In Alaska, climate change is a supply chain stressor jeopardizing food security
The cargo ships lined up outside U.S. ports have revealed cracks in the global supply chain. And while businesses and consumers are feeling the pinch, the problem is projected to ease over time. But for America’s northernmost citizens, those living in the Alaskan Arctic, more intractable supply chain woes are at hand. They stem from the dizzying pace of climate change in the North and pose real threats to food security, mental health and long-held cultural traditions.
For many Alaskans, the supply chain that puts food on the table is a thing called subsistence. It entails striking out onto the land or the sea to obtain foods that are then shared with family and community members. Residents across Alaska engage in subsistence, but in rural areas it can provide most of the protein in individual diets. The practice is often informed by millennia of hard-earned traditional knowledge about the land and, especially for Alaska Native people, it is central to cultural identity.
The diversity, abundance and nutritional value of Alaska’s food resources are remarkable and range from crab and salmon to moose and caribou, along with a seemingly infinite array of berries and other wild plants. For Alaska Natives, it also includes legally protected harvesting of marine mammals such as walrus, whales and seals. Combined, these foods staple together Northern diets, providing the nutrition that both builds young minds and keeps elders warm.
Subsistence, which Congress first protected with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, passed 50 years ago this month, is sometimes mischaracterized as a lifestyle. But for many it is an economic imperative, especially in communities lying far from the continent’s road system. These include dozens of Arctic communities along Alaska’s far western and northern coasts, including Nome, Kotzebue, and Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow). Here, store-bought food can be prohibitively expensive, delivery is slow and healthy options are limited, making food from the land an essential resource.
But especially in Arctic Alaska, climate change is upending the subsistence supply chain by rearranging every major element of the landscape, including its vegetation, soil, snow cover, ocean temperatures, wildfire regimes and more. Scientists and community members say it is swiftly turning the landscape into something unrecognizable, which is disrupting the predictability of weather, ice and other conditions long tied to subsistence.
Consider the loss of sea ice as just one cascading example. Although autumn 2021 saw some of the best seasonal sea ice formation in a decade, steady declines since 1990 have created vast areas of open ocean. Along with skyrocketing water temperatures, it is believed to be connected in complex ways to fatal illnesses in seals, dramatic shifts in fisheries central to both human and marine mammal diets, as well as multi-year seabird die-offs, which have killed hundreds of thousands of kittiwakes, puffins, murres and others.
It is implicated in more insidious change, too. Scientists working off Alaska’s Chukchi Sea coast recently discovered massive beds of the marine algae that triggers deadly red tides, which could further disrupt northern ecosystems. The phenomenon sparks fish and marine mammal die-offs and fishery closures in other parts of the world but is not historically known to occur in Arctic waters. Scientists have stopped short of predicting imminent red tides, but they say the collapse of Arctic sea ice now heightens their likelihood.
All these changes impact traditional foods, from bird eggs to shellfish to marine mammals and beyond. But the concurrent effect on commercial fisheries, like this year’s sharp cutbacks on Alaska’s famed crab fisheries, also threaten economic losses. Those, in turn, impede residents’ ability to maintain boats and other equipment necessary for subsistence.
Declining sea ice also erodes vital wintertime travel routes, curtailing affordable transit between communities and erasing the access that hunters rely on to reach fish, seals, walrus, whales and other resources. It has also made coastal communities susceptible to stronger wave action, which tears away at the land, threatening schools, homes and even entire villages.
All that is just from declining sea ice. Similar chain reactions can be traced through thawing permafrost, warming rivers and changing precipitation patterns. The latter was highlighted over Christmas weekend, when a major rain-on-snow event struck the Fairbanks area. It destroyed the roof of one community’s only food store, with the next closest option 70 miles away. But its long-term effect is likely more hardship for declining caribou, another key human food source, which struggle to survive when ice hardens the snowpack.
Just like the many Americans whose lives are disrupted by strengthening wildfires, droughts and storms, Alaskans are resilient and resourceful people. But their experience at the leading edge of the climate crisis is a warning to the rest of the country, especially as Congress ends yet another year without adequately acting on climate.
Tim Lydon has worked on the public lands in the West and Alaska for three decades, in both commercial guiding and federal lands management. His is the author of “Passage to Alaska, Two Months Sea Kayaking the Inside Passage.” Follow him @TimLydonAK.
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