Alaska residents are watching climate change warm the Arctic before their very eyes

Global leaders would do well to pay attention to the warnings of the indigenous residents of tiny Fort Yukon, Alaska.
FILE PHOTO: Sea ice floats within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Sea ice floats within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska / via Reuters file
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By Joel Clement, senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists

Walter Peter, a Gwich’in hunter from Fort Yukon, Alaska, stood in front of the audience under an outdoor octagon of raw logs and listed the changes he’d seen: unreliable river ice, unpredictable salmon runs, altered goose migrations, tick-infested moose, diseased caribou. He spoke in a quiet, respectful voice and was respected in return. He didn’t crack a smile until he noted “there’s nothing better than fat moose kidneys and blueberry pancakes.” But he shook his head at the thought of all that is being lost.

In response to a rapidly warming Arctic, hunters and Alaskans gathered in June for the first Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit. Organized by Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the summit was held to call attention to the impact of climate changes but also to highlight the crucial relationships here between communities and ecosystems. The event’s ambition was modest but profound. “While I understand that we can’t stop climate change, we can help prepare our future generations for what is to come and we can stop adding to the problem,” Demientieff told me.

Walter Peter, a Gwich’in hunter from Fort Yukon, Alaska, stood in front of the audience and listed the changes he’d seen: unreliable river ice, unpredictable salmon runs, altered goose migrations, tick-infested moose, diseased caribou.

The Gwich’in people call Fort Yukon Gwich’yaa Zhee, or “house on the flats” with good reason. It sits alongside the vast, braided channels of the Yukon River north of the Arctic Circle and is surrounded by a low, uniform boreal forest that seems to spread out forever in every direction. The Gwich’in have resided here for thousands of years, hunting, fishing, trapping and living on what the surrounding ecosystems provide, including the vast Porcupine caribou herd, which is deeply integrated into the spiritual lives of the Gwich’in.

There are few jobs in the region, so 86 percent of the village is technically unemployed. Store-bought foods shipped to this remote town are absurdly expensive, so a subsistence way of life is essential. Like all of the indigenous people of the circumpolar Arctic, the Gwich’in rely on their collective wisdom, known in academic and indigenous circles as traditional or indigenous knowledge, which is based upon millennia of learning. Not surprisingly, they are among the first to notice the changes happening to our planet.

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And they are disturbed by what they see. The Arctic is transforming into something else before their eyes, something completely unfamiliar.

Due to a phenomenon called “Arctic amplification,” climate scientists predicted that the region around the North Pole would experience the most rapid warming due to climate change. As it turns out, the Arctic is already warming two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, and the rate of warming is accelerating quickly. This past year, Arctic heat waves shocked the world, sea ice melted away in the dead of winter and pictures at the finish line of the famous Iditarod dog-sled race featured open water in the background.

This summer added even more drama as thawing permafrost destabilized roads and villages, marine mammal deaths were reported across Alaska, migratory birds died off in massive numbers for the fifth year in a row and wildfires spread across the Arctic, including the Yukon Flats region where Walter Peter does his hunting. Over 690 fires burned more than a million hectares in Alaska alone (or about 2.5 million acres).

Similar effects were experienced all around the Arctic. Wildfire smoke covered more than five million hectares in Siberia, Greenland lost over 10 billion tons of ice in one day, and fisheries continued to transform in the North Atlantic and Barents Sea. Local economies, whether commercial or subsistence-based, strained to adapt as the ecosystems they depend upon transformed in real time. Scientists tell us we have 10 or 11 years to turn around greenhouse gas emissions before we lock in truly catastrophic changes in the subsequent decades, and the Arctic is providing early indications of just how disruptive those changes will be.

The Arctic is trying to tell us something.

What’s shocking is that even in the destabilized, transforming Arctic, fossil fuel interests are moving full speed ahead to drill for more oil and gas, and the Trump administration is in lockstep with them. On Sept. 12, the Interior Department released an environmental impact statement (EIS) of potential oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — an important calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd that the Gwich-in depend upon.

In this EIS, government officials argued that since climate change is having such a dramatic impact on the Arctic, the impact from additional oil and gas development would be overshadowed and therefore negligible. Confronted by their own damning science, the Trump administration used this amateurish, circular and intentionally deceptive reasoning to push the agenda of the fossil fuel industry and recommend opening up the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.

This is emblematic of how far the industry, and their apologists in the Trump administration, are willing to go to insure record profits during a time of deepening crisis.

This is emblematic of how far the industry, and their apologists in the Trump administration, are willing to go to insure record profits during a time of deepening crisis.

As global leaders gather in New York for the U.N. Climate Summit this week, they would do well to pay attention to the findings of the Indigenous Climate Summit in tiny Fort Yukon, and the words of Walter Peter, Tommy Kriska and the other hunters who described a transforming world. Dramatic changes are coming to the rest of the world, sooner than most people think.

Unless we all insist on a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, modern society will pay a horrible price. At their climate summit, Gwich’in hunters and chiefs told us that we must all stand behind one another, and I came away from that summit inspired and stronger. In the coming weeks and months, I hope that the world’s rich and powerful adopt this same courage and vision. There is no time to lose.