Gwich’in Steering Committee releases climate summit report

Demientieff: planning under way for a second indigenous gathering on global warming

Officials with the Gwich’in Steering Committee at Fort Yukon have released the final report on their 2019 Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit and announced consideration of a second summit.

“We have been getting a lot of support to have another one,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

“We are working on having an Arctic task force or an indigenous committee with Alaskans and meeting to discuss our plans for future generations,” she said, in an email note from Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Nov. 6, where she had just testified before the United Nations.

The summit report concludes that climate change poses serious threats to food security for indigenous peoples across Alaska, by endangering subsistence hunts and fishing, and by shifting migratory patterns of animals, affecting their locations and timing of movements.

“These changes are more than a threat to food security – they present unjust and severe challenges to many indigenous cultures’ long-proven adaptive ways of flourishing,” the report said.

For the Gwich’in, the ability to survive and adapt to the rapidly changing climate in the North is inextricably linked with the health of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which the Gwich’in say faces another threat from oil and gas companies who want to drill in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the calving grounds for those caribou.

The report notes that in regional of heavy oil and gas infrastructure, caribou have been observed to unhealthy if present and others such as the Central Arctic Herd have changed migratory patterns and behaviors to avoid roads and pipelines. The Porcupine Caribou Herd is currently the only Arctic Alaska herd that has not seen a decline in population in recent years, the report said.

The report concludes that water temperatures in the Yukon River and its tributaries are staying above levels that cause heat stress in most salmon species for longer and reaching temperatures fatal to many salmon species. A month after the 2019 summit high temperatures led to a massive salmon death event in the Koyukuk and other rivers. Limited access to king salmon fishing due to low numbers is also having a negative impact on communities, and salmon spawning locations on the Yukon have changed due to high water temperatures, the report said.

Climate change is also resulting in the numbers and migration patterns of geese and ducks who nest in the Arctic tundra to change, impacting subsistence hunters who rely on them for food, the report said.

Climate change is also causing the thaw of permafrost, which releases mercury into the watershed, which may lead to increased levels of mercury in Yukon salmon, with potential harmful health effects on people who rely on salmon for food, they said.

Summit participants also noted that with water temperatures rising and water levels changing that the Yukon and Tanana rivers are breaking up earlier in the spring and that freeze up has been unpredictable in some years. Air temperatures have increased across the interior and northern Alaska and shoulder season weather is becoming volatile, confusing birds and animals who migrate according to weather patterns, they said.