Alaska’s climate is changing rapidly, with far-reaching effects throughout the state, including in its Indigenous communities. Alaska’s rural communities are predominantly inhabited by Indigenous peoples, with some of them disproportionately vulnerable to socioeconomic and environmental change; however, they also have rich cultural traditions of resilience and adaptation.109,125,134,186,187,188 The impacts of climate change are likely to affect all aspects of Alaska Native societies, from nutrition, infrastructure (see Key Message 2), economics, and health consequences to language, education, and the communities themselves. Most of these impacts are also experienced in other rural, predominantly nonnative communities in Alaska and are therefore covered in other sections of this chapter.
Subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering provide hundreds of pounds of food per person per year in many Alaska Native villages.189,190 Producing, preparing, sharing, and consuming these foods provide a wealth of nutritional, spiritual, cultural, social, and economic benefits. Traditional foods are widely shared within and between communities and are a way of strengthening social ties.191,192,193 Climate change is altering the physical setting in which these subsistence activities are conducted.15,182 Examples include
reducing the presence of shore-fast ice used as a platform to hunt seals194 or butcher whales,195
reducing the availability of suitable ice conditions for hunting seals and walrus (Figure 26.6),28 and
exacerbating the risks of winter travel due to increasing areas of thin ice and large fractures within the sea ice (commonly referred to as “leads”) as well as water on rivers.26,27,196
However, climate change is also providing more opportunity to hunt from boats late in the fall season or earlier in spring.125 Increasing temperatures affect animal distribution and can alter the availability of subsistence resources, often making hunting and fishing harder but sometimes providing new opportunities, such as fall whaling on St. Lawrence Island.197 Shellfish populations, an important subsistence and commercial resource along the Alaska coast, have been declining for more than 20 years throughout coastal Alaska, with ocean warming and ocean acidification (Ch. 9: Oceans) contributing to the decline (see Key Message 1). Warm temperatures and increased humidity are also affecting ice cellars used traditionally to store food (as noted earlier in this chapter), thereby making it harder to air-dry meat and fish on outdoor racks, causing food contamination.131,198 Some communities have found new storage methods or have changed to an increasingly Western diet. Subsistence foods decrease the costs of feeding a family compared to purchased foods, which in rural Alaska are almost twice the cost of those in Anchorage.199,200 One net result of all these changes is an overall decrease in food security for residents of rural Alaska Native communities (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 4).29
Thawing permafrost in the boreal forest has accelerated land and riverbank erosion (see Key Message 2). Subsistence harvesters have expressed concern that less precipitation is resulting in rivers becoming shallower and lakes drying.15 The increasingly dynamic nature of interior river characteristics has contributed to more challenging boat navigability and less dependable locations for fish wheel and net sets. These climate-induced environmental changes also occur in the context of other regulatory, social, administrative, legal, and economic constraints, which affect the ways that climate change impacts manifest themselves in specific locations.201 As the environment changes, overall well-being can also suffer from the sense of dislocation and from losing the spiritual and cultural benefits of providing and sharing traditional foods, as these activities do much to tie communities together.202,203,204
In the midst of negative impacts from climate change, Alaska Native communities display remarkable capacity for response and adaptation (Ch. 15: Tribes, KM 3).29,125,205 Sometimes, adaptation means expanding networks for sharing of foods and ideas, as has been seen in the Kuskokwim River area;206 applying Indigenous evidence and approaches to habitat protection;27 or giving communities more say in identifying priorities for action and directing available funds for community needs and action-oriented science.125 A clear example is the community of Shaktoolik’s initiative to build a community-driven, mile-long and seven-foot-high berm made out of driftwood and gravel to protect itself from flooding and erosion during storm episodes.207 As storms increase in frequency and intensity,126 some builders in Gambell, Alaska, are considering efficient house designs that avoid exposure to prevailing winds and piling up of snow at the doors.208,209 While some of these initiatives are part of statewide efforts to address common threats from climate change,210 at other times communities have been able to take advantage of new opportunities, such as expanding networks for sharing of foods and ideas,206 fishing for new species,211 or applying Indigenous knowledge and frameworks to habitat protection and ecosystem management.27 Further effort is warranted both on cataloging community response to climate-related changes in the environment and on enhancing the transfer of knowledge among rural communities on innovative and effective adaptations.212