Is global warming poisoning residents of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands? Bruce Wright, a researcher working for communities off the state’s west coast, is asking this question as he teaches locals how to monitor for paralytic shellfish poison, a toxin in clams that he suspects is spreading due to warming waters.
Islanders started raising concerns after three deaths in 1994. “PSP is produced by a microscopic marine plant that appears to be expanding its range,” Wright says.
In the north, Native Alaskans like the idea of lower heating bills as temperatures warm. But they complain of less predictable weather and thinning sea ice, which makes for more dangerous hunting, whaling and snowmobiling. Even storing food in underground pits is no longer guaranteed to prevent spoiling.
And they could face health threats beyond toxic clams. “Climate stress and shifting animal populations also create conditions for the spread of infectious diseases in animals that can be transmitted to humans, such as West Nile virus,” according to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, done by nations with arctic regions.
All these changes mean Native Alaskans may become “strangers in their own land,” Fikret Berkes, a marine scientist at the University of Manitoba, wrote in a 2004 study on the social affects of climate change.