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National Report Says Alaska Natives, Rural Alaskans Bear The Brunt Of Climate Change

Katie Basile

A national climate report says what many Alaskans already know: the state is warming twice as fast as the rest of the country. Rural and Alaska Native communities are the first to feel those impacts, and the stakes are especially high for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta because the region is home to the greatest number of tribes in the state.

Warren Jones is from Quinhagak, a village that sits close to the Kuskokwim Bay. Just last week he went fishing for trout, which is not a normal activity for November.

"Our river should be frozen right now as of [November 28]," Jones said. "Our river is wide open. A couple of boats are out there."

Jones is also the CEO of Quinhagak's Qanirtuuq Corporation. The community is trying to save artifacts from an ancient village nearby because they feared their heritage would wash out to the sea due to erosion caused by climate change. From his office window, Jones can see other climate impacts on the Kuskokwim Bay.

"The bay ice out there, I’m looking out the window, there’s still open water. There’s some small white icebergs out there, but nothing thick enough to stand on," Jones said. 

Everything Jones has seen is catalogued in the recent national climate assessment report. One chapter is dedicated to the impacts on Indigenous communities, and another on Alaska. Scientist Sarah Trainor helped write the Alaska chapter. She says that rural Alaska, and Indigenous communities, will bear the brunt of climate change.

"Because you are more connected to the environmental change, it affects you more directly," Trainor said. "You travel on the rivers, so when it’s not frozen it matters to you. Your water source is right there. If it gets contaminated, it’s much more direct connection, which is why the rural communities are more affected."

About 87 percent of Alaska Native communities are experiencing erosion. In the Y-K Delta, residents rely on rivers freezing over so they can travel to other villages by snowmachine or car, and so they can hunt and fish safely in the winter. Trainor says that poorer communities will struggle the most from climate change. They’ll see higher infrastructure costs and more threats to their food supply. The Y-K Delta is the poorest region in Alaska, and its remote communities depend heavily on subsistence.

Some villages are also facing relocation. Newtok is the village that’s closest to being able to relocate, and it will cost them millions and millions of dollars to move. Quinhagak’s Jones says that all the villages will have to move some day.

"I suggest the villages start collecting data for erosion protection because it’s going affect them sooner than later," Jones said.

But he adds that the Yup’ik culture has always adapted to a changing environment, and that this is just the latest adaptation in millennia of them.