Former U.S. president Harry S. Truman coined the well-known phrase “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”. Who would have guessed that 70 years later that phrase would apply quite literally to thousands of Alaskan Native people, who are being driven not only out of their kitchens, but out of their centuries-old villages by the effects of rapidly rising temperatures in the Arctic.
The warming trend in Alaska and Arctic regions around the world is well documented and has been a source of concern for years. According to the 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment, over the past 60 years Alaska’s average temperature has increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit/1.6 degrees Celsius – twice the speed of the rest of the U.S. Even a seemingly small rise in average temperature can have a major impact on an ecosystem that is adapted to extreme cold, and the consequences are now evident in shifting seasonal patterns, thawing permafrost, loss of sea ice, increasing storm intensity and the rising sea levels that are forcing native villagers to consider relocation.
In August, residents of Shishmaref, a small Inupiat Eskimo village on an island in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, voted to relocate to escape the rising sea that is gradually claiming their island – land which they and their ancestors have inhabited for hundreds of years. Not only are they losing land to coastal erosion, but the villagers’ ability to hunt and fish for food is impacted by changes in sea ice; for instance, warmer temperatures have been lingering later in autumn, which postpones the formation of ice and the subsequent ability to travel further to gather food.
While there is a relative abundance of scientific models and data describing Arctic warming trends and their effects, residents need nothing more than their own experience and observations to understand what is happening. Communities such as these, whose livelihoods are directly dependent upon their local environment, have watched the changes happen over many years, and do not have the luxury of ignoring it, as do many people living in more insulated developed areas. Even a decade ago, 31 villages had been identified as facing “imminent threats” from flooding and erosion due to the impacts of climate change, and at least 12 Alaskan Native villages were considering relocation, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Alaska is not the only place feeling the pressure of a warming Arctic. Communities in northern Russia are experiencing damage to buildings and structures due to shifting ground as permafrost thaws. Permafrost is a layer of permanently frozen ground underneath the surface. Permafrost in some areas has been frozen for thousands of years, but with a warming climate, that frozen layer has begun to thaw. In places like the Russian city of Norilsk, this is causing foundations to shift, walls to crack, and roofs to cave in. Many residents in the city of 170,000 have been displaced as their buildings are deemed structurally unsound and condemned, and without a doubt there will be more as changes in the land continue.
But to where can an entire village move when its current location disappears? As a city slowly crumbles and its inhabitants are displaced, where do they go? These are complicated and perplexing problems, and no good solutions have been found yet. The conditions in the Arctic not only emphasize the very real and present threats to hundreds of thousands of residents there, but also provide a warning of potential impacts upon the greater global system. As sea ice decreases, sea levels rise, and weather patterns shift in the far north of our planet, the effects do not remain isolated there. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said recently at the international Arctic Circle Meeting in Iceland, “When the arctic suffers, the world feels the pain”.