SUS1402:             Climate Change Impacts and Options: Case Studies in the Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska

Speaker:              R. Steven Konkel, PhD


In the Northwest Arctic Borough, the impact of climate on environmental conditions is a fact of life, and with this comes a substantial challenge to the Native Inupiat lifestyle, culture, and traditional subsistence "way of life." Like areas which are being inundated by sea level rise, these changes are affecting drinking water, sanitation and other infrastructure at the "coalface" where these impacts are most evident in the US.  See how environmental health practitioners are providing innovative solutions that promote resilience and adaptation rather than foregoing a cultural and community identity.



The lifestyle, culture and subsistence activities of the Alaska Inupiat have evolved over thousands of years.  Alaska has a rich history from the early contact years with the Russians, to the gold rush era to “black gold.”   Moving from territorial status to becoming the 49th state, a major Native land claims settlement (ANCSA of 1971) and the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) have set the stage for how Native cultures will adapt and fare in this Alaskan portion of the Arctic.

Climate impacts in many of the villages in the NW Arctic Borough have been documented by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and others. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will have issued its 5th Assessment by the time NEHA holds its 78th AEC. In this presentation we will explore the major impacts that are resulting from changes in the climate in the Borough, including impacts on subsistence activities, which affects diet and human health. Unpredictable and unusual weather has combined with changes in permafrost and freeze-thaw cycles, impacting not only transportation, but also construction of resilient utility systems, such as drinking water plants in Kivalina.  The community water supply is vulnerable to changes in the Wuluk River and watershed, as well as to changes in shorefast sea ice where erosion washed out a major water line.

Innovation is required if the residents of villages such as Kivalina, Selawik, and Point Hope are going to thrive in this time of many changes in environmental conditions.  Sustainable utilities are needed to support healthy, sustainable communities.  In this portion of the Arctic, the effects of climate change can already be seen. One solution is to empower local communities through a local environmental observer program.  Certainly a “fit for purpose” energy policy would support lessening the dependence on expensive diesel fuel; wind generators have reduced dependence on diesel in Kotzebue. Environmental health solutions contribute to the continuation of the lifestyle, culture and subsistence that have been practiced by Native ancestors.  A new era of climate change brings challenge as well as opportunity for innovation.