Adapting to Change

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Post docs Todd Brinkman and Shauna BurnSilver leading a focus group discussion with indigenous hunters in the village Venetie, Alaska to document local knowledge of changes to ecosystem services due to climate change.
Photo taken by Gary Kofinas

Changes in climate and fire regime are already affecting rural Alaskan communities where indigenous people have historically led a subsistence lifestyle as hunters, fishers, and gatherers. Warming has changed the timing of freeze up and melting of rivers and reduced the thickness of river ice and therefore reduced the safety of winter travel and access to some hunting grounds.

Increased evapotranspiration and lower river levels reduce opportunities for barge delivery of fuel and increase the cost of living and therefore the dependence on subsistence harvesting. Now that communities are permanently situated rather than semi-nomadic, the increased wildfire risk caused by warmer drier conditions is substantially affecting rural communities. Wildfire is a risk to life and property, reduces access to the land, threatens cultural and historic resources, and reduces moose and caribou abundances for one to several decades. Sources of resilience to address these changes include local residents’ intimate knowledge of village homelands, oral traditions transmitted by community elders and traditional sharing networks that maintain community identity while sustaining food supplies to the most vulnerable households and allowing hunters to borrow hunting equipment. As the abundance and distribution of subsistence resources change and access to hunting areas is modified, hunters will likely shift their hunting effort to those species that increase in availability, requiring local and regional organizations to engage effectively with agency in modifying patterns of fish and game management.

Development of community gardens or changes in hunting regulations to constrain competition from urban hunters could enhance social-ecological resilience at the local level. Changes in economic conditions, such as employment in rural and urban communities, interact with the effects of climatic change, affecting human migration patterns and human capital of villages. In summary, climate warming and socioeconomic changes challenge the resilience of rural indigenous communities, but indigenous culture has proven relatively resilient to even greater threats over the past century (epidemics of Euroamerican diseases, imposition of Christian worldviews, assimilation policies of education and settlement). Many of the changes described above (e.g., wildfire risk and thawing permafrost) also affect larger communities and cities along the road network of Alaska. However, urban areas are buffered by alternative income sources (jobs) and transportation options (roads) that reduce overall vulnerability. Rural-to-urban migration links villages with cities, putting pressure on public services (especially schools) in the cities but extends social networks of villages to tap urban employment opportunities.

For further reading: 
Chapin, F.S., III, Trainor, S.F., Huntington, O., Lovecraft, A.L., Zavaleta, E., Natcher, D.C., McGuire, A.D., Nelson, J.L., Ray, L., Calef, M., Fresco, N.L., Huntington, H., Rupp, T.S., DeWilde, L., and Naylor, R.L. 2008. Increasing wildfire in Alaska's boreal forest: Causes, consequences, and pathways to potential solutions of a wicked problem. Bioscience 58(6): 531-540.
Kofinas, G.P. F.S. Chapin, III, S. BurnSilver, J.I. Schmidt, N.L. Fresco, K. Kielland, S. Martin, A. Springsteen, and T.S. Rupp. 2010. Resilience of Athabascan subsistence systems to interior Alaska’s changing climate. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 40(7):1347-1359.
Maier, J.A.K., Ver Hoef, J., McGuire, A.D., Bowyer, R.T., Saperstein, L., and Maier, H.A. 2005. Distribution and density of moose in relation to landscape characteristics: Effects of scale. Can. J. For. Res. 35: 2233-2243.
Natcher, D. C., M. Calef, O. Huntington, S. Trainor, H. P. Huntington, L. DeWilde, S. Rupp, and F. S. Chapin, III. 2007. Factors contributing to the cultural and spatial variability of landscape burning by Native Peoples of Interior Alaska. Ecology and Society 12:http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss11/art17/.
For further information: 
Dr. Gary P. Kofinas
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