may unlock the secret of solar eruptions and changes in Earths climate.

One question is the possible role of the Meissner effect in expelling magnetic fields from the surface of a deep-seated, iron-rich superconductor [Barry Ninham, "Charged Bose gas in astrophysics", Physics Letters 4, 278-279 (1963].

See also: Super-fluidity in the solar interior: Implications for solar eruptions and climate, Journal of Fusion Energy 21, 193-198 (2002)

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel

1 / 5 (6) Oct 26, 2011
"Indigenous knowledge and scientific research must work in concert to further understand specific climate change impacts in specific locations in order to develop appropriate adaptation strategies," the researchers wrote.

Ask first. Before imposing "must". Ask in their native tongue. Regardless of your intentions.

I agree. Big Brother (BB) has little regard for reality.

BB is only now starting to inquire seriously about Earth's heat source - the Sun:

If diligent, BB will learn that Earth's climate, the universe, and life itself are all sustained by dynamic competition between

a.) Attractive forces of gravity, and
b.) Repulsive forces between neutrons:


Big Brother has absolutely no control over reality.

That simple fact has been true over recorded history:
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 27, 2011
Oliver Manuel's recent efforts to plaster and other public news sites with his theories and personal URLs are a bit puzzling, as scientists have a variety of publications available to communicate directly to each other in. My best guess is that he is desperately trying to prop up his legacy in light of his arrest in his university office on 7 charges of rape and sodomy based on allegations by 4 of his own children. The charges have been reduced to one count of felony attempted sodomy, not necessarily because of his innocence, but because of the statute of limitations. One can only guess how the recent charges and decades of family strife have affected his ability to reason rationally and to remain objective while defending his unpopular theories.


1 / 5 (1) Oct 27, 2011
"Indigenous knowledge and scientific research must work in concert to further understand specific climate change impacts in specific locations in order to develop appropriate adaptation strategies," the researchers wrote.

Ask first. Before imposing "must". Ask in their native tongue. Regardless of your intentions.

From the article, it is clear that they did ask. In the native language.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.