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Native Alaskans list warming impacts

Seen during a winter freeze, buildings sit near a bluff eroded by storms in Shishmaref, Alaska. Locals fear the unprecedented erosion is tied to rising seas and global warming.
Seen during a winter freeze, buildings sit near a bluff eroded by storms in Shishmaref, Alaska. Locals fear the unprecedented erosion is tied to rising seas and global warming.State of Alaska
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fire breaks protecting homes were never part of the traditional culture in Huslia, an Athabascan village on the Koyukuk River.

But recent forest fires have burned hotter and more frequently, a change most people blame on global warming, and Huslia has had to adapt, said William Derendoff, 61, the traditional chief.

A day after scientists presented research findings on how warming is melting sea ice and changing marine ecosystems in the Arctic, Derendoff and other village leaders at the Alaska Forum on the Environment on Tuesday told how climate change is hitting their rural communities.

"These changes are going to impact Native people probably more than any other group," said Larry Merculieff, an Aleut who grew up in the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.

"We're facing really big changes," Merculieff said. "The villages have to start thinking about it now."

Town eroded by storms
Some changes have been spectacular. Edwin Weyiouanna of the Inupiat Eskimo village of Shishmaref presented the latest on well-documented changes to his island community of about 600 people in the Chukchi Sea just north of Bering Strait.

No longer protected by early winter sea ice or ground that's permanently frozen, the community has been pounded and eroded by storms. Villagers in 2002 voted to relocate to the mainland and hope to obtain millions in federal dollars money to make the move.

Changes at Huslia are more subtle.

"Unfortunately, out knowledge is not documented," Derendoff said. "We don't go by percentages. We go by what we see."

Hotter summers have stressed area spruce forests, making them susceptible to forest fires, Derendoff said.

"A lot of the spruce trees are kind of brown, not green," Derendoff said. "When we have a fire, it really goes."

A 30-acre fire last summer threatened the village. Though trees and brush had been cleared from around the landfill, a flame from burning trash lit caribou moss and fire spread to forest.

"Fortunately, we caught it in time," he said.

Permafrost melting
As in Shishmaref, permafrost — ground that stays below freezing for a minimum of two years — has melted and no longer provides a barrier against Koyukuk River erosion, Derendoff said.

Lakes that traditionally flooded with river water no longer are doing so, Derendoff said, changing where villagers fish.

Huslia residents traditionally use gillnets in winter to catch pike, whitefish and sheefish through river ice. Thinner ice and unpredictable snow conditions have made winter travel across ice less predictable.

"A lot of places, it's kind of unsafe," he said.

Short-term adaptation to warming even is showing up in recreation. Sled dogs, now mostly used for racing, are bred with short-hair hounds that render dogs able to run better in higher temperatures, Derendoff said.

More villagers than ever are gardening, growing potatoes, cabbage, turnips and peas, Derendoff said. So far, they have not embraced growing domestic animals for meat, he said.

"It's pretty hard to go to domestic animals," he said. "We live on wild animals for a lot of different reasons. We grew up killing wild animals."

‘Weather not predictable anymore’
Mike Zacharoff, a resident of St. Paul in the Pribilofs, said elders formerly could look south across 40 miles of Bering Sea toward St. George Island and accurately predict weather.

"The weather is not predictable anymore," he said.

Northern fur seals usually depart by December and don't return until May. His son spotted seals a few days ago, he said.

"The animals are confused," he said.

Halibut that should be showing up in June are arriving in March and April.

"Our season is wrong to catch our quota," he said. "We're starting too late."

The Pribilofs routinely see storms with winds of 75-80 mph winds but they used to end after 12 hours, he said. Now they're lasting two or three days.

"I am concerned," he said. "But I'm more concerned about our future generation."