Changing climate, changing access for Arctic Indigenous harvesters in National Parklands

By Alix Pfennigwerth
How is climate change impacting Indigenous communities’ access to subsistence coastal resources in and around Western Arctic National Parklands? Recently published research in Ecology and Society examines this question.

The paper, led by Stanford University PhD candidate Kristen Green, highlights how climate stressors including changes in sea ice, coastal erosion, weather patterns, and snow cover are altering access to coastal subsistence resources for northwestern Alaska Iñupiat communities.
Climate change affects the subsistence harvest window for Indigenous communities in Arctic Alaska.
Seasonal changes in the harvest window of coastal plants and animals for Indigenous subsistence harvesters in northwest Alaska and western Arctic National Parklands. Illustration by Cecil Howell and used with permission.
The researchers found a relationship between sea ice retreat and the timing of harvest for certain species. Specifically, the window of harvest opportunity for bearded seal, beluga whale, and chum salmon—important for subsistence and cultural uses—now begins two to three weeks earlier than in the past.

Various mechanisms may mediate these changes in access and availability. For example, the use of boats will likely become increasingly important as sea ice retreats and the open water boating season lengthens. The sharing of knowledge among community members of how to harvest safely and efficiently in changing weather conditions, as well as the continued practice of sharing harvested food among family and friends, will also help maintain access despite a changing climate.
Snow machines and boats, key resources for subsistence harvest practices, await use on the Arctic coast.
Snow machines and boats are important modes of transportation for subsistence harvesters in the community of Kivalina, Alaska. Kristen Green photo.
Harvesters in Kotzebue and Kivalina shared information with the researchers about how climate change is affecting their access to harvesting areas and how they are responding. They described several factors as key to resilience of Alaska Native food systems, including maintaining a diverse portfolio of harvested species, adaptation to changing harvesting conditions, and reliance on social networks for sharing of food.

Harvesters also highlighted ways that communities are exploring alternatives to harvest, including growing a seasonal vegetable garden or relying more on store-bought foods, both of which would require additional capital, knowledge, skills, and time.

By understanding these impacts and potential adaptations to climate change, Western Arctic National Parks can better adapt their policies and programs to support food sovereignty and resilience in Indigenous Arctic communities.
Chum salmon are hung to dry in an Iñupiat fish camp.
Chum salmon is an important marine species for many subsistence harvesters in northwest Alaska. Here, several chum salmon have been prepared and hung to dry in a fish camp. Kristen Green photo.

This research project was funded in part by research and education grant from the Ocean Alaska Science and Learning Center.

You can read the full paper by Kristen Green and colleagues here.

Alix Pfennigwerth is a biologist and science communicator with the National Park Service.

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Noatak National Preserve

Last updated: December 9, 2021