Changes in climate are disproportionately affecting northern latitudes, and this is altering relationships between human societies and their environments. Rural communities in boreal Alaska rely heavily on natural resources for provisional and cultural purposes, and have reported challenges caused by contemporary environmental changes. Environmental disturbances associated with climate change, such as shifts in fire regime, hydrologic changes affecting waterways, thawing of permafrost, extreme weather events, and unstable snow and ice conditions, have been qualitatively associated with altered accessibility of subsistence resources.
Our research objective was to quantify the impact of disturbances driven by climate change on access to ecosystem services in Interior Alaska. In collaboration with nine rural boreal Alaska communities, we documented changes observed by subsistence users. Geotagged photos of disturbances that community members encountered while engaged in resource gathering activities were coupled with their interpretation of the impact of the disturbance on their travel, as well as traditional ecological knowledge gathered through comprehensive interviews on the history of environmental disturbances in their subsistence harvest areas.
We identified eight general categories of climatic change influencing access to resources by rural residents: ice conditions, snow conditions, water levels, erosion, sedimentation, vegetative community composition, windy days, and undetermined. We then used frequency and intensity information for the disturbances reported to conduct a vulnerability assessment to identify which disturbances were having the greatest impact on travel. Preliminary analyses indicate that water levels, erosion, snow conditions and ice conditions are the most detrimental to rural residents’ abilities to travel and access subsistence resources across the Interior.
Through combining traditional ecological knowledge and scientific analysis, we characterized the impact of climate change on travel networks used for subsistence resource harvest across the study region and provide information that collaborating communities can use to optimize community resilience and self-reliance. These data can be used by agencies and local communities to foster adaptation to a rapidly changing climate.