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Domestic Violence and Abuse

Adapting to Climate Change in Alaska


Quinhagak, everything used to be white, you know, a lot of snow. You could even go on top of the houses because there was so much snow almost covering them. Today there is hardly any snow. It seems like every year it gets worse. It’s not cold anymore. Most folks are in agreement that climate change is caused by human impacts to the
environment. We are the problem, even out here in rural Alaska, because of our dependence on fossil fuels. Climate change seems to be
happening fastest in the north, and there’s very good reasons for this.
As the growing seasons become longer and the snow melts earlier, as the sea ice begins
to melt, then this changes the surface of the
north from being a white covered surface to a dark
covered surface for more of the year. This means that the land and the sea
absorb more energy and transfer that to the air, causing the air to become warmer. The net result of all of this is that
the north warms fastest, and warms a greater degree than is
happening anywhere else on the planet. How is climate change affecting Alaskans? Well, throughout Alaska people are seeing changes in the places where they live. We’re standing on Koyukuk mountain and
we’re near the site of where we would like to
relocate. The village is down here near the river. This river coming this way on the north
side is the Koyukuk River, and it meets up with the
Yukon River. When we have flooding, it jams down here about six miles down and there’s a
curve in the river. All the ice backs up all the way up to Koyukuk Inn. The ice jams and the ice comes backwards and it comes over the banks and it goes into the low areas into the sloughs
and the creeks. There’s some very concrete steps
that communities can take to adapt to climate change. First, communities can get their members
together and talk about what they’ve seen around them, because the things that are happening around
them are the things that are likely to become more pronounced in the future. Koyukuk is a pretty active community. Community members really participate in
community planning meetings. We have different ways of
organizing meetings. We plan it around dinners. If we have
a particular project identified like with the plans, we
organize committees or a working group and that
seems to work really good. Individuals within
communities can be very pivotal in getting things
started within that community. Certainly the first thing to do would be
to hold a community meeting. Start monitoring the issues, document the issues, taking
photos during the storm season, taking photos of
some of the changes that are taking place. Communities can think about the changes
they’ve seen, and the sorts of risks that these
changes create for them. We’re in an area of Homer that has in the last 60 or 70 years
experienced very high erosion rates. The bluff above us here fifty years ago would have been almost
three hundred feet seaward of where were standing right now. Just based and what
we can observe in the patterns of erosion it looks like
most of the erosion here is caused by storm energy by waves hitting the base of these bluffs probably
during big storms coming out off the open gulf here behind us. The most striking impact of climate
change has been the spruce bark beetle outbreak. Starting in 1987 we went into overdrive with warm summers,
and this really went through 1997. Even though there were some cool periods in there, relatively speaking, the temperatures never went below
average. The bark beetles were able just to continue eating through this
warm period till they had eaten themselves out of house and home. From
our tree ring investigations we think that this run of warm summers
has been the longest run the last 400 years. When we started seeing higher
temperatures back in 2002, we were looking at temperatures that were
starting to exceed 20 degrees celsius. Twenty degrees is about 68
degrees fahrenheit, so you’d notice that as a fisherman. You
notice that that was nice water to stand in as you are
fishing. We were surprised to see that we actually had temperatures that
were that warm because that’s stressful for fish at both the egg
stage as well as when they are migrating
upstream as adults. Permafrost really has a controlling effect on the landscape as well, and on the wetlands, because underneath a lot of these wetlands and lakes you
actually have permafrost. As that permafrost degrades and gets deeper and deeper, what it does is it lowers the water table, shifting from this aquatic kind of
environment to more of a terrestrial type of environment. Within the next 50 to 100 years, what you are going to see is a complete loss of permafrost out here on the Delta. We don’t know if
a one degree average temperature during the summer
period, for example, may give the invasive species the upper
hand on out-competing our native species.
We’re worried about those kinds of issues. Water coming from the atmosphere, acid
rain basically, is also an issue that may change the overall pH of the surface waters where these
animals are living. We’ve seen several parts of our community having
problems. We’ve seen the river mouth erosion from the large volume of water that goes
in and then has to come back out. The fence that surrounds the airport
collapses in every storm. We’ve seen the water transmission line that’s five miles north of the village
exposed from erosion. Our evacuation road was
underwater in 2005. And those are all problems that have
come from the fall storms. This is the flood gauge for Koyukuk. It’s on the washateria building. There’s different markers on the gauge showing the level of the different facilities around town. This one is the level of the old bulk fuel facility at seven and a half feet. The old
power plant building is at ten and a half feet. The
old airport is about ten and a half feet. This is about the level that water comes to right here. Well, it’s
affecting a lot cuz this pond right there we’re standing on, it’s a popular gathering place where women come out and pick greens. A lot of our ponds are drying out. You have to go out further. It takes you know gas is expensive and not
only that you can see behind me there’s hardly any snow. A few days ago it was raining so it’s
affecting everything now. Our hunting, our wood gathering, anything that we do in the village, it’s really being
affected by this global warming. Communities can think
about their goals and what they really want to maintain in
their communities, and how they can achieve these goals given the changes
that are occurring around them. People are harvesting large amounts sea
mammal and they need to have good storage
as they’ve been able to put the whale meat and whale blubber into the
permafrost frozen ground. Traditional underground food cellars,
from a standpoint of food security, the thawing of the ice
cellars is causing a shortage of food for many Arctic
communities. When summer time does come, we have extremely high temperatures. You know, the water starts evaporating and water level goes down. To us we don’t go up river when it’s too shallow to even go up to our hunting areas. So it’s a year round cycle of misfortunes because of climate changes. Communities can
begin to think about plans that they might wish to develop that enable them to achieve their
vision in light of the changes that are
occurring. In looking for ideas and solutions for how to adapt to
climate change, some people are conducting monitoring
programs. This is an invasive tunicate right here. What we’re doing here is monitoring for the presence of invasive tunicates.
The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center initiated a project in which we monitor
what we call settling plates underwater. They’re clean plates when we put them down and they colonize with organisms that are floating in the marine
environment here. If there are invasive species such as the tunicates
we’re worried about, then they will populate those plates. We’ve found quite a few those tunicates on
the plates that we’ve been monitoring here. We look at every organism, we determine
the percent coverage of the plate by each of the different
types of organisms. If there is invasive species there such as the Botrylloides invasive
tunicate that we’re finding here we take samples of those to send down to the San Francisco area. They do DNA analysis in which they are
able to identify the original source. They are not presenting a problem on the
waterfront here currently. But we think under the conditions of
warming environment, warming seawater that they may very well become a threat
to our native species of shellfish, and especially a problem associated with the
shellfish industry and the mariculture industry in the southern southeast region. So we know that warm water is stressful for fish and makes them more
susceptible to predation pollution and disease. We don’t have the
information to understand how productive our
watersheds are we do a lot of looking at that movement
of adult salmon into the watershed but in most cases we
don’t really understand how many of the juvenile salmon leave the
system hopefully with a more regional look at temperatures that will help resource managers and
communities focus on where that type of research needs to
happen we also focus our efforts at streamside protection we can help
reduce the solar input into the stream by
great riparian streamside vegetation. On streams that are starting to
show some stress in terms of their water temperature, if
we can improve streamside protection for the vegetation that might help slow
down the warming process in some of those systems. We’re looking at 5 different categories of health effects in Alaska. First is illness both acute disease such as might
occur from a food, poisoning event, and also chronic illness,
diet changes, whether it’s going to change rates of
diabetes or heart disease. We also are looking at
injury rates resulting from changes in transportation
and changes in behavior. Food safety and security, and water
safety and security are also big issues. Finally, mental health. As the
environment changes. what kinds of new stress and new
obstacles are emerging that are going to affect
people’s behavioral health. Communities can think about the
resources that they need to implement their vision and work with people both within their community and
beyond their community to find these resources and implement
their goals. Unalakleet has come up with
several ideas for adapting to the environmental
changes occurring in their area. We’re encouraging migration to the hillside you know we’ve all
recognize that this area down here perhaps in our
lifetime may not even be down here, and we’re encouraging new development to
happen up on the hillside. You know Steve Ivanoff he has called
together community meetings where he’ll come to Anchorage and he’ll
call people up and call representatives from different agencies and have them
sit down and talk to each other at the table. There’s nothing to stop communities from
doing this. These agencies have a responsibility. They have to deal with these communities, so if a community goes in asks them to
come and meet most of them are going to come and meet.
We come up with a priority list. The community has their comprehensive
plan with their priority list. The tribe has their Transportation Plan,
which we created. We conduct subcommittees to identify all the projects that are
basically on their wants list. Once the list is completed, then we prioritize in that order. Both the
city and the tribe had this erosion project near the river
mouth as the number one priority. And of course elevating the Beach Road
West was another one that proved to be a really good call on the priority system. Because from the flood of 2009, elevating the road a month before the
floods stopped a lot of water from the ocean from making
it into the residences. Sometimes these changes are
just small things that you can do in terms of just changing the time that
you do things, changing the way in which you do things,
deciding the you are going to do it on your own rather than waiting for
somebody else to make it happen. Koyukuk had a wild fire assessment done. We were rated high by the state Division
of Forestry. We’ve had several fires in the area
before, and we have a lot of dry spruce that has a potential of threatening the
village. During the study we’ve looked at the best place for a firebreak. This area right here from the airport all the way up to the rock quarry will be
the firebreak. Adaptation to a different climate will
require a shift in some aspects of everyday life. But some of this change could hold new
opportunities. We all want the same thing. We all
want a sustainable resource. We all want the salmon to keep
coming back. We want our kids to be able to fish for salmon. We want our
grandchildren be able to fish for salmon. You might see a shift in the species
that are being targeted, such as more utilization of whitefish
or pike. As you know maybe there are fewer
subsistence opportunities for salmon. you might see people starting to shift to
other species. Here in Unalakleet and adjacent villages in Eastern Norton Sound we’ve
seen higher intense storms and more frequent.
The hope is that the people will be allowed to progress to the hillside with their own
resources. I don’t believe that government’s going
to solve this problem for us quickly enough. Things are happening they’re happening
fast and the communities are the places where people see these changes. They understand these
changes they understand the consequences of these changes, so it’s a place where action by people
in their own communities is going to make the biggest difference. Nobody is more familiar and more
knowledgeable about their communities than the people that live there. And the
people that live there have a historical perspective on change in that community.
The better that they can articulate that, the better off they are in acquiring
funding to have somebody coming in and professionally do an assessment. We’re preparing to move the village
it gets worse. There’s a proposal out for a 15 mile road up a river. After looking at what the other
villages are going through, we’d rather be prepared than do a last
minute deal. We’re taking action and making
efforts to do things to help us adapt. We’ve got seven
hundred plus people out here that are dependent
on the decision-makers of the community to
go out and seek ways that we can save energy,
for example, or have a better home which would withstand the weather conditions that we’re being faced with, you know, with climate change
occurring all around us.

Cesar Sullivan

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