Natives say climate changes hurting subsistence

Posted: Friday, May 19, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Dramatic climate changes are under way in Alaska that are making it harder for Natives to continue their subsistence lifestyles, a scientific gathering in Washington, D.C. was told this week.

Large populations of seabirds are dying off, said Caleb Pungowiyi, special Native affairs adviser to the Marine Mammal Commission, told the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States.

Other people speaking before the scientific conference on Thursday supported Native observations that thinning sea ice is probably triggering population declines for walruses, seals and other sea mammals.

The retreating ice eliminates haulout areas for the walruses and seals. Sue Moore of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle said the ice pack in recent years has retreated as much as 120 miles north of Alaska's arctic coast.

That distance makes it hard for the walruses, particularly young ones, to reach coastal clam beds to feed.

Pungowiyi said Natives reported seeing large numbers of stranded and starving seal pups after an unusually warm 1996-97 winter and spring, and dead pups were reported washing up on the beaches throughout the Bering Strait region.

Scientists are coming to believe that all of these changes have a common tie: a steady rise in temperatures around the Arctic.

Kevin Hall, a geographer with the University of Northern British Columbia, predicted that migrating herds of caribou and musk oxen are likely to accelerate erosion and permafrost melting as the Arctic warms.

Hall said the caribou will likely trample ever widening paths through the melting permafrost. That will cause erosion, solar warming and the introduction of increasing volumes of nutrients and sediment into rivers and coastal waters.

Not all of the consequences of Arctic warming are necessarily bad for animals, scientists say. With less sea ice to encumber their passage, whales may not be so confined to coastal areas, where they are more easily hunted by Natives, Moore said.

But Pungowiyi said warming weather in the Arctic makes village life more difficult. The summers are wetter, making it harder to dry the fish and caribou meat for winter.

In some areas, the meat has rotted on the drying racks, he said, and the quality of other staples, such as berries and roots, also is reduced by the wetter weather.

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