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02/06/2013

Climate Disruption and Alaskan Natives

It was my privilege last week to meet and speak with Ed Alexander, the Second Chief of Fort Yukon, Alaska, a member of the Gwich’in Indian Nation. He spoke eloquently on the current situation of the Gwich’in, who live in towns so remote they are only accessible by plane, who go months at a time without receiving supplies from the outside world, and who literally depend on hunting caribou to survive.

  CaribouCaribou. Source: Alaska Fish and Game

He, along with other Gwich’in, were in town to speak to Congressional staff on the importance of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the 170,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd on which their communities depend. Proposals to drill on the 1002 area, the calving grounds for the Porcupine herd, are pervasive. “If the caribou are gone, our way of life will be over,” I heard him repeat honestly to each staff member.

The Gwich’in have lived in northern Alaska and Canada since time immemorial. Carbon-dated sites near their present-day home shows evidence of human habitation going back 28,000 years.

Unfortunately, the threat to Native communities does not stop with the Gwich’in and caribou. According to a recent report by the Brookings Institute, climate change has disproportionately affected Alaska and its inhabitants. Since 1950, winter temperatures in Alaska have risen 3.5 degrees Celsius; warming over twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

For wildlife, climactic disruption can mean changing migration routes, loss of native species and an increase in foreign species, increased ocean acidification, and loss of habitat.

  Earth Observatory

 Source: Earth Observatory - NASA

 The effects for Alaskan people are similarly devastating. The land itself is changing; permafrost, or permanently frozen subsoil, is melting. Infrastructure built on permafrost is literally sinking into the ground; water and sewage systems, as well as the structural integrity of buildings, are all at risk.

Sea ice, at historically low levels in recent years, is not only utilized by Arctic animals like polar bears and pinnipeds (seals and walruses), but also provides important protection to coastal communities. Coastal pack ice serves as a barrier to storm surges from hurricane-force storms off of the Bering and Chukchi seas. As pack ice disappears, storm surges cause damaging flooding and erosion and compound the effects of melting permafrost.

 

  EPA Alaska Conservation Foundation

Source: EPA, Alaska Conservation Foundation

These uncontrollable changes have led many Alaskan communities to seek relocation. One of the most pressing issues, according to the Brookings report, is the unprecedented nature of the problem. The Government Accountability Office found “that no government agency has the authority to relocate communities, no governmental organization exists that can address the strategic planning needs of relocation, and no funding is specifically designated for relocation.”

The Brookings report ends with a suggestion:

 

“To overcome these challenges, the author recommends as a first step that Congress mend disaster relief legislation to enable communities to use existing  funding mechanisms to construct infrastructure at relocation sites that are not within the disaster area. The author also recommends that Congress enact legislation to provide a relocation governance framework so that communities have the ability to relocate when the traditional erosion and flood control devices  can no longer protect residents in place. In this way, the United States can create a model adaptation strategy that facilitates an effective transition from protection in place to community relocation that governments throughout the world can implement.”

We hope the state of Alaska, along with the federal government, can find a solution to the problem and help these communities soon. The issue underscores the one of the most alarming issues with global warming: its effects are unknown, devastating, and universal.

--Claire Price, Sierra Club Lands Team

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