Climate Change And The Arctic

Unless we fight climate change now and support those who are already being impacted, the world will lose not only its natural splendor but its cultural richness as well.

By: Madison Shea

(Above: A polar bear swims in the Beaufort Sea, eight miles offshore from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Steven Kazlowski /

When I shop for groceries I complain about the half hour bus ride, how heavy a gallon of milk is, and how the items I need never seem to be on sale when I need them. When I shop for groceries I know, no matter how bad my work week has been or what expenses are piling up, the bare necessities will be there and be affordable. When I shop for groceries I don’t worry that there won’t be bread, or that milk will cost fifteen dollars. I don’t live in fear that I or those I love won’t have food to put dinner on the table. 

Within remote communities like those in the Arctic, there is no regular trip to the grocery store, not with prices often exponentially higher than what is seen in stores in the lower 48.

Red potatoes at a grocery store in Old Crow, Yukon, Canada. In today’s U.S. dollars, that 10-pound bag of potatoes would cost $13.55. (Darius Elias, Facebook)

In communities like these, traditional means of securing food are relied upon to survive — fishing and hunting whales, seals or caribou — and even these tried and true methods are not guaranteed in today’s day and age. According to the National Climate Assessment, the rate at which Alaska’s temperature has been warming is twice as fast as the global average since the middle of the 20th century, and the impacts are being felt in particular by Indigenous peoples in the Arctic — studies have shown that Indigenous communities are being disproportionately impacted by increased wildfires, drought, flooding and erosion, as well as decreases in wildlife, fish and plants. All of which have their roots in changing climate.

See the full National Climate Report online.

Communities located on the coast or along river flood plains, those reliant on climate sensitive resources, or those exposed to extreme weather conditions are most at risk, and many Alaska Native communities fit into these categories. Without access to traditional resources and without a means to buy food for a reasonable price, especially fresh food, Indigenous peoples in Alaska are at a huge risk for food insecurity and hunger right now due to climate change.

A 2015 article published by the National Congress of American Indians stated that at least 31 Alaska Native villages qualified for permanent relocation based on climate-based damages to their home. This makes Alaska Natives amongst the first climate change refugees in the world. No matter how bad it gets, however, relocation is not an option for many who view their land and the use of its animals as a critical element of their culture and traditions. To preserve these cultures and their people, drastic action needs to be taken to combat climate change and slow its effects, and drilling for oil and other activities that would further threaten the land need to be prevented.

Warming ocean waters are leading to increased acidification and declining sea ice. Populations of fish are decreasing, impacting food chains of marine mammals that Alaska Natives rely on. These impacts will only be sped up by drilling in the Arctic. Industrial activities would also introduce the threat of oil spills, further our reliance on fossil fuels, and disturb the breeding and feeding behaviors of countless animals that are already threatened by climate change.

The Porcupine caribou herd is one of many animal populations that depend on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain, migrating there each year to birth and rear their young. Drilling on the coastal plain would disrupt caribou migration and calving — a devastating possibility for the Gwich’in people for whom the Porcupine caribou are a critical resource. Without the caribou, the Gwich’in do not only lose a source of food, but part of their cultural identity.

Porcupine caribou, a vital source of food for the Gwich’in people, gather and give birth each summer on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Alaska Wilderness League / Mladen Mates)

As hopeless as this all seems, Indigenous peoples are already beginning to adapt to their new reality of climate change. Preparation for flooding and tracking of seasonal disasters have been some ways in which the Inupiat and others have taken matters into their own hands. However, preparedness can only do so much to evade the impacts of flooding and erosion on infrastructure, which is already lacking in many areas in Alaska. The impacts of climate change have been enough for a recent push to bring in more environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuels. In 2018, there was a more than 20% increase in renewable energy relatable jobs in Alaska according to Forbes. Encouraging Alaska to move even further towards clean energy is a crucial step in combating the many climate-based disasters in the state.

Protecting Alaska’s wildlands and fighting climate change isn’t just about saving polar bears or baby seals from disappearing sea ice — it’s about real people facing real danger. Climate change is threatening the ways Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have hunted and gathered food for thousands of years, and opening new Arctic frontiers to drilling will only add fuel to the fire. Unless we fight climate change now and support those who are already being impacted, the world will lose not only its natural splendor but its cultural richness as well.  

Madison Shea was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and attends the University of Minnesota. She is currently majoring in Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology with an emphasis on conservation and a Marine Biology minor. Having visited Alaska as a child, she found herself naturally drawn to and wanting to be involved in the fight for preserving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Madison is currently interning with Alaska Wilderness League.