UC faculty members break new ground while treading gently on the Alaskan tundra

09/14/05

Global warming on indigenous peoples in Alaska has lessons for us all

Three University of Cincinnati faculty members are combining their separate disciplines and areas of expertise to study the effects of global warming on indigenous peoples in Alaska. Their research has lessons for us all.

University of Cincinnati assistant professor Wendy Eisner and a team of researchers are studying the Inupiaq people of Alaska as part of a research project on global warming. "It's all woven together," says Eisner. "The processes, the changes, the belief system and the lake drainage."

The Inupiaq people are watching climate change with concern. The lakes are draining; the permafrost is thawing; their coastline is eroding. They must now adapt to changes that are rapid and unpredictable. A University of Cincinnati team is interviewing the Inupiaq elders and working with them as partners in order to better understand and predict future environmental changes -- for all of us.

The UC Team

Wendy Eisner (geography and women's studies), Chris Cuomo (philosophy and women's studies) and Ken Hinkel (geography) were awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study climate and environment on Alaska's North Slope. What makes this project unique is that the three are combining "western" science with the traditional knowledge of the Inupiaq (Eskimo) elders who live in the far North.

"The Inupiaq people (Eskimos) are the indigenous people of the Arctic," explains Eisner. "They live in small villages in the tundra part of northern Alaska. We were looking at the landscape history and landscape changes of the North Slope, especially the thaw lakes of Alaska. Thaw lakes are shallow lakes formed by local thaw action. About 20 percent of the land is covered by thousands of lakes -- the land looks like Swiss cheese or more so!"

Scientists come up several weeks a year to study these lakes. Many social scientists are studying the people. What's unique about the UC project is that it is a team of both social scientists and physical scientists.

"Ken is a pure physical scientist. I have a background in archaeology, anthropology and paleoecology. Chris adds her expertise in environmental ethics and philosophy," says Eisner.

Ken Hinkel has been working extensively in the Arctic region for many years.

"The bulk of my efforts is concentrated on permafrost and periglacial studies conducted in the Arctic, primarily in northern Alaska," says Hinkel. "This research has been continually funded by the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation since 1991, and focuses on energy and moisture exchange between the atmosphere and permafrost."

Global Warming

"Global warming is expected to be enhanced at high latitudes and, for this reason, should be detected there first. An increase in air temperatures would cause warming of the ground surface and melting of the upper regions of permafrost," says Hinkel. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground. It underlies about 20 percent of the earth's land surface.

"Upon melting, this ice-rich frozen ground would sink and the ground surface would be displaced downward, disrupting any engineering structures such as roads, house foundations and pipelines. Furthermore, the carbon stored in the frozen materials in the form of partially decomposed organic material would be released into the atmosphere as 'Greenhouse Gases,' thus providing a positive feedback to warming." Hinkel's research entails the installation of sensor arrays at sites across northern Alaska. Temperature and soil moisture data are used to monitor the effects of climate. These data are also used to construct models of heat and moisture flow across the active layer -- the thin zone above permafrost that experiences seasonal freezing and thawing.

"By understanding how heat energy is transferred between the atmosphere to the permafrost, we will be able to estimate the impact of climate change in permafrost regions," says Hinkel.

"Ken has been the lead principal investigator in this area for many years," says Cuomo. "Wendy and Ken really are leading researchers in this area of arctic climate. I was really impressed with the prominence of Ken's work. People should know that UC scientists are at the forefront of this climate work in the Arctic. It's something to be proud of. It's a great opportunity for graduate students to go up to work in the Arctic."

Eisner and Hinkel's original focus was on lakes and lake drainage: how the lakes drained and when the lakes drained. On their own, they started interviewing the elders to learn about the lakes. Then they received funding to do some interviewing and finally obtained a grant exclusively for interviewing 12 – 13 people about landscape and climate changes.

"We told an NSF project manager that Chris was a philosopher and he said, 'Wow!'" said Eisner. "I've never heard an NSF official say, 'Wow'!" "It's very unusual for an NSF project to have a scientist and a philosopher together," says Cuomo. "Very cutting edge."

"It's the colleagues that count," says Eisner. "Chris is going nuts -- she can't believe the information she's gathering!"

After the interviews, then the team corroborates the information given them with satellite images. It's not a pretty picture: the drainage is changing.

The Inupiaq People

"The people are worried," says Eisner. "There are 249 permanent residents in this area. Some people still earn subsistence from hunting, fishing and gathering, but especially fishing -- which is tied directly to the lake drainage. Everything else must come from the lower 48 and it's very expensive. They receive subsidies, but the subsidies don't match their needs so they really depend on hunting and fishing. It's a marginal existence for many."

Because of this and more, the Inupiaq people are really attached to the land, although outsiders see it as harsh. "They wouldn't live anywhere else," says Eisner. "I think it's all quite beautiful." She adds with a laugh, "Normal people see it as bleak." The team asked the natives, especially the elders, to tell them about the lakes they knew.

"'I know one of them that's drained recently' they would start, then they started to explain their language," Eisner says. "They have ways of describing things that we don't." Well, this harkens back to the idea that Eskimos have several hundred words for "snow."

"It's not quite like that," says Cuomo. "It's not that they just have several words for our word, 'snow,' but they have observed several different kinds of snow. They have a different expression for wet snow, a different phrase for crystallized snow." It's a lot like knowing your snow if you're a cross-country skier so that you can choose the right wax. But cross-country skiing for most people is entertainment. The quality of the snow is a question of livelihood for the Inupiaq -- a factor in their very existence.

"Some types of snow are better for making an igloo, some better for making tea, some better for travelling over," says Cuomo. "That's one of the things that's changing -- the quality of the snow is changing."

The Inupiaq people use igloos the way people in the mainland use tents. They actually lived in sod houses traditionally, not igloos.

"Igloos are your travelling shelter. If you're travelling and you can't build an igloo, that's really dangerous," says Cuomo. Another danger is the change in the sea ice.

"The ice is thinner, so whaling is much more dangerous, precarious. Whaling teams go out on the ice," Cuomo says. "Now the ice breaks up much earlier. There was an incident where a bunch of hunters a few years ago started drifting after a piece of ice broke off unexpectedly." The Inupiaq are very attuned to weather patterns. It's a science for them -- their existence depends upon it. When things become unpredictable, they become concerned -- and rightly so.

"Subsistence methods are risky methods," says Cuomo.

The language of the people also reflects the changing climate.

"When younger folks learn these languages, they might be preserving them but not preserving all of the words and the concepts," says Cuomo. "In our interviews, the elders would use words that the younger translators [weren't] familiar with. Their language is very specific about the landscape. The younger folks learn the language but not to the depth of the older people."

The team paid some of the people a consulting fee, more as an honorarium than an incentive.

"The people are so gorgeous. They were very open and eager to talk -- they are the most helpful people I've ever met," says Eisner. "Because the land is so harsh, people have to help one another."

. "It's been so heartening to see how the community is about talking to us," says Cuomo. "They know it's very important for their livelihood. And also the community wants the knowledge of their elders to be archived and documented. A fringe benefit of doing this work is that it will be useful to this community."

The elders, mostly over the age of 70, understand the thaw lake cycle, the freeze-thaw process and permafrost. Permafrost is thawing under the warming conditions in the Arctic. What's scary to them is that there is a difference between the seasons now and the seasons that they have known for generations. The rapid rate of change is alarming.

Very Important Visitors

Barrow was abuzz with anticipation one day while the team was there. Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and two other senators (Susan Collins, from Maine, and Lindsey Graham, from South Carolina) were visiting for the day to learn about research on climate change. Cuomo seized an opportunity to join in a lunchtime discussion.

"It seems that if we are looking for big overarching solutions to the problem of climate change we are going to be easily discouraged," Cuomo said. "The communities up here are already dramatically affected by global warming, so there are great incentives for cooperation and collaborative problem solving. For example, in the research project that we're working on, we are bringing local Eskimo elders together with scientists who work on the tundra, to better understand the sources of climate change, and to predict future changes."

"Yes," said Clinton, "We were in the Yukon yesterday, and it's really interesting to see how willing the native communities are to work with scientists and politicians…."

Future Steps

A lot of the elders interviewed are women. Both Eisner and Cuomo have joint appointments with the Department of Women's Studies. "The women provide a different point of reference. They're back in the home while the men are out hunting and fishing," says Cuomo. "If we get extended funding, it's a part of the project that should really grow, to focus on some of the women's stories. The folks are so amazing. We are definitely going back in the spring."

"This work is a pretty big deal as far as scientific research is concerned," says Eisner.

The next step in the project is to transcribe and organize the 20 hours of video tapes. The team has two graduate students working on the project but need more. One grad student is still in Alaska. Eisner, Cuomo and Hinkel will be presenting their findings at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco in December.

"They're the part of the United States most affected by climate change right now; they're the canary in the coal mine," says Eisner. "Add onto that the whole issue of global change -- these are the last Inupiaq speakers and they have a great deal to tell us.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-- Robert Frost