• Blake Gentry

I. Alaskan and Canadian Arctic Warming

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

This blog in the Series, Climate Adaptation and Indigenous Response in the Arctic, reviews current arctic Alaskan and Canadian climate conditions and environmental impacts on indigenous lands, peoples, and animal species. It shares information on an indigenous climate adaptation tool for sea ice.

Blake Gentry


Projections of surface-air temperature increase from the IPCC WGIII AR5, Figure 2.1, p. 6.

Utqiagvik is an indigenous Inupiaq Alaskan city undergoing life altering forms of climate change; changes that erode centuries of food storage strategies Alaskan natives use to preserve whale and caribou meat. It is the furthest northern city in the United States, and rests north of the Arctic Circle [1]. Carved out of the frozen tundra, underground ice lockers traditionally kept provisions frozen until needed for later consumption.

Rising temperatures are melting and then collapsing the permafrost cap exposing their small caverns to air; turning ice to slush. Permafrost melt has been noted as far south as the southernmost Inuit community located far to the east of Utqiagvik at Kikiaq (English: Rigolet) in eastern Canada’s Labrador Province at 54°10′47″N, while Utqiagvik is over six degrees of latitude north at 60°56′40″N. The graph [2] shown illustrates global historical and projected annual average rise in temperatures under current IPCC SERES A1 Fl emissions scenarios.


However, the rise in average annual temperatures for Alaska is roughly three times that of non-Artic areas globally with average annual temperatures rising 4.2o C from 1970 compared to 2018 as illustrated here; even given a much shorter period. [3]

The severity of these climate impacts in the Alaskan Artic, sea ice and permafrost melt is directly linked to the rate of global warming.

Further east in the Artic, where Ni’inlii peoples live in Canada’s Northern Yukon and Northwest Territories, the region experiences a rate of winter warming at 3.5 degrees Celsius in the past 50 years (data from 2013) which is 57 percent higher [4] compared to the IPCC’s projected optimistic global average of 1.5 C as illustrated in the first global temperature graphic on the left above. The average annual temperature rise reported for Alaska in the IPCC’s 1.5 0 C Special Report is within the actual results illustrated on the graph on the left as approximately a 3.5o C rise by 2020 relative to an 1880-1861 baseline.[5] The adjacent graph for the contiguous United States demonstrates a rise of less than 2o C for the same period.

The rising ocean waters along the ocean shore in coastal Northern and Northwestern Alaska are eroding the very foundation of indigenous arctic communities. Sea ice forms seasonally, but thinner and less extensive sea ice is particularly concerning for indigenous peoples living in proximity to the Chukchi Sea, where the ice sheet is “well below average” in December of 2019 in comparison to the 1981 to 2010 average.[6] That makes boat launches for whaling more difficult for indigenous whose livelihoods rely in part on whale meat for proteins. Due to ocean warming whale populations are in migration in the northern temperate zone toward arctic zone coastal waters having started as far south as the Gulf of California. The Arctic Ocean will be nearly ice-free during the summer within this century, probably within the next 30-40 years.[7] The melting of permafrost in the tundra increasingly releases tons of carbon in a region which functions as the antechamber to the polar ice cap.

Measuring permafrost melting is a practical matter however for University of Alaska student Lanjon Brower, as reported by Brian Kahn at Earther. Lanjon is the son of a whaler whose family depends on storing traditional food in their own ice cellars. He has begun to gauge the level of humidity which increases with melting as ground temperatures warm up surface air which then satiates air born water. In addition to humidity, he also measures temperature itself, using both measures as indicators for calculating thresholds of melting that threaten their food supplies.[8]

Melting permafrost creates other environmental consequences for Alaska residents. Because of permafrost thinning, there are increased shifts in soil instability producing landslides. Grasses and other plants can then become fuel; ironically transforming some patches of permafrost arctic ice into the equivalent of prairie fires. These are tangible climate impacts in Alaska, but there are far worse ones.

In addition to glacier melts like the massive glaciers at Greenland, Arctic sea Ice is also melting. Sea ice formation is needed for seasonal wildlife migration and the tracking of them by their human predators. Melting arctic ice in general, and on a much smaller scale -sea ice - is also rising sea levels, adding to the erosion of coastal shores, and making boat launches for whaling more difficult for indigenous whose livelihoods and food security rely in part on whale meat for proteins.

Measuring this climate driven transformation of landscape is part of an unfolding reality of climate change in Alaska, the largest land mass of any US state. Climate change adaptation assessment and planning in coastal indigenous communities may have to be applied further inland as forced migration begins when coastal adaptation is not wholly possible. As the U.S. Fourth Climate Assessment [9] observes:

Longer sea ice-free seasons, higher ground temperatures, and relative sea level rise are expected to exacerbate flooding and accelerate erosion in many regions, leading to the loss of terrestrial habitat in the future and in some cases requiring entire communities or portions of communities to relocate to safer terrain.

The assessment underlines that:

Alaska’s rural communities are predominantly inhabited by Indigenous peoples who may be disproportionately vulnerable to socio-economic and environmental change . .

Warming and sea level rise are climate changes in the larger Arctic region. North Pacific and Western Arctic coastal shelves within the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas are undergoing ocean acidification; the Beaufort Sea seasonally as of 2001, the Chukchi Sea projected for 2030, and Bering Sea by 2065 (see graph below: Projected Changes in Arctic Ocean Acidity). One secondary impact is diminished marine species’ shell and skeleton formation.

Multiple species that indigenous coastal peoples subside on, including polar bears and walrus, are undergoing transformational disruption. Other species are positively affected such as marine fisheries which migrate north in newly opening Pacific iceless waters. But other marine life species thought to be negatively affected are: Tanner, red king crab and pink salmon, flatfish; as well as pteropods such as pelagic sea snails, sea slugs, and marine opisthobranch gastropods. Changing levels of aragonite saturation illustrated in the adjacent graph indicates lower pH levels which indicate relatively higher levels of ocean acidity.[10]

Warming is produced by carbon trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, currently close to 412 parts per million (ppm); a 48 percent increase from the dawn of the industrial age. [11] Alaskan State climate reporting on climate and indigenous recognized that:

Flexible, community-driven adaptation strategies would lessen these impacts by ensuring that climate risks are considered in the full context of the existing sociocultural systems.

In the next post of the series, Native Peoples and Permafrost in Alaska, Blake Gentry explores the human impacts of permafrost melt and it considers in situ versus ex-situ climate adaptation in a brief community case study.


The Higher Ground Foundation and blog author Blake Gentry publicly acknowledge the commentary and perspectives of Dr. E. Barrett Ristroph, Esq. which have better informed the blog series Climate Adaptation and Indigenous Response in the Arctic. Barrett has been working with Mike Walleri, Esq., Romy Cadiente, Relocation Coordinator, and the Newtok Village Council to provide planning and policy assistance in the Village's relocation to Mertarvik, Alaska.


[1] Stephen Fry (2008-11-16). Stephen Fry in America (Documentary). London, United Kingdom: British Broadcasting Corporation. [2] Turn Down The Heat: Confronting The New Climate Normal, “World Bank Group. 2014. Turn Down the Heat : Confronting the New Climate Normal. Washington, DC: World Bank. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/20595 License: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 IGO, [3] AMERICAN WARMING: The Fastest-Warming Cities and States in the U.S., Research Brief, Climate Central, April 17th, 2019, https://www.climatecentral.org/news/report-american-warming-us-heats-up-earth-day [4] Bronen (2013) op cit. [5] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC, 2018, Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.), 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/06/SR15_Full_Report_Low_Res.pdf [6] See: Low, but steady growth, National Snow and Ice Data Center, http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/, accessed 12-17-19 [7] Earth Observatory blog by Hriebeek, NASA, June 14th, 2011https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/earthmatters/2011/06/14/arctic-melt-raises-sea-levels-and-reinforces-global-warming/ [8] Brian Kahn, Alaska Natives Are Using Modern Technology to save Tradition, Earther, 11/17/17. https://earther.gizmodo.com/native-alaskans-are-using-modern-technology-to-save-tra-1820469720 [9] Markon, C., S. Gray, M. Berman, L. Eerkes-Medrano, T. Hennessy, H. Huntington, J. Littell, M. McCammon, R. Thoman, and S. Trainor, 2017: Alaska. In Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. May- cock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 1185–1241. doi: 10.7930/NCA4. 2018.CH26 [10] Ibid. [11] The Atmosphere: Getting a Handle on Carbon Dioxide Part Two, Alan Buis, October 9, 2019, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2915/the-atmosphere-getting-a-handle-on-carbon-dioxide/

55 views0 comments