Coastal communities plan for climate change at AK CASC workshop

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From the sweeping glass windows of the International Arctic Research Center at UAF, a dusting of mid-April snow brightens the room. Inside, fourteen representatives from five tribes have traveled to Fairbanks for a three-day knowledge-sharing workshop on a topic they are reckoning with daily: climate change.

The Looking Forward, Looking Back: Building Resilience Today workshop series, hosted by AK CASC and the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association aims to provide Alaska tribal communities who are at the forefront of climate change with the tools to plan and adapt for uncertain futures. Jerilyn Kelly, the mayor of Quinhagak, was looking for a way to get a head start on climate adaptation planning for her community. The request for representative leadership teams made up of city, tribal, and corporation members piqued her interest.

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Walter Hill from Quinhagak shares his observations of change to a group.

“There are not many opportunities for municipalities and especially corporations to get information on climate change,” Kelly says. “With the people (who we represent) as our focal point, we can put our differences aside and collaborate toward a better future,” says Kelly.

Already, these communities are managing the loss of traditional hunting and gathering grounds, damage to infrastructure, and dangerous spring conditions that impede travel. As erosion eats away at their shores and smoke from wildfires impacts community heal,they are coming together to share solutions and learn about tools available to them. The knowledge shared during these workshops, both from climate experts and their fellow communities around the state, they will take back and present to their communities. Scientists studying climate projections, scenarios, policy, and responses spoke to the group and had the opportunity to hear from the people witnessing the changes they study.

“Today’s extremes will not be tomorrow’s extremes,” says Rick Thoman, Alaska climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. As he shared trends and projections in temperature, permafrost, and more across the state, Thoman painted a picture of a future when events considered atypical today, such as the astounding decrease in sea ice in the Bering Sea, may be the norm. And the conditions we had relied on as normal, like winter travel across frozen landscapes, may be rare in the future. If the monumental shift in conditions is mind-boggling from a hypothetical standpoint, it’s nearly unimaginable from the perspective of communities who are watching it happen before their eyes.

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Tribal Liaison Malinda Chase works with community members on a climate change visualization exercise.

Participants illustrated the impacts they are noticing in their home communities through a series of visual exercises. Drawing changes to familiar landscapes and mapping connections from drivers of change to impacts not only helps to facilitate knowledge sharing and a personal connection to climate change but are also valuable tools that participants can use with their community members at home to relay the information.

Beyond the local and statewide perspective on climate adaptation in Alaska, the workshop covered how institutions and nations are facing climate change on a global scale. Defining the Arctic and Alaska’s role in it is an important conversation for rural communities to participate in.

“We might see the Arctic as one way, but the rest of the world who are making decisions about emissions might be thinking another way,” said AK CASC tribal liaison Malinda Chase. “We hope that by combining Traditional Knowledge with the latest western science into a useable format, these communities will be able to draw on the results of these workshops with meaningful results for their communities,” said AK CASC scientist Ryan Toohey.

Following the initial meeting in Fairbanks, the workshop organizers will travel to each community individually to help them synthesize traditional knowledge and identify important subsistence species and areas for the tribe. The series will culminate with a final meeting in Fairbanks this fall.