Sea ice and smartphones

How Native Alaskans are adapting to climate change in the Arctic

The village of Wainwright, located on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, is one of many remote villages in Alaska that are only accessible by plane and snow machine. The people of Wainwright depend upon traditional subsistence foods including caribou, bowhead whale, bearded seal, and fish. Not only are subsistence foods important for the dietary needs of people in Wainwright, but they are integral to their spiritual, psychological, and cultural well-being. However, by altering wildlife migration patterns, changing marine and terrestrial food webs, and creating dangerous ice conditions for hunting, climate change is jeopardizing their subsistence way of life.

The beach in front of Wainwright, Alaska with inset map.

Although changes to the Arctic environment are putting intense pressure on Arctic communities to meet their subsistence needs, they have many strategies in place for dealing with a dynamic environment. Over the past two years, I have worked with a team of ecologists and social scientists including Dr. Tuula Hollmen, Dr. Henry Huntington, and Dr. James Lovvorn to document these strategies, and to introduce a form of decision analysis to identify future adaptive strategies. Decision analysis helps people to identify and prioritize solutions to complex problems by exploring how different alternative solutions satisfy a range of values-based objectives. Through a series of four workshops in Wainwright, we hoped to introduce decision analysis as a novel tool to enhance the resilience of the subsistence system.

Caribou, a key subsistence resource in Wainwright.

Our workshop participants were concerned about the increasing number of injuries and accidents that appear to be related to climate change in the North. We used decision analysis to help the community identify and prioritize strategies for enhancing hunter safety. After completing this process, the community applied for (and obtained) funding to provide safety workshops and purchase InReach tracking devices, which provide two-way communication between hunters and family members.

In addition to using decision analysis to prioritize future adaptive strategies, we documented how the community of Wainwright is already adapting to changing conditions. One striking example is their use of social media to help them anticipate the highly variable arrival times of subsistence wildlife species. Facebook connections between Wainwright hunters and other communities along the Bering and Chukchi Sea coasts provide real-time information on the locations of migrating walruses. This in turn allows hunters in Wainwright to prepare their equipment in anticipation of the arrival of walruses and to locate migrating walruses. Social media has been embraced by the people of Wainwright not only to get valuable information on the whereabouts of key subsistence resources, but also to connect friends and families across the vast Arctic landscape.

Sea ice on the Chukchi Sea.

The use of social media and modern technology have not replaced the dependence on traditional knowledge. For example, hunters interpret the arrival of snow buntings in the spring as a sign that bowhead whales will soon migrate past Wainwright. In addition, hunters look for patterns in the snow that indicate the direction of prevailing winds, which helps them find their way home when caught in a blizzard.

Despite the daunting challenges they face, the people of Wainwright appear to be in a good position to adapt to changing environmental conditions due to their diverse natural resources, strong social networks, awareness of challenges, and willingness to use innovative adaptive strategies. But perhaps their most important key to success is their sheer determination to perpetuate the subsistence way of life into the future.

Written by: Dr. Katie Christie

Photo credits: Katie Christie


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