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Climate change threatens Arctic food security and culture

As sea ice melts and permafrost thaws, indigenous traditions are being forced to change, say researchers

It’s increasingly difficult to find food using traditional hunting methods in the Arctic, and at the same time, provisions sold at stores are “unaffordable” for many, jeopardizing food security and cultural life in the region, Arctic experts and residents said, responding to a United Nations report released Monday that highlights the impact of climate change on Arctic communities. 

Everything from ice-dependent algae to marine mammals to humans relying on sea ice for food and economic opportunities are affected, according to the "Global Biodiversity Outlook 4" report, which assesses the global body’s progress toward achieving its decade-long biodiversity goals.

The knowledge of these environments that the indigenous and local people have is being tested by the rapid climate changes occurring in the region, according to the report.

“We’re not allowed to have food like we used to,” Gary Harrison, traditional chief of Chickaloon village in Alaska, told Al Jazeera, referring to lifestyle changes forced on the region by climate change and increasing commercial interests.

Harrison, 57, said of the total number of salmon taken from the streams, indigenous people pull only about 2 percent; the “lion’s share” goes to commercial fisheries and sport fishermen.

“We hear them fighting over their spot in the river,” said Harrison. “They used to be indigenous people’s spots in the first place.”

Rapid warming in the Arctic “is already leading to increased human activities including shipping, commercial fishing, mining and oil and gas development,” according to the annual Living Planet Report released by the World Wildlife Fund last week.

Disappearing sea ice and rapid industrialization are causing permanent changes to indigenous Arctic communities, according to Whit Sheard, director of the international Arctic program at Ocean Conservancy.

“The challenges facing traditional Arctic indigenous communities are enormous,” said Sheard.

As the ice melts, Sheard said some communities are reburying their elders because cemeteries are becoming exposed. Many of these groups can also no longer store food in the traditional way — in ice cellars — because of the thawing permafrost.

Many indigenous people are struggling to adjust to unpredictable hunting seasons, according to the U.N. report, because of the impact of declining sea ice on wildlife.

“These communities, which continue to engage in the subsistence way of life and practice traditions millennia in the making, are quickly being placed at risk of irreversible change because of the inability or unwillingness of populations great distances away to restrain our excesses and modify our behavior,” Sheard said.

A whaler digs a hole on a thin layer of ice waiting to attract marine wildlife eager for a breath, next to the Hopson crew whaling camp in the outskirts of Barrow, Alaska. The Inupiat people hunt whales on small seal skin-made boats equipped with old style harpoons.
Luciana Whitaker / LatinContent/ Getty Images

Changes to the land

Indigenous people of the Arctic now have to travel further into the ocean to fish than ever before, making the trips more dangerous and expensive, said John Farrell, executive director for the United States Arctic Research Commission. 

“Many of the coastal communities are not wealthy areas,” Farrell told Al Jazeera. “The price of fuel is double in Alaska than the lower 48 states. Price of food to be brought in by plane or ship [to the region] is very expensive.”

Harrison, from Alaska’s Chickaloon village, attested to the changes firsthand. He has watched glaciers retreat during his lifetime. It’s now harder, he said, to predict weather and animal migrations. Plus, the melting permafrost has altered the landscape, reshaping the trails he used to follow.

“When the character of the land changes, it changes where they [animals] feed. It changes where we go to get food,” said Harrison.

But not all indigenous groups are struggling to cope, said Markku Heikkilä, head of science communications at the Arctic Centre, an institution at the University of Lapland that studies Arctic issues. "Some communities adapt better than others to environmental and economic changes," he said.

The Nenets, indigenous people of Russia, for example, have adapted well, he explained: “They’ve kept their nomadic reindeer herding culture and language in the middle of climate change and industrialization of the region.”

An Arctic Centre report, however, warned that indigenous people have an "especially strong bond with nature" and climate change would endanger the "survival of many groups as distinctive people."

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