Villagers say warmer climate is forcing community changes

Posted: Wednesday, February 08, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Fire breaks protecting homes were never part of the traditional culture in Huslia, an Athabascan village on the Koyukuk River.

But recent forest fires have burned hotter and more frequently, a change most people blame on global warming, and Huslia has had to adapt, said William Derendoff, 61, the traditional chief.

A day after scientists presented research findings on how warming is melting sea ice and changing marine ecosystems in the Arctic, Derendoff and other village leaders at the Alaska Forum on the Environment on Tuesday told how climate change is hitting their rural communities.

"These changes are going to impact Native people probably more than any other group," said Larry Merculieff, an Aleut who grew up in the Pribilof Islands.

"We're facing really big changes," Merculieff said. "The villages have to start thinking about it now."

Some changes have been spectacular. Edwin Weyiouanna of the Inupiat Eskimo village of Shishmaref presented the latest on well-documented changes to his island community of about 600 people in the Chukchi Sea just north of Bering Strait.

No longer protected by early winter sea ice or ground that's permanently frozen, the community has been pounded and eroded by storms. Villagers in 2002 voted to relocate to the mainland and hope to obtain millions in federal dollars money to make the move.

Changes at Huslia are more subtle.

"Unfortunately, out knowledge is not documented," Derendoff said. "We don't go by percentages. We go by what we see."

Hotter summers have stressed area spruce forests, making them susceptible to forest fires, Derendoff said.

"A lot of the spruce trees are kind of brown, not green," Derendoff said. "When we have a fire, it really goes."

A 30-acre fire last summer threatened the village. Though trees and brush had been cleared from around the landfill, a flame from burning trash lit caribou moss and fire spread to forest.

"Fortunately, we caught it in time," he said.

As in Shishmaref, permafrost - ground that stays below freezing for a minimum of two years - has melted and no longer provides a barrier against Koyukuk River erosion, Derendoff said.

Lakes that traditionally flooded with river water no longer are doing so, Derendoff said, changing where villagers fish.

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