The "Ground Zero" of Climate Change and Value of Alaskan Inuit Knowledge
Though every ecosystem is facing climactic challenges, Alaska is warming three times faster than the rest of the world. The state is often referred to as the “ground zero” of climate change. This is showing up in multiple ways, from rapid habitat changes to noise pollution and increasing food insecurity. To better adapt to these challenges, policy makers should take advantage of Alaskan Indigenous knowledge and include these community voices in future mitigation and adaptation strategies.
As the climate warms, sea ice is melting at rapid rates, allowing for the use of previously inaccessible shipping routes and opening up new areas for oil exploration and deep sea mining. These activities have increased the prevalence of noise pollution in Arctic waters. Underwater noise pollution highlights the interconnected nature of environmental changes. Impacting everything from marine habitat structure to mammal breeding grounds and Alaskan Indigenous food security, noise pollution is altering the careful balance that ecosystems rely on.
Within Arctic oceans,sound can travelmuch farther than in temperate oceans. This increases the impact of noise pollution on marine ecosystems, which include a lack of communication and a weakened immune system in marine mammals, along with a change in migration, breeding and hunting patterns. In many cases, animals will leave the area altogether.
The interdependence found in many ecosystems means that a change in one organism’s behavior will affect all. For example, species like mollusks, who have been found to be negatively affected by noise pollution, are crucial for other organisms, as they help structure bottom marine habitats and purify water.
The Inuit in Alaska have been among some of the first to notice the impacts of noise pollution on marine animals. Noise changes are threatening their food security by altering the patterns of marine animals. The wellbeing of these ecosystems is crucial for the Indigenous people who still rely on subsistence/hunter gatherer methods of obtaining food. Having survived for thousands of years in this unforgiving climate, food is what connects the past with today’s culture for Inuit. In a report conducted by the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Inuit community members discussed how their “traditional foods are much more than calories or nutrients; they are a lifeline throughout our culture and reflect the health of the entire Arctic ecosystem."
Careful, informed, and holistic approaches are needed to tackle the issues that noise pollution creates. Through cooperation and diversity of thought in decision making and research, it is less likely that policies and other solutions will miss certain details. This includes being open to the wisdom that the indigenous people of the region have accumulated over generations. Fortunately, the inclusionof Indigenous knowledgein policy surrounding noise pollution is beginning to occur more frequently. An example of this is the
International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreeing to include Inuit knowledge and input in their decisions surrounding underwater noise. Currently IMO vessel noise pollution reduction guidelines are not mandatory, but as noise reduction targets are identified and mandated, Inuit knowledge could help to reduce costs, increase eco-system biodiversity, and contribute to better climate positive outcomes for industries committed to sustainability.
Scientists have also requested the help of Inuit communities in their efforts to research the changing environment. Zuzanna Kochanowicz, a researcher based out of the University of Ottawa, teamed up with Inuit hunters to help identify areas where marine mammals live, stating: “It’s not something you would just get from satellite imagery… They’ve known these populations for so many years.”
Another researcher, Kristin Laidre, who works with the University of Washington, attributed the success of her research project to her Inuit team members. She discussed how, without the Inuit knowledge of how to hunt and approach narwhals, they would have not been able to tag the animals with trackers. These trackers are then used to gain information about how underwater noise pollution and overall anthropogenic marine activity is impacting the patterns of narwhals. Using the techniques that are normally used for hunting, Inuit hunters were able to place satellite transmitters on the narwhals, which will provide invaluable information about how and where they need protecting.
The connection that the Alaskan Inuit have with their environment and proximal way with which they live on the land make them crucial leaders in the local management of climate change. The knowledge that the Inuit possess about these ecosystems is invaluable in helping Alaska and the Arctic develop sustainably and be resilient to future disruptions.
Consultation and cooperation with Inuit communities is an incredible learning opportunity - one that will help stabilize and ensure food security and healthy seas not only for the Inuit communities, but for all Alaskans who want to secure the future sustainability of their state.
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