Patrick J. Kiger April 21, 2014

How Climate Change is Affecting Rural Alaskans

According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 36 percent of Americans said that they believed climate change would pose a serious threat to them or their way of life during their lifetimes. But in the Alaskan wild, nearly 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, residents such as Sue Aikens are already dealing with some major downsides of unusually warm temperatures—such as the increased hazard of a home invasion by a hungry bear.

“Bears hibernate—that’s what they do during the winter,” Aiken explained in an episode of the National Geographic Channel series Life Below Zero. “However, right now we have this unusual, really high temperature warm up. Well, they’re still awake. It’s too warm for them to go to bed. But their food source is gone. If a bear decides that I look like a Scooby Snack, I need to protect myself.”

In the same episode, Chip and Agnes Hailstone, who rely in part upon fishing for their food, also complained about how the weather was disrupting their efforts.

“I guess it has to do with global warming or something, but our river’s not frozen,” Agnes Hailstone said. “It’s like three weeks late and it’s still running. Usually we’ve come put our nets out under the ice. But we didn’t get a chance to do that. It’s sun shining and the river’s flowing when it should be cold and dark and clear. But the fish ain’t waiting for the ice to freeze. It’s just like freaking me out a little.”

Climate scientists generally caution that there’s a difference between short-term weather events—such as an unusually warm stretch in one particular Alaskan winter--and long-term shifts in climate patterns that occur over many years. Even so, they say, it’s clear that Alaska is being affected by climate change, which most scientists believe is being driven by the burning of fossil fuels that spew carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Over the past 50 years, temperatures in Alaska increased by an average of 3.4°F, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency . Winter warming was even greater, rising by an average of 6.3°F. That’s about twice the national average for warming over that period. And more warming is expected. Average annual temperatures in Alaska are projected to increase an additional 3.5 to 7°F by the middle of this century.

Alaskans living a subsistence lifestyle, in which they depend heavily upon hunting and fishing to survive, are particularly threatened by climate change. The warming of Alaska is predicted to alter the landscape, as the frozen plain of the Alaskan tundra recedes and is replaced by trees, shrubs and plants that once were found further south. Such changes will reduce the habitat of animals such as walruses, seals, and caribou, causing declines in their population and making it tougher for hunters to find food.

The melting of Arctic ice will make it more the subsistence lifestyle more difficult as well. A 2012 Washington Post article reported that in Kotzebue, a coastal village just north of the Arctic Circle, hunters struggled during that season’s bearded seal hunt because of warm temperatures. The slushy ice made it hard to find a solid place for the hunters to stand, and many of the seals were in the water, rather than on the ice, making them more difficult to shoot. “When I think of my boys, they may not be able to hunt like I do,” one hunter told the newspaper.

Melting ice and rising sea levels also pose a serious threat to the Alaskan coastline, which is longer than all the other U.S. states combined. Many coastal villages that previously were protected by ice are now exposed to storm surges. A 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that 12 Alaskan villages had decided to relocate because of risk of flooding.

Another serious problem in Alaska is the thawing of permafrost, a layer of long-frozen soil found in the Arctic, which is causing ground in many places to become unstable—causing Alaskans’ homes to sink and crack, and roads leading to remote regions to buckle.

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