Global Climate Change: Indigenous Elders and Scientists Agree
by Larry Merculieff
Summary: Climate change is affecting Alaska and Siberia more than any other areas on the planet. Indigenous peoples who have sustained and intimate contact with their immediate environments for generations notice the subtlest of changes to flora and fauna and carry essential knowledge needed to understand both the impacts and potential solutions to climate change. Presented as part of a Western States speaking tour on Indigenous views of Climate Change, 2007.
The Alaska Native Science Commission is a statewide non-profit in Alaska with a mission to bridge between traditional ways of knowing and Cartesian-based western science. The Commission, run completely by Alaska Natives and guided by an Alaska Native Elder as chair of the Board of Commissioners, involved itself in: front line research in partnership with tribes in rural Alaska; conducted regional meetings with Alaska Native hunters, gatherers, and fishers throughout the state to document environmental concerns, issues, and observations in these regions; hosted an international conference (Snowchange 2005) of indigenous leaders and elders from eight Arctic countries about climate change; conducted town hall meetings on the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report that was written by over 200 scientists studying the Arctic; and presented in countless scientific and public forums about what the western and traditional sciences are observing in the Artic.
There is no question in anyone’s mind, western scientist or traditionally based observer, that Alaska is the world’s poster child for climate change and is the proverbial “canary” in the mine for the rest of the world. Scientifically, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report acknowledges that Siberia and Alaska are experiencing the effects of climate change more profoundly than any other area of the world. Scientists now acknowledge that what Alaska Natives and indigenous peoples across the Arctic are observing and saying about climate related observations are accurate:
The tree line has moved above the Arctic Circle and so have the beaver who are following the tree line north; beaver dams are proliferating to the point that almost every river body in Alaska has lower water levels, with implications for salmon; many species of fish and wildlife are dramatically changing their migration patterns; water levels in rivers and lakes are consistently lower; sea ice is thinning, arriving later and leaving earlier in the Bering Sea and across the Arctic; many higher trophic species are drastically declining in population, including steller sealions, harbor seals, spotted seals, sea otters. Polar bears have been reported drowning in numbers as they try to negotiate the distance between land and ice; storm driven waves are causing major coastal erosion, where before, the sea ice covered the sea, preventing large storm driven waves; hunters are finding it increasingly difficult to predict weather; and, storm systems are more intense than ever in living memory. And the list of significant changes grow each year.
Indigenous peoples who have sustained and intimate contact with their immediate environments for generations notice the subtlest of changes to flora and fauna, as noted by Matthew Gilbert, in his article about the observations of Athabascan people. Mr. Gilbert’s interviews with Athabascan Elders, hunters, and gatherers parallel what is being documented throughout Alaska, and indeed, across the international Arctic. Thankfully, the western scientists are beginning to realize that Native peoples can help to flag environmental and biological changes at their onset before anyone else, and can identify emergent trends and anomalies before any one else. For this reason, the focus of the International Polar Year in 2007-2008 is on local monitoring of environmental and biological changes. Some indigenous groups are proposing their own monitoring projects that will receive serious consideration in national competition for funds, and western scientists are seeking active involvement of indigenous groups in their projects across the Arctic.
For further information on indigenous observations in the Arctic, climate change, and science directions, go to the Alaska Native Science Commission websites: www.nativeknowledge.org and www.nativescience.org , or go to www.snowchange.org for the report of this international indigenous conference on climate change.
Larry (Kuuyux) Merculieff, an Aleut, was the science advisor to the Alaska Native Science Commission before becoming its Deputy Director. Larry chaired the Science Working Group for Snowchange. Larry also served on the Committee on the Bering Sea Ecosystem of the National Research Council, and has presented at numerous scientific forums locally, nationally, and internationally about climate and environmental change. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org