At ground zero for climate change, traditions and livelihoods hang in the balance

Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska (Courtesy photo)

Whit Sheard heard the alarm about climate change in his head when he was visiting indigenous villages in Alaska. He saw houses sliding into the sea and old burial sites exposed by coastal erosion and thawing soil.

“It left a pretty profound impact on me,” he said.

The point of no return in Shishmaref, Alaska (© AP Images)

Sheard, director of the International Arctic Program at Ocean Conservancy, a nongovernmental group, says people across the Arctic are now facing extreme weather, unpredictable hunting seasons, unstable ice and other effects of global warming.

Tradition under stress

The Arctic is warming at twice the average rate of anywhere else. As the ice and snow melt, ocean levels rise while the Earth absorbs more sunlight and gets hotter.

To the Arctic and its 4 million residents, climate change is less a future threat than a present reality of coastal erosion, flooding, wildfires, declining fisheries and changing routes of wild animal migration.

Where are we to go? (U.S. Geological Survey)

No one is more affected than indigenous people, who make up about 10 percent of the Arctic population. In Alaska, flooding and erosion affect more than 85 percent of native villages. Some communities build sea walls or similar structures for temporary protection; for others, relocation is the only option.

But moving even a small village is a difficult endeavor that disrupts lives and traditions. That’s why few communities opt to relocate, even if they receive financial and technical support.

Climate change takes a toll not only on communities’ physical infrastructure, but also on the people themselves. With an economy and culture rooted in the icy Arctic environment, their livelihoods, spiritual practices and traditions are eroded as well.

Inuit hunters in better times (1952) in Nunavut, Canada (Doug Wilkinson/Wikimedia Commons)

Men take more risks and spend more money, traveling further than ever before to fish or hunt. Women can’t get enough hides or furs to make traditional clothing and crafts. Children can become footloose.

“When our children are connected to their culture, it builds a resiliency in them, the pride and the sense who they are,” said Ethan Petticrew, a mentor at a camp at which youth explore Aleutian traditions and arts.

In addition, the warming of the Artic has opened the once isolated communities to commercial interests such as natural resource exploration, shipping and tourism. The commercial drive presents opportunities for economic development, as well as threats to the environment that has sustained indigenous people for thousands of years.

Building up resilience

But indigenous people are not frozen in time.

In fact, they’ve proven to be highly adaptive people who seek ways to cope with climate-related changes while maintaining their culture. With assistance from government, academia and nongovernmental groups, native populations have launched a number of climate adaptation and resilience projects to mitigate or counter the effects of global warming.

They include:

  • Developing recommendations for native walrus hunters, who often can’t reach their prey in Alaska and Chukotka, Russia.
  • Preserving knowledge of traditional cooking by publishing an online book on traditional foods in Alaska.
  • Teaching youth traditional survival skills in Canada’s Northern Territories.
  • Using GPS for navigation during hunting and fishing trips.
  • Promoting traditional roofs made of modern materials for more sustainable buildings in Denmark’s Faroe Islands.
  • Constructing weather-resistant roads in Swedish and Finnish Lapland.
  • Promoting the Sami language through online games and social media in Russia.
In Tasiilaq, Greenland, villagers go through (melting ice) hoops to survive. (Courtesy photo)

Projects and programs such as the Kolarctic involve leaders, activists, researchers and participants from several countries.

Sheard, who represents a consortium of environmental groups at the Arctic Council, said governments need to engage more systematically to help the Arctic’s indigenous communities. The council is an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation among Arctic states. Six indigenous organizations that sit on the Council engage with its members on vital issues.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry promised to make the battle against climate change the priority of the two-year U.S. chairmanship of the council.

In the past four years, the eight countries that make up the council — the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden — have produced agreements on coordinated search-and-rescue operations as well as emergency response for containment and cleanup in the event of an oil spill. Other countries participate in the council’s work with no voting powers.

A July U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue exercise near Oliktok Point, Alaska. (U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr)

Renewable energy against black carbon scourge

Sparsely distributed Arctic settlements face another climate-related conundrum that can be addressed with the involvement of local governments, businesses and technology.

These communities depend on expensive diesel fuel for power, heating and transportation. Burning this fuel produces soot known as black carbon. Black carbon not only threatens public health, but also hastens climate warming. So it is critical that these communities find a renewable energy solution.

Dog sleds don’t produce diesel exhaust fumes. (© AP Images)

Developing renewable energy sources in harsh climates presents particular challenges, including the fact that there is too little or no sunshine in the winter and extreme weather. But with the right adaptation techniques and technologies, such as battery storage systems, these challenges can be overcome, according to Klaus Dohring, president of the Canadian firm Green Sun Rising.

With state support, some Alaskan villages have installed hybrid systems that combine solar or wind power generation with diesel-fueled backups. The village of Igiugig, Alaska, derives its power from a device that generates electricity from a river current. Some larger-scale projects also have been successful. In the past decade, Kodiak Electric Association, which supplies electricity to Kodiak Island’s 15,000 residents, has shifted to hydro and solar power generation.

Take a wind power idea to your home villages. (© AP Images)

International collaboration can make a real difference in the fight against climate change on the Arctic forefront. It’s already happening. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has helped a regional bus company in Murmansk, Russia, transition its diesel-fueled fleet to a more energy-efficient one.

But governmental efforts won’t be successful without local initiative, according to Mary Wythe, the mayor of Homer, Alaska. The magnitude of a local project or financial resources doesn’t matter much, she said. Wythe knows from personal experience that “when you start something, and do it right, others are willing to chip in.”

In 2007 her city developed a plan for climate adaptation, and since then it has become a paragon of a successful effort against climate change.