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Issue: 7.1: Fall 2008
Guest Edited by Lisa Bloom, Elena Glasberg and Laura Kay
Gender on Ice

Environmental Change, Indigenous Knowledge, and Subsistence on Alaska's North Slope

Chris Cuomo, Wendy Eisner and Kenneth Hinkel

Authors' acknowledgements[1]

In this article we discuss an ongoing research project that links the knowledge and experience of Iñupiat Eskimo elders, hunters, and berry harvesters with scientific observations and methods, to better understand environmental change on the Arctic Coastal Plain.[2] Quantitative scientific questions about climate-related changes to the Alaskan tundra are at the heart of our study, but this is also an interview-intensive interdisciplinary project that utilizes mixed methods and generates a range of "secondary" findings. Our primary goal here is to provide a preliminary presentation of some of the important qualitative data that has emerged from our interviews with Iñupiat participants concerning climate change, subsistence, community values, and women's roles. We also provide detail on the background, methods, and objectives of our research, to help readers better understand the situation in northern Alaska, and to present our methodology for assessment by a multidisciplinary and multicultural audience.

Background: Arctic Geopolitics

People of the planet's northern regions are experiencing extraordinary environmental changes that are not well known to those who live in more temperate zones. For indigenous peoples whose subsistence and cultural identities are deeply tied to their environment, significant ecological change directly threatens basic welfare and traditional ways of life. The present effects and further potential impacts of climate change in the North have been recognized by the major political bodies of the circumpolar region, such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Arctic Council, and by various international agencies and environmental organizations. The World Wildlife Foundation's International Arctic Programme, based in Oslo, Norway, reports that:

Change is occurring on all arctic system levels, impacting on physical systems such as atmosphere and oceans, sea ice and ice sheets, snow and permafrost, as well as on biological systems such as species and populations, food webs, ecosystem structure and function, and on human societies. It is the breadth of impacts . . . that is adding weight to the conclusion that there is hardly a component of the Arctic that is not showing signs of change.[3]

And a recent draft document written by representatives of the United Nations Environment Programme describes their position as:

Extremely concerned over the impact of climate change on the polar regions, especially the Arctic which is experiencing some of the most extreme and fast moving change evidenced anywhere, with increasingly dramatic effects on Arctic peoples and biodiversity, as well as significant global consequences, e.g., through contributions from glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet to sea level rise . . ..[4]

The problems and challenges presented by the current situation in the far North exist at multiple levels and dimensions of scale. For indigenous and other local inhabitants, there are immediate needs for information about the real impacts of climate and environmental changes on health, food security, land stability, culture, and economic development in the region, and on strategies for addressing new conditions and challenges. Because particular effects are difficult to anticipate, communities need as much information as possible about local patterns of change and atypical occurrences, but most communities lack resources for systematically tracking the impacts of climate change. At another level, the region's ecological well-being impacts the entire global climate system, and the risks posed by melting sea ice or the potential release of large amounts of greenhouse gases currently sequestered in the rich peat of the permafrost are matters of concern to all. The Arctic is also a politically complex and historically contentious region that includes extremely powerful member states (the U.S., Canada, Russia, and Norway), as well as indigenous communities who are powerful in their own right, and who share a strong circumpolar identity due to close ethnic and linguistic relationships and common concerns about native land rights and autonomy. Yet another dimension of the region's significance is evident in its relationships to global capital, for weighty multinational companies are also major economic stakeholders there. At the same time, all of the relevant dimensions and levels of impact are intermingled and enmeshed, and "local" actions have "global" effects, and vice versa. It is perhaps not too dramatic to say that the potential for serious conflict and unforeseeable complication in a region such as this is tremendous.[5]

The situation in northernmost Alaska is particularly intense right now. The region is rich in oil and natural gas, and the natural environment there is already burdened by the impacts of industry and development. With rapid and unpredictable climate change, the effects of resource extraction are likely to be exacerbated. As a changing environment presents new opportunities for further exploitation of resources, such as offshore drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean, the future possibilities become ever more concerning.[6]

Perhaps any situation so rife with complexity and competition also has great potential as a site for innovative problem solving and collaboration. Certainly the intensity and urgency of present realities in the Arctic call for the best possible scientific and practical knowledge to serve immediate and long-term needs. Regarding the need for information about climate and environmental changes, the convergence of local and global interests in evaluating and addressing the stability of Arctic ecosystems creates a mandate for mutually beneficial collaborations on both scientific and ethical grounds. Most practical and scientific questions about climate change, anthropogenic impacts, and ecological well-being require attention to local knowledge and perspectives. Although theoretical and meta-level models and predictions are useful, the severity of local impacts is determined by effects on existing cultures, economies, and technologies, so micro-level observations and analyses are necessary for predicting and mitigating specific changes and impacts in any given location. For instance, in northern Alaska warming conditions have already brought about decreased summer sea and increased erosion of the Arctic coastline, but the impacts on specific inland tundra regions vary over time and across space. Some areas are becoming more wet and marshy in the spring and summer, and others show evidence of drying.[7] In addition, the impact of regional climate change are difficult to separate from the direct effects of local human activity. Warmer conditions in Alaska favor thaw of near-surface permafrost, which results in widespread but differential lowering of the ground surface, known as "thermokarst."[8] But local thermokarst can also be induced by disruption of the tundra surface from foot or vehicular traffic.[9] Eyewitness, "on the ground," reports can be crucial for tracking and interpreting specific changes and effects, or for assessing the relationships among various effects, as such specific details may not be accessible through scientific technologies and methods. As the literature on indigenous knowledge and northern climate change shows, native stakeholders' explanations of particular events, processes, and rates of change also provide important hypotheses for consideration, because local understandings include awareness of historical or contextual factors unknown to researchers from the "outside."[10]

Global climate change creates local and meta-level situations that are quite precarious, and situations where local and scientific communities need each other's help.[11] It is therefore not surprising that, in the Arctic and elsewhere, there is a small but growing body of scientific work that incorporates local or indigenous knowledge and perspectives, with hopes of improving scientific and ethical integrity of research by integrating important information obtained through direct observation, and by prioritizing the needs and interests of local communities.[12] Political organizations, researchers, journalists, and artists have documented environmental change in the far North. General consciousness-raising about the impacts of warming temperatures in polar regions is a step toward the creation of more effective policies.[13] But ongoing community-oriented research at local levels is necessary for assessing and responding to the difficult and costly consequences of changing weather patterns.

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© 2008 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 7.1: Fall 2008 - Gender on Ice