Climate change can be felt all over the world, however its impact is not equally distributed across geographies. When looking at the United States, it might surprise many of us that the most impacted state is actually the one with the lowest population density in the nation — the most northern state of the US. Alaska.
When we are talking of the impact, climate change is having on the arctic, most of us may be thinking of vanishing glaciers or green fields which once were covered with snow, however we usually forget to acknowledge the fate of thousands of natives living there. Through the rapid change in temperature and the associated changes of the arctic environment, especially the indigenous community of Alaska, which directly depends on natural resources, is hit the hardest.
In this blog will be first taking a look at the changing environmental conditions of Alaska and then emphasize its impact on the natives living there.
Our Data Integration Engineer Eneli Toodu has analysed temperature data from ECMWF ERA5 dataset and discovered many interesting and at the same time worrying findings. Yearly average temperature in the state of Alaska hasn’t dropped below the long-time average (1979–2019) of -2.7 °C degrees for 7 years now. This means that 2012 was the last year that the average temperature was below -2.7 °C. At the same time, 2012 also marked one of the coldest years in 40 years history, where temperature was -4.5 °C on average. Only 1999 was colder with a recorded average temperature of -4.7 °C. How drastically climate change is affecting Alaska can be seen when looking at the average temperature in 2019, this being the first year average temperature levelled off above 0°C degrees.
Above, we looked into average temperatures across the state of Alaska. To see temperature anomalies across Alaska, Eneli has created an infographic where yearly temperature anomalies can be seen for the different counties.
In the animation minus degrees are resembled by blue tones while plus degrees are shown as red tones. Looking closer, we can see that temperatures in the last seven years have not fallen much below zero degrees celsius. Naturally it’s completely normal to have years that are warmer than usual, however seven consecutive years with such high numbers is exceptional, marking a turning point of Alaska’s climate.
If you are interested in finding out more about environmental changes in the Arctic and its corresponding impacts on industrial networks, we recommend reading this Post.
DECREASE IN SNOW COVER
As a consequence of the previously discussed warming weather in Alaska, Eneli also calculated snow cover percent from ERA5 snow depth variable to see how snow cover has changed over time. Snowfall, snow season length and snow cover has been decreasing steadily over the past years. Lesser and shorter snow cover brings unexpected problems to the people living in Alaska. For example, one of Alaska’s most popular means of transport, the snow mobile, is losing part of its utility. This forces the native alaskan community to adapt and change to quads or expensive bush-planes. In addition snow cover also plays a part in controlling the surface hydrology and underlying soil properties while also influencing near‐surface air temperature, which in turn can cause the thawing of permafrost described later in this post.
The data we have put together shows that snow cover has decreased rapidly over the last two decades. Alaskan long term mean (40 years, green line) snow cover percent is 68.4%, however this value hasn’t been exceeded for over 15 years. From the graph, we can see a deeply decreasing trend (green dotted line). This strong downward trend is verified when comparing the mean snow cover till 2000 (including) with the data from 2016. While annual snow cover used to be over 70 %, it was only at 60 % in 2016.
In order to analyse and compare climate and corresponding indicators such as precipitation, average, maximum and minimum temperature or snow cover in a global context, a data-based approach is necessary. With the Climatology feature, View2020 from Intertrust offers the necessary tools to analyse and compare climate indicators quickly and easily on a global level. To better understand our changing environment, casual observers as well as industry professionals can access View2020, which is built on the Planet OS Datahub, by clicking here.
IMPACT ON NATIVE POPULATION
The most impacted counties have been the North Slope, Northwest Arctic and Nome. All three are located in Northwest Alaska.
Although the consequences of climate change can be seen all over the world, the natives in Alaska are amongst those hit the hardest. While most of us are experiencing climate change only peripherally, Alaskan natives are living a life not defined by substance, but by a thriving culture empowered through a strong bond and dependence on their immediate environment. Through the disruptive change of their environment, the Alaskan native community is facing a loss of cultural identity while making them the first American climate refugees.
There are multiple problems that Alaskan natives have due to climate change.
EROSION AND FLOODS
Because of the steadily increasing temperature, drastic changes of the landscape are being experienced. Most notably, the Alaskan permafrost is thawing leading to erosion of the land. This erosion can particularly be seen on the western shore along the pacific or along the Ninglick River, making land uninhabitable for the natives.
Although the weather has always been extreme and unsettled, the permafrost, a thick subsurface layer of soil that remained frozen throughout the year, gives the ground the necessary stability to prevent it from being washed away from tides or the river. However due to the increase of temperature in Alaska , permafrost has thawed, causing the ground to soften, leading to extreme forms of erosion, floods and destruction of infrastructure.
On average, each year 70 ft of ground are lost to the sea. This slowly ongoing process has forced the Yupik people of Newtok to resettle to higher and firmer grounds in Mertarvik. While part of the village has already lost its fight against the inexorable surf, two thirds of the village are still inhabited. Although funding is a major problem, the relocation of Newtok should be finished by 2023, making it a forerunner for what many other villages are facing.
Maximum rate of historical erosion (feet per year) at or near community locations. Data was created by DGGS, USGS, and NPS using orthoimagery or topography through time.
Source: Overbeck, J.R., ed., 2018, Alaska coastal mapping gaps & priorities: Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys Information Circula
Another big threat fueled by record high temperatures is a longer and more severe wildfire season. Through climate change winter is ending sooner, letting the snow melt earlier in the season. This leaves plant material out to dry causing devastating fires. Additionally fires now tend to last longer due to delayed rain in late summer. The devastating effect rising temperatures have on wildfire seasons is shown by data recorded by the IARC.
The Data shows the amount of wildfire seasons, with the red bars highlighting wildfires with more than one million acres burned. It can be seen that those devastating wildfires have increased by 50 percent since 1990, compared to the previously recorded data.
The Alaskan wildfires are not only destroying the habitat and therefore the hunting grounds of the natives, but also pose a threat to their direct health. This is due to the particular matters emitted by the fires, which can have lethal effects on one’s bloodstream and respiratory system. More information about particulate matter, their origin and effects can be found on Planet OS View2020
With ever rising temperatures wildfire seasons are expected to stretch over even longer periods in the future. The problem Alaska is facing with fires can also be seen in other parts of the world, like previously in Australia. If you are interested in gaining a closer insight on this matter, we recommend you checking out Chase Walz’s Post covering the Australian Fires.
FOOD SUPPLY STRUGGLES
A majority of the Native Alaskan diet relies on fish, a food source that typically was available in abundance in the past. However warming waters, the oil industry and mining companies are putting natives’ food security at risk.
Bristol Bay in Alaska typically accounts for two-thirds of the state’s total salmon fishery value per year. This is possible because of the yearly migration of about 50 million salmon, however the number of salmon in Bristol bay has decreased radically last year. The main reason this has happened is due to an accumulation of warmer water in the region. In the future however a further increase in water temperature could result in a huge decline of salmon population, since warmer water makes the fish more susceptible to predators, parasites and disease.
Additionally expanded industrial activity is harming salmon’s key habitat by destroying salmon streams and important wetlands.
GOVERNMENTAL REFUSALS AND LOSS OF TRIBAL CULTURE
Although there have been sporadic initiatives mainly regarding resettlements by the US government, it has failed to help Alaskan native tribes adapt to climate change. While big businesses, which depend on Alaska’s natural resources, are taking control over the county, natives aren’t given a voice in most decision making procedures.
Due to the current climatic developments, the indigenous people are on the verge of losing their unique way of life. This results from the consequences of our actions, which ultimately push the indigenous society more and more into a western economic system, making them lose their cultural identity. In addition, the bureaucratic framework often makes it difficult to provide state aid to indigenous communities, as socially tangible consequences as a result of the generally slow rise in temperature are unprecedented.
Native alaskan culture is at a turning point. Its future is determined by whether we are able to reduce our carbon footprint, increase global environmental consciousness and therefore stop and partly reverse global warming. A culture that defines itself by the resources and the environment they have always lived with and in, will not be able to flourish in another setting.
We should therefore all take advantage of the digital revolution we are finding ourselves in and, in the context of our shared global responsibility, act on a personal and corporate level to counter climate change.
Many of the datasets made available through the Planet OS Datahub have been at the request of our users. For those who require a consolidated, easy to use, resource for accessing large and complex material that the Datahub does not already offer, please reach out to the team and we will work toward bringing it onboard. For more information check out the Planet OS Datahub.