Strong winds fractured a sheet of melting ice near Barrow, Alaska, one April afternoon, cutting a three-man whaling crew adrift in the Arctic Ocean. A boat had to be dispatched to rescue them, and according to local observers, the narrowly averted tragedy wasn't a surprise.
"One captain predicted this to happen, so perhaps more experienced whalers are adapting to the unpredictability of young sea ice and avoiding traveling during high winds," concluded a report posted after the event to the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network. "But even experienced hunters can get into trouble."
Lake Aleknagik, Alaska, in September 2012. Locals reported they had to lay down trees on the ice to mark where it was safe to cross from one community to another. Photo by Daniel Chythlook, courtesy of LEO Network.
Hosted by the Center for Climate and Health at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage, the LEO network catalogs ongoing environmental and public health changes in northern communities, from treacherous sea ice conditions to new, exotic diseases. There isn't much research in those fields, so across the Arctic, scientists are relying on anecdotal evidence from self-reported incidents like the whaling team rescue to piece together ways that climate change is threatening the health of already-vulnerable northern communities.
The Arctic has warmed by 2 degrees Celsius since the mid-1960s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wreaking havoc on local communities in ways that scientists have been carefully documenting.
"We have a huge body of knowledge, local observations, climatological records, meteorological records, that are saying climate change is happening [in the Arctic]," said Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, a professor of community health at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia. "What we don't have is an evidence base for how people are adapting and what that can mean in the context of health."
Of Hot Pockets and alcohol
"H-E-R-O-N. Heron?" asked Charlotte Wolfrey, mayor of Rigolet, a small Inuit community on the coast of Labrador, in the Canadian Arctic.
Wolfrey had never seen a blue heron until recent summers, and she wasn't sure how to spell it. All she knew was that they were now ranging up to Rigolet -- a town about as close to the Greenland border as the United States -- and disrupting the local ecology, destroying eggs the local Inuit usually gather and cook themselves.
Health and food are inextricably tied, and perhaps the most visible health impact of climate change in the Arctic is diet.
Marauding southern birds aren't the only threat to traditional Arctic food supplies, Wolfrey said. In fact, the main health threat may not be the advance of new animals, but the retreat of sea ice. With the ice forming much later and appearing much earlier in the warming climate, it's as if Arctic communities are getting shut out of their own supermarkets.
Cunsolo Willox said it is "very well-documented" that decreased access to hunting has forced more northerners to store-bought food, which has been linked to increasing rates of diabetes and obesity. Michael Brubaker, director of the Center for Climate and Health at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, agreed.
"If there's no caribou in your freezer, what's taking its place?" Brubaker asked. "If it's Hot Pockets, that's not a healthy alternative."
The physical health risks of climate change in the Arctic are expansive. Brubaker pointed to increases in rickets, a vitamin D deficiency and waterborne diseases. Some people fall through flimsy ice -- a few to their deaths -- and most communities are afraid to venture out and hunt on the ice for fear they'll never come back.
The effects cascade, Wolfrey said. Unpredictable, melting ice prevents hunting, which leads to an unhealthy diet and other unhealthy pursuits while people are "restricted" in town.
"When we're restricted from going out there, sometimes people choose to drink more and do more drugs," Wolfrey said.
Reopening old wounds
Research on climate change-related health effects in the Arctic is young, and Cunsolo Willox noted the lack of statistical evidence describing increases in problems like diabetes, drug use and fatal crashes through sea ice. What scientists do have -- as evidenced by the LEO Network and Cunsolo Willox's study -- is plenty of anecdotal evidence in need of further documenting and organizing.
And the issues in northern communities that need attention may date back far earlier than the first observations of climate change.
Whalers work on sea ice near Barrow, Alaska. Treacherous ice conditions linked to climate change have restricted hunting opportunities in the Arctic, which scientists link to changing diets and increases in health issues like obesity and diabetes. Photo by Qinugan Roddy, courtesy of LEO Network.
"Often what makes people vulnerable to climate-related health risks has little to do with the actual climate, but rather is reflective of underlying social, cultural, and economic factors," said a study co-authored by Cunsolo Willox and published online last month in the American Journal of Public Health.
Rigolet has an 80 percent unemployment rate, and unemployment across the Arctic averages around 30 to 40 percent, according to Wolfrey. The Inuit have the highest suicide rate in Canada -- especially among young people, Wolfrey said -- and the communities carry deep-seated trauma that's transferred from generation to generation.
Towns have been forcibly relocated, and recent generations of children were taken in their early teens to residential schools, government-funded schools operated through the 19th and 20th centuries where Native students "lived in substandard conditions and endured physical and emotional abuse," according to the CBC.
The psychological impacts live with the Inuit today, Wolfrey said. Her mother, who grew up in a residential school, was "disconnected" and never showed her much physical affection. Wolfrey was sent to a school in eighth grade, worked all day, cried herself to sleep every night and ran away after six months. Her mother had been so distant, she fled to her grandfather's house.
"I carried some of that with me into my first chance at parenting," Wolfrey said. "There's a big ripple effect down through the generations."
The mental and physical isolation wrought by climate change only compounds this emotional trauma, she said. The Inuit would escape out on the ice, spending a few days communing with nature and getting back to their roots. If they want to do that now, they risk falling through thin ice into freezing water.
The Cunsolo Willox study called for, among other things, "an inexpensive, quick, and effective starting point to enhance the monitoring and control of climate-sensitive health outcomes." And while researchers start to identify and treat the health problems of climate change in the Arctic, communities there are already trying to adapt.
"We need to do more mental health awareness and mental health programming, and that's climate change or not," Wolfrey said.
"There are a lot of things that are changing, and we're trying to adapt," she added.
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.
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