A Continual State of Emergency
Climate Change and Native Lands in Northwest Alaska
Austin Ahmasuk describes himself as a lifelong Nome resident and an Inupiaq hunter, fisher, and trapper. He is also a community advocate for the twenty native villages dotted throughout the Bering Straits region of Alaska.
We’ve met with Austin to talk about how climate change is affecting residents of the Bering Straits region—and it is, dramatically so—but before we get there, he wants to underline the complex political background against which these changes unfold in Alaska.
Understanding climate change in Alaska means understanding the status of land, and this is where Austin starts.
“113 years ago—in 1903—in this community in the month of August, Nome’s town site survey was completed,” he says. “During that time aboriginal claim was not recognized, and consequently eradicated. And so, that’s where the political arena here in Nome becomes very complex. Very early on, Alaska native people in this community were eradicated from their homelands.”
As white settlers moved in on Alaska, first in a rush for gold and then in a rush for oil, the status of native land claims remained in flux until 1971, when the pending construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System resulted in the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). ANCSA offered a new type of “solution” to native land claims, extinguishing all claims in exchange for the transfer of title to 44 million acres of land and over $1 billion in settlement payments to twelve regional native corporations and over 200 village-level native corporations. Today, members of Alaska native tribes exert control over their land and resources as voting shareholders of these corporations.
This project will not dig into the controversy surrounding ANCSA’s effect on Alaska natives, but understanding ANCSA is an important starting point—particularly because a small slice of the Act also relates directly to climate change. As Austin explains, “Native corporations are conveyed land to the mean high tide line. And that mean high tide line is now encroaching inward. We are essentially losing land.”
In the past 60 years, Alaska’s average temperature has increased by three degrees Fahrenheit—more than twice the warming increase seen in the continental U.S. During that same time period, the average temperature in Alaska’s winter months has warmed by six degrees.
These rapid increases in temperature come with very real and harmful effects on Alaska’s ecosystems, communities, and way of life. For example:
Permafrost, ground that typically remains frozen a few feet below the soil surface, is thawing from warmer air temperatures.
- As it melts, unstable permafrost damages the built and natural environments upon which Alaska native villages rely. Constantly shifting foundations impact the safety of homes, transportation systems, and sanitation infrastructure.
- Thawing permafrost also creates sinkholes in the landscape and changes soil fertility, altering the abundance and seasonal predictability of berry picking, an important cultural and subsistence activity on the tundra.
- The thaw also drains lakes more readily, leaving remote communities without reliable sources of freshwater. Sewage contamination, the loss of clean water, and pollutants released from thawing soils like mercury and persistent organic pollutants are seriously threatening the health of native communities.
Higher temperatures cause sea ice to thin or to not form at all.
- The decrease in ice makes traditional practices of travel, hunting, harvesting, and communication between communities unsafe and arduous.
- With little or no sea ice, marine mammal species like seals and walrus upon which many native villages rely for subsistence harvest are no longer within the safe reach of hunters. At the same time, reduced snowfall, means inland hunting trips on snowmobiles have become much more difficult.
- Sea ice along the beach acts as a buffer against intense waves battering coastal communities during fall storm season. As sea ice melts, the natural barrier to protect settlements disappears, leaving villages vulnerable to the rapid erosion and flooding that come with storms.
- While a lack of historical data on sea levels and erosion trends in Alaska make it difficult to document sea level rise and erosion trends, in some geographies a single storm can erode as much as 100 feet of shoreline with no sea ice to protect it.
“Because it’s dramatically warmer, there’s no more shore-fast ice between the mainland and Sledge. So that relationship of commemorating that trip is being severed physically, not just severed by history, but severed physically. ”Austin Ahmasuk
Anahma Shannon, who, like Austin, works for Kawerak—the nonprofit arm of the regional Bering Straits Native Corporation—describes a dangerous state of emergency in the village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea caused by disappearing sea ice.
“Villages really suffer because they are in a continual state of emergency,” she says. "In normal years, every year, the ice would be close up. We’d have thick ice, good ice. But in the recent years we haven’t and three years ago now Savoonga had declared a food emergency and they usually get 900 walrus, they only got 300 that year and they eat that every day. Every day. So they went from having normal packed freezers to having hardly being able to eat."
With every one of these changes also comes a distinct threat to culture and tradition. Austin reflects, “Our warmer climate has very meaningful, profound impacts upon families.”
Pulling an example from his own family history, he tells us of the loss of a family tradition—a commemorative voyage to an island west of Nome that can no longer be made because there is no ice to walk across.
For some native villages, this cultural loss has already taken on an extreme character. In six Alaska native communities—three of which we will introduce in future posts—flooding and erosion has become so severe that the threat has become existential. These communities will likely either have to relocate entirely—a process projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars per village—or disband to cities, far away from their land claims, hunting rights, and the environment and history that comprises their way of life.
There are no easy solutions for these villages and little relief in sight. By 2050, Alaska will be 2 to 4 degrees warmer than it is today regardless of how much we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that Alaska’s summer waters will be ice-free by 2030—fourteen years from today.
But amid the discussion around the cumulative impacts, the complexities and differences of each individual community can get lost. While the environmental challenges arising across Alaska are similar, even similarly situated communities approach these changes with different histories, economic backgrounds, lands, natural resources, and relationships between native corporations and other bodies of local government. In the month we spent interviewing community members and leaders in five coastal Alaska Native villages, the most salient takeaway was the diversity in each community’s experiences.
Alaska has generated more “crisis headlines” about climate change than any other region except the Pacific Islands. But do those headlines help people understand the challenges faced by an individual community? Not enough, in Austin’s view: “We struggle mightily to have our voices heard.”