How Arctic and Subarctic Peoples Perceive Climate Change

A map of the study area (Source: Ecology and Society).

Indigenous Arctic and Subarctic communities face social and environmental challenges that could impact their traditional knowledge systems and livelihoods, decreasing their adaptive capacity to climate change. In a paper featured in Ecology and Society, Nicole Herman-Mercer et al. discuss recent research that took place during an interdisciplinary project called Strategic Needs of Water on the Yukon (SNOWY). The project focused on how indigenous communities in the Lower Yukon River Basin and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta regions of Alaska interpret climate change.

Global warming has had a significant impact on these regions, with mean annual temperatures increasing 1.7°C over the past 60 years, according to the study. Rising temperatures are predicted to further change water chemistry, alter permafrost distribution, and increase glacier melt. These changes have had a massive impact on the residents living in the Yukon River Basin and their indigenous knowledge, as well as on the basin itself. For example, the basin’s largest glacier, the Llewellyn Glacier, has had a major contribution to increased runoff. 

Llewellyn Glacier in the Yukon River Basin (Source: Kirk Miller/Creative Commons).

With environments changing at an ever-rapid pace around the world, more studies have begun to focus on indigenous knowledge and climate change vulnerability. Scientists believe it is important to understand indigenous culture because indigenous knowledge informs perceptions of environmental change and impacts how communities interpret and respond to risk.

The focus of previous studies in the Arctic and Subarctic had been on older generations in the community, whose observations help shape historical baseline records of weather and climate. These records are frequently missing or incomplete. However, as Herman-Mercer et al. explain, the role of younger generations in indigenous Yukon communities is often overlooked, despite younger people driving community adaptation efforts in response to climate change. Additionally, Kusilvak County, Alaska, where Herman-Mercer et al. focused their study, has a median age of 21.9 years, which makes it the youngest county in the United States.

A view of the Pilot Stations (Source: Paul F. Schuster).
A view of the Pilot Stations (Source: Paul F. Schuster/SNOWY).

During the project, Herman-Mercer et al. studied four villages with populations under 1,000 people. These villages are home to the native Alaska communities of the Yup’ik and Cup’ik peoples, named for the two main dialects of the Yup’ik language. These indigenous communities are traditionally subsistence-based, with the availability of game and fish, such as moose, salmon, and seals, determining the location of seasonal camps and villages.

Herman-Mercer et al. interviewed residents to better understand the communities’ observations of climate change and relationship with the environment. For example, the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people traditionally believe in a reciprocal relationship between humans and the environment, which influences how they view natural disasters and climate change. Rather than seeing these events as naturally occurring, the communities believe that environmental events are punishment for improper human behavior. As a result, the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people have cautionary tales of past famines and poor harvest seasons caused by immoral behavior. These tales also contain information on how to survive hardships using specific codes of conduct.

Herman-Mercer et al. relied on three methods to obtain interview participants for the study. First, the researchers had local partners and facilitators recruit members of the communities who were seen as experts. Then a community dinner was held in order to introduce the research team and SNOWY to the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people. Lastly, the researchers used a “snowball” approach in which the team encouraged participants to recommend other people for the study.

Nicole Herman-Mercer explained to GlacierHub that all but two of the interviews were conducted in English. For the two remaining interviews, a translator was used. In order to avoid influencing answers, the researchers refrained from using the phrase “climate change” when speaking with the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people. The research team then sorted the participants into four cohorts based on their ages: Cohort 1 was comprised of Millennials (early 1980s to present), Cohort 2 of Generation X (early 1960s to early 1980s), Cohort 3 of Baby Boomers (1946-1964), and Cohort 4 of participants over age 65 (the point at which a community member becomes an elder).

Village of Chevak (Source: Kelly Elder/SNOWY).

The interviews demonstrated that all participants observed changes in the environment occurring over a number of years and across seasons. However, older and younger generations had different perceptions of environmental changes and alternate contexts in which to understand these changes, according to Herman-Mercer et al. For example, younger generations believed that the warmer temperatures are part of the norm, while older generations noted differences between current and past climate conditions. In fact, younger generations had to be specifically prompted on their thoughts on how climate has changed, while older generations were generally forthcoming about their views on how climate has changed throughout the decades. Younger generations tended to remark more on other changes related to climate, such as the diminished populations of game animals.

In addition, the reciprocal relationship pivotal to the Yup’ik and Cup’ik communities was interestingly not mentioned by the younger generations. Herman-Mercer told GlacierHub that she is not fully aware of the implications of this finding, but she understands that it will have significant meaning for the future. The relationship between the communities and the environment is still prevalent in the worldview of the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people, but it is manifesting differently within younger generations. For example, historical Yup’ik traditional rituals like giving water back to the Earth are not practiced as before, but the relationship is still part of the culture.

Village of Kotlik (Source: Kelly Elder/SNOWY).

From a social perspective, the Yukon River Basin communities have undergone very large changes in a few short decades. In that time, many residents have gone from living in houses made from sod to modern homes with running water and electricity. Younger generations in particular have access to technology like smart phones. 

Herman-Mercer told GlacierHub that even older generations are now hunting with the aid of GPS and benefiting from its use. As the study explains, this increased connectivity has occurred more dramatically in these indigenous communities than elsewhere in the United States. With the rising effects of climate change and evolving societal norms, it is unclear how the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people will continue to communicate between generations. However, the combination of the younger generations’ steps towards adaptation and the elders’ perspectives of cultural history and knowledge will be key in helping these communities adapt to climate change.  

In the future, Herman-Mercer believes that technology can be used to spread indigenous knowledge and help communities cope with climate change. She has already witnessed residents taking to digital platforms to share their knowledge and awareness. Historically, the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people have had to adapt to the changing conditions of a harsh Arctic environment. By sharing indigenous knowledge using modern tools, older generations can further teach the younger generations how to cope with climate change.