Seasons out of balance: climate change impacts, vulnerabilty and sustainable adaptation in interior Alaska

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Wednesday, 20 January 2010: 8:45 AM
B213 (GWCC)
Shannon McNeeley, NCAR, Boulder, CO

Koyukon Athabascan Elders of Alaska's interior observe that “cold weather is growing old” and recent warming is contributing to a world out of balance. Alaska is among the most rapidly warming places globally, with the interior experiencing the most pronounced warming statewide, and with significant regional-scale ecosystem services disruptions affecting subsistence hunting and harvest success. Vulnerability of individuals, households, and communities to climate change is exacerbated by rising energy costs and a regulatory system that constrains the adaptive flexibility needed to cope with impacts on livelihoods. Socioeconomic and cultural change notwithstanding, the well-being of rural native communities is still dependant on access and ability to harvest wild foods, with moose the example explored in this study.

Over the last decade communities in the Koyukuk-Middle Yukon (KMY) region report an inability to satisfy their needs for harvesting moose before the hunting season closes, citing warmer falls, changing water levels, and the regulatory framework as primary causes. A combination of factors, including the complicated dual state/federal management system for wildlife and subsistence, creates uncertainties about the sustainability of moose populations and subsistence livelihoods in the region. By combining indigenous observations and understanding of climate and western social-natural sciences, this study examines the complex, multi-scaled interaction of climate change and subsistence livelihoods, with the goal of understanding vulnerability and adaptive capacity in the KMY region.

This dissertation research demonstrates that a recent trend during early fall results in seasonality shifts, where September is getting warmer and wetter and, most recently, temperatures during 2005-2007 were outside the normal, expected range of variability. The regulatory system lacks the flexibility needed to provide local hunters with sufficient opportunity to harvest moose. This complex interplay of climate, agency intervention, and rural community needs, increases vulnerability because of a “closing window” during the critical fall harvest. Sustainable adaptation requires collective, strategic action such as “in-season” management. It is argued that this approach will more effectively respond to climate variability, and provide the necessary venue wherein wildlife management includes climate science with the human dimensions of subsistence. It is further argued that new research initiatives will build social and institutional capital between the local hunters and agency managers.