When the permafrost melts …

WE have just returned from the trip of a lifetime, 10 days in Alaska, the so-called “last frontier,” the 49th state in which you rapidly learn to talk about people from “Outside” and the “lower 48.” It is a place of vast wilderness – forests and mountains, tundra and taiga – with 100,000 glaciers, many thousands of moose, caribou and grizzly bears, salmon-rich rushing rivers and a community that is ethnically diverse and fiercely independent.

You could, if you were sufficiently skilled at survival in the bush, disappear into Alaska. Nobody would find you if you knew how not to be found and could feed and support yourself on the natural flora and fauna of the state.

Until quite recently, many of the native tribes of Alaska were still self-sufficient. Thanks to agreements with the federal government, indigenous people have rights to subsistence fishing and hunting, and are permitted to take a small number of bowhead whales, as well as moose, caribou and other creatures which have provided their food for millennia.

They know how to use every ounce and fibre of the whales and seals, how to butcher and save every part of a moose, where to find medicinal and edible herbs and wild greens and vitamin-rich berries (at this time of year competing with the grizzly bears for whom the berries are essential pre-winter sustenance). They discovered the healing properties of willow (salicylic acid) long before we had aspirin.

They made kayaks – using skins, bones and tendons from the marine creatures they hunted – which are technically unsurpassed as ocean-going boats. And in those tiny and apparently fragile craft, they ventured out onto the Bering Sea and the Arctic ocean to hunt for whale. They still hunt for the permitted number of whales in the traditional way, using hand-held harpoons.

They learned to live at temperatures which we can only shiver at. Their homes were built on or into the permafrost – the permanently frozen soil, sediment, or rock which is defined as permafrost if it has remained at or below 0°C for at least two years. Because of the extreme cold, they have evolved ways to store their food – moose, caribou, seal or whale – throughout the winter, underground or in outside boxes called caches, raised on high legs to keep them out of reach of hungry bears. Their digestive systems are adapted to their diet and their way of life has enabled them to endure the long Arctic winters when light only glimmers for a few hours a day.

And now all that is under threat, not from developers, commercial interests or even oil companies. It is under threat by a far more insidious force – climate change.

We talked with a young Alaskan native from Barrow, a settlement above the Arctic Circle. She described the effect of climate change on her remote community, the impact that the Western diet had on her while she was at university in Michigan and the inevitable and irresistible changes that are coming as the temperatures inch inexorably upwards.

The permafrost is melting, she explained. Now her people have to buy freezers because their natural deep freeze (the permafrost) can no longer be relied on to keep their food healthily frozen until the spring break-up.

Her mother died last autumn. Under normal circumstances, the Inupiat people of the Arctic have not been able to bury their dead until the spring thaw, but because the permafrost is thawing, her family was able to bury her mother.

Moving to the lower 48 and the Western (and student) diet of fast food, she became ill. She told us she was reduced to opening tinned tuna and drinking the oil to begin to feel well again. She is fearful for the health of the elders of her people when their freezers are full of Western food.

She said she was instinctively opposed to Shell drilling in the Arctic, but realistically she also foresaw that her people, like everyone else around the world, would be dependent on oil and power – to produce the energy and electricity to run the freezers and fridges.

Everyone we met in Alaska – native or Alaskan-born people, those who have chosen to settle there, and visitors like ourselves – understood that climate change is now a reality. They disagreed on the causes and the possibility of solutions but there could be no argument that it is happening.

There is a wide divergence in opinions about the speed of climate change, but the impact will be most immediate and dramatic in the polar regions. Two degrees may go unnoticed in Palm Springs or on the beaches of Goa. Two degrees of global warming above the Arctic Circle is a massive increase that will change everything causing erosion, subsidence, landslides, changes in plant species, altering migration routes for birds and caribou and ultimately releasing vast quantities of methane and carbon dioxide stored beneath the permafrost.

The recent GLACIER Conference (the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience) at Anchorage, attended by President Obama, highlighted international and domestic priorities in the Arctic and looked at the various issues of regulation, coordinating commercial operations in the Arctic region and the needs of the indigenous peoples.

But everyone wants a piece of the action and in the juggling process as lobbyists press their special interests, the needs of the people who learned to live with their environment, not change it, can all too easily be forgotten.

Fanny Charles