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Researchers at AAAS Arctic Division Meeting Link Climate, Energy to "Food Insecurity"
Elizabeth Nibgorsi is a hunter from Canada's Nunavut territory. Northern "caribou people" say changing weather and new development are threatening their food supplies.
Photograph by Archana Bali
FAIRBANKS, Alaska—Anthropologist S. Craig Gerlach has worked a long time on the upper Yukon River, but this summer some changes he's been tracking for several years came to a head: Record rainfall caused widespread flooding. That made fishing far more difficult, but for some Alaskans who live off the land, gasoline was so expensive that they couldn't afford to run their boats anyway. And prices in small, poorly stocked village stores were so high that a droopy, beat-up bunch of broccoli shipped in from the Lower 48 cost $12 or more.
For people who live in the area—most of them indigenous Alaskans—the confluence of bad weather and high gas prices raised a very real risk of fall and winter food shortages. To Gerlach and other researchers at a meeting of the AAAS Arctic Division, these signs suggest that climate change and rising global competition for fossil fuel supplies could undermine Far North communities and cultures that have lived the old ways for thousands of years.
"I've worked with people, both in the interior and on the coast, who say, 'I don't have the money to put fuel in my boat to go searching for food,'" said Philip Loring, an anthropologist who works with Gerlach at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF). "I'm talking to people who say: 'I'm worried about having enough food for the winter.'"
This fall, schools in Fairbanks and Anchorage reported an unexpected influx of new students, and news reports suggested that rising prices and deteriorating conditions in the bush were at least partly to blame. But researchers at the meeting said climate and energy dynamics were playing out elsewhere in the Arctic, too—among the "caribou people," of northern Alaska and Canada, for example, and on the other side of the world, among the Nenets people of Arctic Russia.
Said Gerlach: "Climate change, food shortages—all these things we said were going to happen by 2050 or 2070, they're happening now."
S. Craig Gerlach and Philip Loring
[Photo by Craig Fleener; © Philip Loring]
Gerlach just finished a year-long term as president of the AAAS Arctic Division, and he worked with Executive Director Lawrence K. Duffy, interim dean of the UAF Graduate School, to organize the division's 59th annual meeting from 15-17 September. Under the theme "Growing Sustainability Science in the North," the meeting brought more than 170 researchers, K-12 teachers, students, and native Alaskan leaders to Fairbanks, where presentations focused for one day each on observing, understanding, and responding to change in the Arctic. Within that framework, the meeting ranged from discussions of the Beringian climate and environment over the past 2 million years to the International Polar Year, building a better ice-breaker, and the importance of interdisciplinary education.
A delegation of AAAS officials from the association's Washington, D.C., headquarters included Albert H. Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs and liaison to the Arctic Division; Richard Weibl, director of the Center for Careers in Science and Technology; and Sarah Banas, a program associate in the International Office. Weibl offered a program on AAAS career development resources. Banas spoke about AAAS sustainability initiatives.
Arctic Change—Visible and Subtle—is Pervasive
In the midst of the meeting came news that Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2008 had shrunk to the second smallest size on record, a trend that may be creating ecosystem feedbacks that lead to further warming and increasing rainfall. New reports in October found that 2007 was the warmest year on record in the Arctic, with average temperatures 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal.
The news underscores the researchers' often dramatic reports on changes underway in the Far North climate and in land and marine ecosystems—and how those changes are affecting human communities.
The effect of climate change at Alaskan coastal communities such as Shishmaref and Kivalina tends to be obvious, Gerlach said. When sea ice freezes later in the fall, and sea levels rise even a little, a wind-driven storm can cause extensive erosion of the shoreline to pose an immediate threat to the villages. It makes for a dramatic image.
Other impacts are more subtle. When temperatures warm and sea ice recedes, traditional over-ice transit routes become unreliable, and that disrupts seasonal hunting and fishing. Flooding disrupts food-gathering, too. When gasoline becomes more expensive, that limits subsistence hunters who must use trucks or snowmobiles ("snow machines," in the Alaskan parlance) to reach remote areas. And high gas prices drive the cost of food in rural Arctic stores to levels unimaginable in the Lower 48. All of these changes make it more difficult to feed a family, or a community.
The interconnection of climate, weather, energy, and food availability isn't as obvious to people who are unfamiliar with the Arctic environment. But at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, one of the world's centers of Arctic science and engineering, researchers scattered across several colleges, academic departments, and programs are working to understand the most subtle effects of climate change and to help shape mitigation and adaptation strategies.
A Threat to the "Caribou People"
Food systems in the Far North were the subject of a half-day symposium at the AAAS Arctic Division meeting, but food security was a recurring theme throughout the conference. And while Alaska is one of the globe's climate change hotspots, researchers reported related patterns in much of the Arctic and sub-Arctic.
Archana Bali and caribou
[Photo © Todd Paris/University of Alaska Fairbanks]
UAF PhD student Archana Bali is working with her adviser, Gary Kofinas, an associate professor of resource policy and management, on a videography about the "caribou people" of the North, documenting their culture and traditions. Last summer, Bali visited six communities ranging from Anaktuvuk Pass, located above the Arctic Circle in northern Alaska, east to Kawawachikamach, a tundra community in far northern Quebec that is home to the Naskapi people. She found prevalent concerns about environmental changes and food security.
"In all the six communities, people spoke of climate-related changes," she said in an email interview after the Arctic Division meeting. "I did not use the term 'climate change' because I didn't want to lead them into it. But I asked about 'weather conditions.' In every place, they spoke about warmer summers, not-so-cold winters, seasonal unpredictabilities in terms of early ice-break, spring or delayed snowfall and freeze-up."
Bali, working towards a Ph.D. in wildlife biology and natural resource management, heard from Naskapi leaders and hunters that caribou have been central to their diet and culture for generations. But, they said, warming weather, increased mining, and aggressive sports-hunting from airplanes have driven the caribou so far off of old migration routes that their community's meat staple is in jeopardy.
The Naskapi said that caribou hunting season had not gone well in recent years, and last year they sent hunters far out into the tundra for caribou. The trip was expensive, and the harvest limited. "Following local traditions, the elders and single mothers received the harvested caribou first," she said. "There wasn't much for others.
"The northern communities have a very tight link between their subsistence life styles and weather conditions on the land," Bali explained. "There is a season for every hunting opportunity—caribou migrations, bird migrations, fish spawning. So if there are changes in the timing or intensity of seasons, it can affect the resource abundance and distribution, or accessibility to harvesting areas, or both. And if conditions persist over few years, as the Naskapi hunters told me, then it has a very strong impact in terms of their traditional way of life and the local economy. They need to buy food from the stores, which is phenomenally expensive. It can also impact their health—they have to eat foods they do not prefer, like beef for example, instead of wild meat."
Bruce Forbes, far left, and a team of Russian and international researchers met with Nenets reindeer herders and examined satellite images to interpret how development of oil- and gas-drilling infrastructure is affecting the Nenets' territory and their migration routes.
[Photo by Juho Moilanen; ©Bruce Forbes]
On the other side of the Arctic Circle, ecologist Bruce Forbes has found that oil and gas development on Russia's Yamal Peninsula appears to be harming food supplies for the Nenets, a nomadic reindeer-herding people. Forbes is a veteran Arctic researcher now based at based at the University of Lapland's Arctic Centre in Finland. The Russians have built new roads in the region to facilitate gas and oil drilling, he explained, but grading a road out of the tundra exposes dirt and dust. As dust drifts up and falls on the roadside, it changes the chemistry of the soil and plants growing there.
That has a direct bearing on the cloudberries that grow near the roadsides. Though the berries are a staple in the Nenets diet, people began to get sick from eating them. In addition, mushrooms and lichens rapidly disappeared and the species composition of the moss cover began to change. The stress on tundra pastures also altered the quantity and quality of reindeer forage, and the Nenets herders told Forbes and his colleagues that the reindeer, over generations, were growing smaller and weaker. The grit in the dust was grinding down the reindeers' teeth, making it more difficult for them to chew and digest their forage.
On the upper Yukon River in Alaska, Gerlach's research has focused on 10 Athabascan villages, and residents there report problems similar to those encountered by the Naskapi and the Nenets.
"There are some really significant changes in the seasons over the last 10 years," he explained in an interview. "Ice break-up is two or three weeks earlier in the spring than it was 20 years ago, and freeze-up comes later in the fall. Snow and ice are much less predictable than they were and those are critical for people to travel... Reindeer herders on the Seward Peninsula have talked about this.
"In the upper Yukon, moose hunting is really important. But the hunting season (as set by the state) is two or three weeks too early now. There are still leaves on the trees, and the moose are still back in the uplands." By the time the moose migrate to areas more readily accessible to hunters, the hunting season is over, he explained.
Looking to the Future—and the Past—for Solutions
When people who live off the land find food in short supply, they often must turn to village stores to bridge the gap. For many rural Alaskans, the stores are a sign of food security. But for Gerlach and other researchers, such security is not always what it seems.
The stores are small, poorly stocked—and prices are often shockingly high. Gerlach said his informal assessment found that, over the past decade, the cost of food, fuel, and other supplies has risen more than 90% in the villages where he works.
While the stores provide only limited supplies of imported high-nutrition food, they also carry processed food of dubious nutritional value. Loring, the UAF anthropologist who organized the food systems symposium, said the availability of that food is changing preferences and nutritional patterns. That has driven an increase in heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and other diet-related illnesses.
"It seems to me that whether you're living with chronic hunger, or chronic obesity, facing kidney failure and blindness because of diabetes—either way, it's a failure of the food system," Loring said.
People in the Far North are proud of their ability to adapt—without that, their communities wouldn't have survived for thousands of years in such a demanding environment. Now, researchers say, people even in remote villages are searching for solutions and are looking to science for insight.
"What I'm interested in doing is coming up with real world solutions to these problems," said Gerlach. "And we better get successful at it sooner rater than later."
Added Loring: "A lot of people are facing food insecurity—but there may be a number of options going forward." While people who live far from the Alaska may see it as a frozen wasteland, he said, the land can in fact sustain a range of food production.
Moose, caribou and deer are vitally important to indigenous people and other Alaskans who live off the land, and it's "produced with solar energy, typically on unaltered habitat," said Tom Paragi, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But hoofed game accounts for only 12% of red meat consumption in the state; overall, the state imports 85% of its red meat, he said. The meat that's imported is typically grown on heavily altered landscapes and often treated with antibiotics, and the bodily waste from feedlot animals causes pollution. Because it requires significant amounts of fossil fuel to produce and transport, imported meat is vulnerable to disruptions in transportation and increase in fuel cost.
"Game produced on native vegetation with solar energy is more sustainable and more healthy that feedlot meat," he said at the symposium.
To increase supplies of game for hunting, "intensive management" programs are designed where game production and harvesting are considered a priority, Paragi said. The programs may require active management of the habitat and the environmental impact of increased hunting—such as trail damage by motor vehicles—where game density is high or active management of predators where game density is naturally low.
"Every Hunt is an Experiment"
While hunting is an ancient art, the researchers also described a growing interest in gardening and farming in Alaska. Paragi, for example, said one rural village is now raising bison at a ranch as a secondary meat source. But farming isn't a new idea—records show that Alaskans have been growing vegetables for at least 200 years, said Elizabeth Kunibe, an undergraduate student at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Large-scale commercial farming has never succeeded in Alaska, but the climate and land can be productive. Many schoolchildren have seen photos of giant cabbages grown in the long sun-lit days of summer near the Arctic Circle. Kunibe, in her presentation at the symposium, showed photos of indigenous women planting potatoes in the mid-19th century, and of coastal people digging seaweed into their vegetable gardens.
The naturalist John Muir visited Glacier Bay in the late 19th century and described potatoes the size of walnuts. In the Haines area on Alaska's Panhandle, families have been cultivating potatoes for two centuries and passing heirloom potatoes from generation to generation. Unlike modern potato hybrids, Kunibe said, the old varieties can be packed with vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, and phytochemicals.
Kunibe said that in her research, she found residents of Southeast Alaska less concerned with food or fuel prices than with health issues. "Tlingit village members are concerned with the cancer levels and diabetes levels that their people are suffering from," she said after the meeting. "They want to grow their own food so they are eating healthy, additive-free foods. They feel the processed foods they are getting from stores are destroying their health."
Today, gardening and farming are catching on, both among native Alaskan communities and among more recent arrivals. By some counts, changing weather patterns have expanded the growing season around Fairbanks by about 50 days per year. Community gardens have been started in cities and towns from Juneau on the Panhandle, to Bethel in the interior southwest, to Fort Yukon on the Arctic Circle. Nearly two dozen communities now have farmer's markets, with Sitka being among the latest to join the list.
With so much rain and cool weather last summer, many gardeners had an off-year. But that shouldn't diminish enthusiasm, Loring said.
"The solution to the food problem isn't necessarily a garden in every village or increased hunting, but something that's worked in this region for a long time—having a diversity of food sources," Loring said. "... Diversity doesn't mean diversity on grocery store shelves. It means understanding ecological variables and that conditions change over time."
One year the conditions may be great for hunting but less so for farming, he explained. Or a good year for growing may come during a bad year for fishing.
Gerlach said that the Athabascans he works with on the upper Yukon River in recent years have begun to explore ways to expand their options—not only for food, but for other commodities. They are experimenting with gardens, with biofuels, and with sustainable forestry. But the scientific method is nothing new to them, he said.
"Hunters, plant collectors, and farmers around the world were using scientific methods a few thousand years before the Enlightenment in Europe, although not necessarily in a formal way," he said. "Rural Alaskans who are planning for strong, healthy, and self-reliant communities, along with people who still live close to the land and who depend on the country for subsistence... are experimental—they're always testing hypotheses.
"An Athabascan friend of mine from Fort Yukon, one who is also working on a Master's degree, helped shape my thinking about this once in a conversation. He told me: 'We are always testing hypotheses. Every hunt is an experiment. The difference between your experiments and mine is that when my hypothesis is wrong, I may just die.'"
The AAAS Arctic Division, founded in 1951 as the Alaska Division, includes more than 300 AAAS members, most of them from Alaska and the Canadian provinces of Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.
The four regional divisions of AAAS—Arctic, Pacific, Southwestern and Rocky Mountain, and Caribbean—serve as regional networks for scientists, organizing meetings on regional issues and promoting publications from scientists active within the division. The Pacific is the oldest AAAS regional division, with a charter dating to 1914, followed by the Southwestern and Rocky Mountain Division (1920), the Arctic Division, and the Caribbean Division (1985).
All AAAS members in good standing, and who reside within the specified boundaries of a regional division, are automatically included as members of that regional division. Arctic Division membership also is open to all science and engineering researchers who are working on Arctic, Alaskan, Canadian, northern, or Antarctic issues.
10 November 2008