On the Frontlines of Climate Change

On September 13, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that Arctic sea ice extent had settled at 1.79 million square miles. It was the eighth lowest annual minimum in a 38-year satellite record. With the Arctic heating at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, the alarming loss of summer sea ice continues its downward trajectory. While this year was not one for the record books, ice retreat in the North remains of high concern. In August, the ice edge in the Beaufort Sea retreated to its furthest point north for the first time since satellite records began in 1979.

The topic of sea ice loss usually conjures up an image of a lone polar bear on an ice floe, adrift in the middle of the ocean. We often forget about the impacts to people. In order to better to shed light on this perspective, I was able to speak to Austin Ahmasuk, marine advocate at Kawerak, a community-based organization based in Nome. We started the interview talking about sea ice, but the conversation soon flowed into many different streams, highlighting the intersectional nature of climate change, culture and advocacy.

Here are some highlights.


Emi: How important is sea ice to your community—how would you explain this to other people who do not understand why it’s important to you and your way of life?

Austin: I think what people need to realize is that when you talk about the loss of the cryosphere [the frozen water part of the Earth system] at the North or South pole—you can’t have that unless there’s climate change. The Earth is warming and it’s transforming the cryosphere into something else—water or gas. You’re impacting glaciers. That’s ice that was laid down over hundreds of thousands of years… just disappearing.

Here in the north, we’re a maritime culture. Soon, some of our communities will be underwater. That’s simply what it means. Sea levels are going to rise and some communities may be inundated in the near future.

Emi: The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, how have these changes manifested in your everyday life?

Austin: In terms of the impact on our communities and our culture. Our culture does adapt. Our legends talk about the dramatic change we’ve endured and adapted to. Change is certainly a part of our story of creation and part of our legends that have been with us for a very long time.

Emi: What worries you the most? Are you worried that you’ll have to leave certain cultural traditions behind?

Austin: No, no, no. There are a lot of mammals in the North. The animals in the South may move North, like sea lions or pacific cod. For me, I’m a lifelong walrus hunter. It is a pinnacle event that requires a lot of coordination amongst various people—you need friends, family and a crew. It takes a lot of preparation. It would certainly be saddening if walrus moved so far north that they were no longer here. The loss of walrus is something that’s not in our experience. Or the loss of polar bear. I haven’t seen a polar bear for about 10 years. I haven’t seen any in quite a while. That as well is a significant loss because it’s [the loss of polar bears] is not in our experience.



Emi: What changes has your community undergone in response to the changing climate?

Austin: The climate change that we know from our legends didn’t mean that we lost any culture. In fact, the kind of culture that we have now is a result of our ancestors and their adaptations to climate change. Cultural loss is primarily a mechanism of politics and racism and outright prejudice. Here in Alaska, much of the cultural loss is due to national policies. In the early 1900’s, native Alaskan people were not U.S. citizens, so we couldn’t own land. We couldn’t establish our foothold in Alaska until native allotments—and that didn’t happen until we started to understand English. Then came oil discovery in Alaska, which changed everything dramatically.  It resulted in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which is federal legislation that extinguished our aboriginal hunting and fishing rights, as well as our claim to Alaska. So, cultural loss is a factor of politics, racism and prejudice.

Emi:  How have you tried to preserve and promote cultural knowledge and traditions?

Austin: We have been working seriously on this for the past 40 years to build a strong foundation because we know we need to create our own knowledge, and get our knowledge incorporated into decision making. We have to be the champion of our own knowledge. We need to offer that to the world because when it comes to dealing with Arctic—maritime people—we know a few things from being here for many thousands of years that can help the world better manage the North.

For the last 30 years we have been saying the same thing: incorporate what we know, incorporate our traditional knowledge in federal decision making. Respect the land. Respect the ocean. Find that compassionate ear in government. End the cultural destruction that’s occurring nowadays.


Emi: What can people do to change this global problem of melting sea ice?

Austin: It’s pretty obvious. People need to make the connection between their actions and how it impacts the globe. And if that thought process involves First Nations people like myself, consideration for our history and our knowledge, I personally think that if that’s done we’ll be in a better place. We have something to offer. I think that together we can bring us all to a better place. We can figure out a better way to manage Northern environments and seas if our traditional knowledge is incorporated.

Talking to Austin was a unique opportunity—thought-provoking and illuminating. The most striking thing he shared was the bond his people have with their environment. “We consider ourselves a part of the environment—just like the fish and wildlife,” he said, “Most of all our traditions come from that connection. There is very little separation from human to animal.” It highlighted the importance of listening to communities on the frontlines of climate change. We must seek to incorporate their cultural knowledge in decision making, and honor the true voice of their narrative. I may have begun thinking that indigenous communities are often cast in a role similar to that of the lone polar bear.  That singular narrative of powerlessness in the face of climate change is not uncommon. But “powerless” is not a word I would use to describe Austin or the Arctic indigenous peoples. Melting sea ice is not a challenge we should take lightly but neither is the resilience, strength and knowledge of Alaska’s native communities.

Our work is focused on solving some of the greatest threats facing our ocean today. We bring people, science and policy together to champion innovative solutions and fight for a sustainable ocean.
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