Climate change is wreaking havoc on indigenous people in Alaska
The extreme warmth of 2016 has changed so much for the people of the Arctic that even their language is becoming unmoored from the conditions in which they now live.
The Yupik, an indigenous people of western Alaska, have dozens of words for the vagaries of sea ice, which is not surprising given the crucial role it plays in subsistence hunting and transportation. But researchers have noted that some of these words, such as “tagneghneq” (thick, dark, weathered ice), are becoming obsolete.
After thousands of years of use, words are vanishing as quickly as the ice they describe due to climate change. The native inhabitants are also in peril – there are 31 Alaskan towns and cities at imminent risk from the melting ice and coastal erosion. Many will have to relocate or somehow adapt.
In remote Alaskan communities, the stores sell goods priced to reflect their journey – $20 for a pizza, $15 for a gallon of milk. If you can’t butcher a 1,000-pound walrus because there is no sea ice to support both of you, then you might well be left hungry.
The window of opportunity for hunting continues to shrink. The communities are worried about this because food insecurity is something we are now having to tackle every single day.
St Lawrence island, a far-flung piece of the US that sits just 36 miles from Russia in the Bering Sea. The island is thought to be one of the last exposed fragments of a land bridge that connected North America to Asia during the last ice age.
In 2013, the island’s two main communities managed to catch just a third of the walruses they normally do. Last year, Gambell, the largest settlement, snared just 36 – down from the 600 it could expect just a few years ago.
Sea ice is further out from land than it once was and is becoming treacherously thin for hunters to traverse. Walruses, which require sea ice for resting and giving birth, often have to resort to heaving themselves on to crowded strips of land. These grand tusked beasts can trample each other to death in such conditions.
Frost locked deep in the soils is melting, causing buildings to subside. Communities are seeing their coastlines erode and are increasingly exposed to lashing storms without the protective barrier of sea ice.
Several Alaskan towns and villages are wrestling over whether to fight these changes or retreat to relative safety. Two coastal villages, Shishmaref and Kivalina, have voted to relocate while a third, Newtok, has taken the first tentative steps to do so.
Arctic lakes melting earlier each year
Arctic lakes, covered with ice during the winter months, are melting one day earlier each year, according to researchers, including one of Indian origin, who monitored 13,300 lakes using satellite imagery.
Scientists from the University of Southampton in the UK showed that due to warming temperatures ice is breaking earlier each spring, based on a 14-year period between 2000 and 2013.
Researchers discovered that all five study areas in the Arctic — Alaska, Northeast Siberia, Central Siberia, Northeast Canada and Northern Europe – showed significant trends of early ice break-up in the spring, but to varying degrees.
Central Siberia demonstrated the strongest trend, with ice starting to break-up an average of 1.4 days earlier each year.
Northern Europe showed the lowest change of ice break-up at 0.84 days earlier per year. They found a strong relationship between decreasing ice cover and an increasingly early spring temperature rise.
Less ice means a longer season for lake biology, which together with warmer temperatures will affect processes such as Carbon dioxide (CO2) and Methane (CH4) emissions.