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Alaska Natives First to Feel the Heat

Although climate studies offer plenty of projections about how the world might change as the Earth warms up, it's easy for people to imagine that those numbers don't apply to them.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Although climate studies offer plenty of projections about how the world might change as the Earth warms up, it's easy for people to imagine that those numbers don't apply to them.

A new study offers a wake-up call. Climate change doesn't just have the potential to alter people's lives -- it already has.

For the Yup'ik people of Alaska, who still depend on hunting, gathering and fishing for much of their subsistence, interviews showed that warmer temperatures and thinner ice in recent years have altered ways of life that passed down from generation to generation.

People are traveling farther to find berries. The animals they see have changed. And weather seems more erratic than it used to be.

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"They've had a lot less snow in recent years -- that came up again and again," said Nicole Herman-Mercer, a social scientist with the United States Geological Survey in Boulder, Colo. "Everyone spoke about ice on the river being thinner than when they were growing up and when their parents were growing up. They said everyone notices it and is talking about it."

As greenhouse gasses accumulate in the atmosphere, the Arctic and Subarctic have been hit first with real consequences of climate change. Those regions are experiencing warming temperatures, thawing permafrost, melting ice and more.

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To gauge the effects of environmental changes on people who live off the land, Herman-Mercer and colleagues traveled to St. Mary's and Pitka's Point, two riverbank villages in Subarctic Alaska's Yukon River Basin. Both are home to native Yup'ik people who live semi-subsistence lifestyles. They hunt, fish, and gather wild foods, while also holding down jobs.

Over the course of a week, the researchers interviewed 13 tribal elders, mostly men in their 50s, 60s and older. Questions were intentionally broad. Had they had noticed changes in the weather? Had they noticed changes on the river? Did they have any stories about the plants or the animals?

Most elders said that weather conditions had grown warmer since the 1970s, especially in the winter, the researchers reported in the journal Human Organization. Interviewees mentioned thinning ice on the rivers. And they talked about how unpredictable the weather had become.

Many mentioned a drop in snowfall. And something strange was happening during that August. Rains came too late or not at all.

"Those old people noticed it first, said one man, quoted in the study. "They're not around anymore. They're all underground. They used to tell me, 'What's going on with this weather?' They noticed sometimes it's too hot. Sometimes, it's too cold."

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Elders said they now noticed beavers, moose and other animals that didn't used to live in the area, along with a decline in once-plentiful creatures, like ptarmigan and salmon.

Instead of blaming climate, though, they explained these trends as a natural order of things, which caused animals to shift from east to west.

They also believed that animals were leaving because people hadn't treated the creatures well. According to other research, they also blame a problem with the way humans are relating to each other.

With thinner ice on the river and more holes in the ice, the safety and mobility of the Yup'ik has suffered alongside their ability to find food. The frozen river has long been their main route for transportation through the winter months. Now, with a less dramatic spring break-up, fewer logs drift downriver -- meaning there is a smaller supply of free wood for heating homes.

The new study, along with others like it, shows how talking to locals can contribute detailed, on-the-ground information to what scientific studies of climate change are finding in a broader sense, said Ann Fineup-Riordan, a cultural anthropologist with the Calista Elders Council, an organization dedicated to documenting traditional Yup'ik knowledge in Alaska.

She recently completed a multi-year study on the Yup'ik people. And her upcoming book, called "Ellavut/Our Yup'ik World and Weather: Continuity and Change on the Bering Sea Coast," discusses the detailed instructions that the Yup'ik people use to interact with the world around them.

The new study echoes much of what she has found in her work, Fineup-Riordan said.

The good news is that researchers are increasingly looking to locals to add detail to their work, and important collaborations are forming. Satellites, for example, can't measure the thickness of ice. But people who use the ice as a platform for hunting keep close track of that information.

"It's absolutely critical to get a local perspective on these changes as weather experts are saying local people are often better observers of what's happening locally than larger models are," Fineup-Riordan said. "The detail of what they know is really, really remarkable."