244 HUMAN ORGANIZATION
Human Organization, Vol. 70, No. 3, 2011
Copyright © 2011 by the Society for Applied Anthropology
Numerous natural science climate change studies are
in agreement that the Arctic and Subarctic are among
the world’s rst locations to begin experiencing cli-
mate change (ACIA 2005; Hinzman et al. 2005; IPCC 2007;
Serreze et al. 2000). The effects include thawing permafrost
(Jorgenson 2001; Osterkamp 2005; Walvoord and Striegl
2007), warming temperatures (Overpeck 1997; Serreze et
al. 2000), and shifting weather patterns (Hinzman et al.
2005). Many of the studies concerned with climate change
are conducted on a large spatial scale and recent temporal
scale, and there is still a great deal of uncertainty concerning
Nicole Herman-Mercer is a social scientist and Paul F. Schuster is a
hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey, National Re-
search Program in Boulder, Colorado. Karonhiakt’tie Bryan Maracle
is the Natural Resources Director of the Council of Athabascan Tribal
Governments in Fort Yukon, Alaska. The authors would like to thank
the people of St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point, Alaska for welcoming them
into their community and their homes and taking time out of their busy
schedules to help them understand their environment. Special thanks go
to Jay Hootch, their facilitator and guide in the communities. Without
his gracious help, this study would not have been possible. Finally, the
authors thank the United States Geological Survey and the interns in
Support of Native American Relations program; the funding provided by
this program allowed the eldwork necessary for this study to happen.
Indigenous Observations of Climate Change in the
Lower Yukon River Basin, Alaska
Nicole Herman-Mercer, Paul F. Schuster, and Karonhiakt’tie Bryan Maracle
Natural science climate change studies have led to an overwhelming amount of evidence that the Arctic and Subarctic are among
the world’s rst locations to begin experiencing climate change. Indigenous knowledge of northern regions is a valuable resource
to assess the effects of climate change on the people and the landscape. Most studies, however, have focused on coastal Arctic
and Subarctic communities with relatively little focus on inland communities. This paper relates the ndings from eldwork
conducted in the Lower Yukon River Basin of Alaska in the spring of 2009. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with
hunters and elders in the villages of St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point, Alaska to document observations of climate change. This study
assumes that scientic ndings and indigenous knowledge are complementary and seeks to overcome the false dichotomy that
these two ways of knowing are in opposition. The observed changes in the climate communicated by the hunters and elders of
St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point, Alaska are impacting the community in ways ranging from subsistence (shifting ora and fauna
patterns), concerns about safety (unpredictable weather patterns and dangerous ice conditions), and a changing resource base
(increased reliance on fossil fuels). Here we attempt to address the challenges of integrating these two ways of knowing while
relating indigenous observations as described by elders and hunters of the study area to those described by scientic literature.
Key words: indigenous knowledge, Lower Yukon River Basin, Yup’ik, climate change
how climate change will manifest itself in specic regions
(Duerden 2004). To address this uncertainty and better
understand the effects of climate change, it is necessary to
approach the problem from a smaller scale and incorporate
the indigenous knowledge and understanding of the people
of the Arctic and Subarctic. This method has been utilized in
various studies throughout the Arctic (Ashford and Castledon
2001; Gearheard et al. 2010; Krupnik and Jolly 2002; Nichols
et al. 2004; Turner and Clifton 2009). However, the majority
of these studies have been conducted in extreme northern
or coastal Arctic locations (Ashford and Castledon 2001;
Gearheard et al. 2010; Krupnik and Jolly 2002; Nichols et
al. 2004; Turner and Clifton 2009). There is relatively little
known about what changes the people of the Subarctic Yukon
River Basin (YRB) of Alaska are observing.
This study assumes that scientic ndings and indigenous
knowledge are complementary and seeks to overcome the false
dichotomy that these two ways of knowing are in opposition
(Agrawal 1995). Here, we attempt to address the challenges of
integrating these two ways of knowing by relating indigenous
observations as described by elders and hunters of the study
area to those described by western scientic studies. There
are inherent differences between indigenous knowledge and
scientic ndings that are both temporal and spatial in scale;
it is necessary to consider both ways of knowing to gain a
better understanding of the effects of climate change on the
landscape and the people. Improvement in the understanding
245VOL. 70, NO. 3, FALL 2011
of the links between global scale and local scale phenomena
and processes related to climate change is one of the great
intellectual challenges of our time (Wilbanks and Kates 1999).
St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point are located in the lower
portion of the YRB in the Subarctic of Alaska. St. Mary’s
lies on the north bank of the Andreafsky River 8 km from its
conuence with the Yukon River (Figure 1). Pitka’s Point is
adjacent to St. Mary’s, situated on the banks of the Yukon
River 8.9 km west of St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point
are Yup’ik communities that maintain a subsistence-based
lifestyle of shing, hunting, and gathering wild foods. Within
St. Mary’s are two federally recognized tribes, the Algaaciq
Tribal Government and the Yupiit of Andreafsky. Pitka’s Point
also boasts a federally recognized tribe, the Native Village
of Pitka’s Point.
St. Mary’s was chosen for this study based on the rec-
ommendation of a colleague and co-author from the Yukon
River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC) as well as
communication with a researcher from Alaska’s department
of Fish and Game. Members of the St. Mary’s community
work closely with the YRITWC on various projects including
a collaborative YRITWC-United States Geological Survey
(USGS) water-quality monitoring project (Schuster and Ma-
racle 2010; Schuster, Maracle, and Herman-Mercer 2010). The
previously established relationships facilitated the opportunity
to approach key community members as guides/facilitators in
the communities. The primary researcher, a USGS employee,
was able to gain the trust of these key community members by
virtue of the USGS relationship with the YRITWC, which was
critical to the success of the study. The village of Pitka’s Point
was added to the study area after arrival in St. Mary’s, based
on the recommendation of our facilitator that individuals from
that community should be contacted for interviews as well.
Figure 1. St. Mary’s Alaska Within the Yukon River Basin
246 HUMAN ORGANIZATION
Observations of climate change were collected through
semi-structured interviews (Schensul, Schensul, and
LeCompte 1999) with elders and hunters indigenous to Alaska
in the villages of St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point. To establish a
relationship with the community of St. Mary’s, a letter was
sent to both Tribal governments introducing the project and
the investigator and seeking permission to conduct research
in their community. A follow-up phone call was placed to
each of the Tribal governments requesting assistance in re-
cruiting participants for the interviews. This phone call led
to a relationship with the environmental coordinator for the
Yupiit of Andreafsky Tribal Council, in which he became
our guide and facilitator in St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point. At
the time, we were unable to get a response to our letter to the
Algaaciq Tribal Government, and several phone calls placed
to their ofce went unanswered. However, a relationship
was established at a later date following introductions at the
YRITWC biennial summit meeting in the summer of 2009.
Participants were recruited based on the recommendations
of our facilitator from the Yupiit of Andreafsky Tribal Council.
Additionally, a snowball sampling technique was used, in which
interview participants were asked to recommend someone else
with knowledge of the issue to be interviewed (Biernacki and
Waldorf 1981). Interviews were conducted with members of the
Yupiit of Andreafsky and the Alaagciq Tribes. A total of 13 inter-
views were conducted; seven in person in St. Mary’s and Pitka’s
Point, ve over the phone, and one in person at the YRITWC
summit meeting. Interviews lasted from 30 to 60 minutes and
were recorded after the participant had given permission. In addi-
tion to verbal permission allowing for the recording of interviews,
participants were given an information sheet which explained the
purpose of the study, how information gained in the interviews
would be used, and what rights they had as a study participant
(Patton 2002). All interviews were conducted in English.
This study was conducted over a ve-day period in the
city of St. Mary’s and the adjacent village of Pitka’s Point,
Alaska. Time was the largest obstacle for this study, which
was restricted by budgetary constraints. Although measures
were taken prior to arrival in St. Mary’s to establish relation-
ships with key community members and arrange for interview
times, the realities encountered on the ground dictated the
number of interviews conducted.
Ten of the 13 interview participants were men. Our
facilitator recommended mostly men for the interviews with
their wives recommended somewhat as an afterthought. It
became clear in the course of conducting interviews that this
gender imbalance would lead to a lack of information about
vegetation, as evidenced by the brevity of information related
below. In future studies in the YRB, steps will be taken to
understand the gender roles in each community and ensure
a representative sampling of male and female participants.
Despite the small sample size, interview participants began
relating the same observations repeatedly towards the end of the
eldwork and are consistent with observations Yup’ik in coastal
areas have made (Fienup-Riordan 2010). The interviews were
transcribed in their entirety and data were reduced and organized
by coding for common themes. Most of the codes were a priori
as dictated by the question guide, while others were a posteriori
as they arose spontaneously through the course of the interviews
(Schwandt 2007). The results of this study are presented below
and are organized in the way the interview participants spoke
of their observations of climate change—weather observations,
fauna observations, ora observations, and river observations.
Those old people noticed it rst. They’re not around
anymore, they’re all underground. They used to tell me,
“What’s going on with this weather?” They noticed,
sometimes it’s too hot, sometimes it’s too cold.1
Invariably the most common statement made by the 13 in-
terview participants was that it has gotten warmer in recent
years. Temperatures were perceived to be warmer in all
seasons, though most notably in the winter months. In the
recent past, winter temperatures dropped to 40° Celsius (C)
below freezing, while in present times temperatures only
reach 25°C or 30°C below freezing. Moreover, in the rare case
that temperatures did drop as low as they had in the past, it
was a brief cold spell, in contrast to historic month long cold
spells. The above referenced quotation speaks to the temporal
nature of indigenous knowledge, while scientic studies may
demonstrate how temperatures have changed over the last
50 years (in places where such a long record has been kept),
indigenous knowledge is based on observations made not just
by the speaker in his or her lifetime alone, but also on the
environmental history that has been passed on to the speaker
and was passed on to those before him or her.
In addition to warmer temperatures, the weather was
described as being less predictable by the people of St. Mary’s
and Pitka’s Point. One interview participant, a hunter and
resident of the area of St. Mary’s for 66 years, commented
on the unpredictability of the weather:
Yeah, really unpredictable, you can’t plan. You don’t
know what’s going to happen, cause like I said, it
will be bad a couple of days then clear up and you
think it’s going to be good, it’d be clear for a day or
two and then just right back again. And you don’t
want to get caught out in the country in that weather.
Such unpredictability has a direct effect on the people that
rely on subsistence activities for their way of life. One does
not want to “get caught out in the country” when the weather
suddenly changes. He continues:
247VOL. 70, NO. 3, FALL 2011
There’s been times where we chat around and say, this
winter’s been really bad, like I said, depressing, you
can’t plan, can’t take a walk or go hunting and feel safe,
because you never know what’s going to happen; this
winter was like that. Before this you can kind of plan
because normally that’s how it works, but this winter was
just jumbled up.
Furthermore, the accuracy and skill by which the people
of St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point once predicted the weather is
less reliable than it once was owing to environmental change.
Another interview participant, also a life-long resident and
hunter in St. Mary’s, said, “[You] used to be able to tell the
weather by the moon, but now you can’t because any kind
of weather comes by.” This point speaks of an ability to read
the weather by noting the way the moon looks in certain at-
mospheres and, thereby, inferring the incoming weather. This
skill in “reading” the moon has become less reliable in recent
years as weather patterns have become irregular. A younger
hunter of St. Mary’s expands on this point, “I hear stories
from the older people that they used to be able to predict the
weather longer, a week I guess or so.”
Changes in precipitation were also noted by eight of the
13 interview participants. Specically, they commented on
the month of August as the “month that it should be raining all
the time and [now] either it comes earlier or it happens later
on.” Another participant agreed, “Yeah, usually we could get
a good rain in August, but we don’t hardly get it anymore.”
It was also noted by a majority of the interview participants
that there has been a decrease in snowfall in recent years:
I must have been about, oh seven or eight years old, when
we rst started living here and went to school up at the
mission. Seems like every year we used to have lots of
snow and really cold winters. I used to live down here in
that old house, probably the oldest house in St. Mary’s.
Right outside our house, we’d get a really big snow bank,
pretty big snow, kids used to jump off out there, you don’t
see that anymore.
Let’s see, maybe in the 80s, late 70s, 80s there was this
gradual change started, and it seemed like the winters
were getting a little warmer, less snow, rain in December
and January. It seems like there’s hardly any snow, frozen
Others also commented on the decrease in snow:
Like I said, there used to be a lot of snow, really a lot
of snow. This spring’s the rst time we had this much
snow since, quite some time, I don’t know when, I can’t
remember, we had quite a bit of snow. But, all these last
few years we haven’t had any, hardly any snow.
Less predictable and inconsistent weather patterns have
numerous implications for the people. In addition to issues
of safety (getting caught out in the country when the weather
suddenly turns bad) the ecological patterns are also shifting
due to the shifts in seasonal weather patterns which yield
increased difculty in subsistence activities.
There’s no more ptarmigan, we don’t see even the birds
like the ducks and geese, especially the ducks, you hardly
ever see ducks anymore.
The general scientic consensus is that climatic shifts in
weather patterns and river chemistry will ultimately manifest
in changes to plants and animals. This phenomenon was found
to hold true in the study area. People spoke of new inuxes
of species not previously found in the St. Mary’s area, such
as beaver (Castor canadensis) and moose (Alces alces), as
well as a decrease in species that were previously plentiful,
most notably ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus).
When speaking of the changing animal population, the
interview participants described a concept that everything
in Alaska, the seasons and weather as well as the ora and
fauna, moves from the east to the west. People did not seem
surprised by the new inux of species that had not been in
their area before; instead they seemed to associate it with the
natural order of things. This is an important observation that
is worthy of further exploration in future studies. It may be
that indigenous communities possess knowledge about animal
populations that has been handed down from times of histori-
cal climate change events that would help us to understand
the way animals are responding to a changing climate today.
In regards to the increase of the beaver population in the
St. Mary’s area and the question of whether the population
had truly increased or just migrated from other habitats one
interview participant stated:
Well, my dad used to tell us everything moves from east to
west. They come down, everything comes down, normally
he says if they’re going to go extinct, that’s what happens
they start moving like that, leave nothing behind. And I
think that’s going happen too eventually, because there
were no beaver here before, but there’s lots and there’s
no more up there [north], and they’re all down here;
they got to keep going. Anything else, he says, like cold
weather, fall time, comes from east, upriver interior cold
weather come down here, same with the spring, warm
weather comes from out east and comes this way, it’s the
Others echoed this phenomenon in regards to the increased
moose population in their area:
From what I remember, you’d be lucky if you went out
hunting and you’d see maybe eight. And today you can see
eight in a bunch. So they’re either moving from upriver,
moving on in this way or, the elders say all animals and
stuff, even spring and fall, winter comes from interior
and goes down this way. The beaver did the same; they’re
Research with the Yup’ik in Southwestern coastal com-
munities of Alaska found that the people attributed a decrease
248 HUMAN ORGANIZATION
in the black brant geese (Brants bernicla nigricans) popula-
tion to inherent cycles or to the peoples’ lack of attention
to how the geese should be treated according to traditional
Yup’ik beliefs (Fienup-Riordan 1999). Traditional Yup’ik
beliefs state that animals control their own destinies, and
that when they are treated poorly, they will not return;
conversely, if they are treated properly, they return to the
hunter year after year (Fienup-Riordan 1999). This theme
of ecological reciprocity also arose in interviews with
the Yup’ik of St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point. The elders
expressed a belief that animals may be becoming scarce
because people were no longer treating them properly. An
86-year-old elder of St. Mary’s stated in a phone interview,
“The game is altogether different, we used to make a liv-
ing catching animals, people don’t take care of them like
they used to.” Another elder of St. Mary’s said, “In native
culture, they say that sometime in the future we’ll have
less, less everything, animals on the land and in the river
too. It’s here already.” He continues:
I really believe that native culture has known it from way
back a long time ago, before everyone was born. Way up
north they’re getting less moose, they’re having a hard
time nding moose upriver; really few. So they’re [the
moose] going towards the Bering Sea, it shows that, we’re
going to have very, very few moose now on the land.
Although throughout the interviews only general ques-
tions were asked about the animal populations, the issue of the
health of the animals was often brought up by the interview
participants. The issue of animal health arose particularly in
regards to the moose and the chum and chinook salmon (On-
corhynchus keta and Oncorhynchus tsawytscha) populations.
One interview participant described what she has observed:
I’ve noticed in the past, well just recently, that a lot of
our moose meat or sh they begin to show, I don’t know
what, in the moose meat they look like warts that are
in the fatty tissue, and also in the salmon, the chum, or
chinooks, they start to have what look like pus pockets
underneath the skin. And that’s something really new that
I have not seen before, the fact that I’ve been cutting sh
just about my whole life.
This observation of pus pockets on the chum and chi-
nook salmon was mentioned by other interview participants
as well. Additionally, there was estimation by the interview
participants that the population of these salmon species had
decreased in size and number.
Yeah, it seems like they’re [salmonberries] less and smaller.
Interview participants indicated that salmonberries
(Rubus spectabilis), an orange berry similar to a raspberry
(Rubus strigosus), were becoming scarce and smaller in size.
One participant stated his belief for the cause of this change:
Salmonberries getting fewer, that’s due to lack of snow.
See what’s happening is, after the snow melts right away
the tundra dries up. And that’s one of the reasons for lack
of salmonberries, the tundra is drying up and they can’t
grow when it’s dry. That’s lack of snow, that’s one of the
reasons, for lack of salmonberries also.
Irregularity in weather patterns has a direct effect on
the people’s subsistence. They are unable to know from year
to year if the salmonberry crop and other vegetation can be
relied upon. One interview participant characterized this as
“playing catch-up with Mother Nature”:
The timing is a little off, we used to say, “Oh it’s going be
berry picking season coming up.” We’d go out there and
they’re all gone, all dried up, got to go look elsewhere. Go
out on the coast and we could nd salmonberries out there.
Moreover, interview participants spoke of changes in the
growing season. One elder stated that “…trees get green too
fast, things growing underground too fast, so fast.” She also
mentioned that there are plants she had never seen before:
“But once in a while we see something it seems like I’ve
never seen before, the leaves some plants are growing….”
New forms of vegetation were noted by other interview
participants as well.
We don’t see break up like we used to, the ice isn’t solid
when it starts breaking up, its needle ice, [break up] used
to be really loud.
All of the 13 interview participants noted that the ice on
the rivers (the Yukon and Andreafsky) has become considerably
thinner in recent years, around 1 m thick in contrast to 1.5 to
2 m in the past. One participant recalled, “It hasn’t been very
thick since I was a kid growing up. My dad would set a net in
the winter it would go through maybe 5, 6 feet [1.5, 1.8 m] of
ice to set net and now maybe you’re lucky if you have 3, 4 feet
[1, 1.2 m].” Another member of St. Mary’s for 30 years noted
the recent thinning of the ice, “[I] used to spend the whole day
chipping through ice to check sh nets. Now it only takes an
hour.” A resident of the adjacent village of Pitka’s Point stated
in regards to the Yukon River, “Three feet [1 m] we say is thick
now, but it used to be 5, 6, 7 feet [1.5, 1.8, 2.1 m] thick.”
Thin river ice becomes a socioeconomic issue because
winter travel is mainly achieved by utilizing the frozen rivers as
a transportation route via snow machines or sled dogs. Thinning
ice shortens the winter travel season making it more difcult
to trade goods between villages, visit friends and relatives, or
reach traditional hunting grounds. Furthermore, it becomes an
issue of safety as thin ice makes travel more dangerous.
When asked about open leads, places on the river that
remain open and ice free throughout the winter, everyone that
had knowledge of the river observed that the number of open
leads has increased. Moreover, historical open leads, such as
the conuence of the Andreafsky River and Yukon River, have
249VOL. 70, NO. 3, FALL 2011
grown in size. An increase in both size and number of open
leads is very dangerous for a culture that relies on river ice
for transportation throughout much of the year.
Often when asked about open leads, people’s rst response
was concerning how many lives had been lost in recent years
when someone had fallen through the ice. An 83-year-old elder
who has lived in St. Mary’s for over 50 years, expressed her
concern about open leads in a phone interview:
Our river goes out to the Yukon not too far, about a mile
[1.6 km] or a little more, and at this mouth to the Yukon,
it doesn’t freeze, it doesn’t freeze, people keep drowning
there. I don’t know how many people now, especially
young people. They’ve been falling in that hole, I don’t
know how many people now down there…because that
place never freezes, we hate, I hate that, other people
In addition to observations of increased open leads, many
interview participants reported an increase in sandbars on the
Yukon River, shifting the ow of the water. This increase in
sandbars may be contributing to the increase in open leads.
As the sandbars shift the currents of the river, strong cur-
rents are created in new places that do not allow the water to
freeze. In regards to the increase in open leads, one interview
participant stated, “It [open lead] never used to be there….
Change in the currents I believe caused that, sandbar building
up, current changes. Places that were private shing grounds
got eroded. People don’t sh there anymore.”
Both of the participants from Pitka’s Point (located on the
banks of the Yukon River) stated that there had been no sand-
bars on the Yukon when they were growing up. In the course
of the interview, one participant from Pitka’s Point pointed out
a large sandbar in the middle of the Yukon River, which he
stated had never been there before. When asked about water
levels on the river, one elder stated, “There were hardly any
sandbars in the Yukon when I was young. Now sandbars ap-
pear everywhere, lots of sandbars, lots of sandbars.”
Additionally, all 13 interview participants stated that
break-up has gotten “easier” in recent years. People described
break-up as being an exciting event in the past, in which
people would come down to the shore and watch the crash-
ing of the ice. Today people hardly notice the event as the
ice simply melts off. The loss of break up was attributed to
warmer temperatures in addition to a lack of water. The ice
is thinner because of warmer temperatures, but one interview
participant stated that the river also lacks the pressure of high
water behind it to cause the ice to break up violently.
There was uncertainty about whether or not the timing
of break-up has shifted. Some people indicated that break-
up was occurring earlier in the spring than it had in the past,
while others felt that the timing of break-up varies year to
year. When asked if the ice breaks up differently than when
she was younger, one elder stated:
Yeah, I guess it seems like it’s getting longer in the spring
time. The Yup’ik people, Eskimo people, say when we
have a long fall and it never freezes even though it’s sup-
posed to freeze then we have a long spring. It’s getting
like that, it is. It’s getting late, later, the break-up, it seems
like. Every year seems to be because it never freezes on
time, like it used to in the fall time, the spring is long.
But I know I used to hear since I was little they say, “It
didn’t freeze this fall in the right time it’s going to be a
long spring.” This year even it’s kind of a late break-up.
This statement points to the fact that although people were
unsure about whether the timing of break-up has shifted, they
felt that the timing of freeze had.
Owing to what the participants described as lower spring
ows on the Andreafsky and Yukon Rivers, people’s ability
to collect wood has become hampered. In the past, the high
spring waters that arrived following break-up allowed people
to collect logs owing down the river from eco-regions up
river. This resource is a critical socioeconomic driver in the
form of rewood and building materials. In recent years, the
high waters have not arrived and the wood that does come
down river is trapped in the willows that line the banks where
the people are unable to get it when the water recedes. This
situation was related in an interview:
Well, the water being low it affects us quite a bit. Spring-
time we count on high water to get our logs coming down
the river, up the Yukon, collect our wood come spring.
It comes down and then we go out there and collect the
wood. We haven’t done that; last spring it was a little bit,
but water came and then dropped, just dropped and the
wood end up back inside the trees and we couldn’t get to
them. Normally, high water stays and we can collect all
our wood and water start coming down slowly, but not
that spring, it just came and dropped down again.
This resource scarcity has placed a strain on the local
economy through increased heating costs. The local ecol-
ogy of St. Mary’s is characterized by the surrounding tundra
where suitable trees to harvest are scarce. The community
is completely reliant on the high spring waters of the Yukon
and Andreafsky Rivers to supply drift wood. The scarcity
of drift wood for heating and other projects has caused an
increase in socioeconomic pressure in an already depressed
region. The loss in harvestable resources, in particular wood,
has caused an increased reliance on expensive fossil fuels,
prices of which can reach up to $8 per gallon.
It is clear from the results presented above that the
people of St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point, Alaska are observ-
ing a variety of changes in their environment due to climate
change. Observations related by the interview participants in
the course of this study are synergistic with those reported
in the scientic literature. However, as stated in chapter two
of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA 2005:22),
“The observational database for the Arctic is quite limited,
with few long-term stations and a paucity of observations in
250 HUMAN ORGANIZATION
general….” This paucity of observations is especially true in
the study area and the Lower YRB as a whole. This leads to a
mis-match in scales when comparing observations of climate
change as related by the interview participants of the study
area with those documented in the scientic literature. Scien-
tic studies often relate a global or hemispheric understanding
of climate change. Indigenous knowledge on the other hand
allows for a place-based understanding of climate change.
Both understandings are important and valid; in order to
gain a comprehensive understanding of climate change and
its future impacts, it must be understood both globally and
locally. However, we, as researchers and scientists, must be
careful not to use the scientic literature to bolster the valid-
ity of indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge has the
strength to stand on its own merits. Below is a brief discussion
of what the available scientic literature reports about climate
change as near to the study area as possible.
Air temperature increases are the most obvious and argu-
ably the most well documented change attributed to climate
change that has taken place, not just in the Arctic, but glob-
ally. Serreze et al. (2000) report that the largest increase
in temperature in recent decades has been over Northern
Hemisphere land areas from about 40-70°N (our study area
lies at 62°N). Moreover, the region surrounding and including
the study area has experienced a steady average temperature
increase of 1.0°C per decade since 1966 (Serreze et al. 2000).
This time frame ts well with the observations of the hunters
and elders of the study area who began observing that the
temperatures were warmer than they, or their ancestors, had
observed beginning in the 1970s. Additionally, Overpeck et
al. (1997) concluded based on tree rings and varves (annual
layers of sediment), which are primarily indicators of summer
conditions, that Arctic temperatures in the 20th century are
the highest in the past 400 years.
The hunters and elders of the study are not alone in their
observation of irregular weather patterns; irregular weather
patterns, increasing the difculty of predictions, have been
observed by indigenous peoples across the Arctic (Fox 2002).
Precipitation trends and increased variability in weather have
also received considerable attention in the scientic literature.
According to the ACIA (2005), it is likely that precipitation
has increased 1 percent per decade over the past. Addition-
ally, more precipitation has begun falling as rain as opposed
to snow, Førdland and Hanssen-Bauer (2003) found that
the amount of precipitation falling as snow decreased at all
stations in the Norwegian Arctic from 1975-2001. Based on
satellite images, Groisman et al. (1994) showed that mean
annual snow cover extent decreased by 10 percent from the
years 1972-1992 in the Northern Hemisphere. More recently,
McCabe and Wolock (2010), using monthly snow cover data
for the years 1966-2007, have conrmed that snow-covered
areas in the Northern Hemisphere have been decreasing
Ferguson (1995:16) wrote, “There is considerable uncer-
tainty concerning how a warmer climate would affect regional
climatic patterns of northern North America.” She predicted,
however, that “possible impacts include…altered lake, river,
and sea-ice conditions, including early spring breakup, sum-
mer reduction, later autumn formation, and reduced winter
thickness” (Ferguson 1995:16). Observations of the interview
participants conrm that Ferguson’s predictions have become
reality, particularly with regard to reduced river ice thickness.
Data from the Yukon Department of Environment and the
Arctic Environmental Data Center have been used to show
that breakup dates on the Yukon River at Dawson located
in the Yukon Territory (YT), Canada and the Tanana River
(a tributary of the Yukon) in Alaska have been occurring
earlier in the year (Brabets and Walvoord 2009). Dawson,
YT is located near the headwaters of the Yukon River where
breakup begins; if breakup is occurring earlier in the year in
the Upper YRB, then it will occur earlier downstream in the
Lower YRB. Further study of breakup dates on the Yukon by
Bieniek et al. (2011) report that the date of breakup depends
on a combination of river discharge and melting river ice.
Melting river ice is clearly a function of air temperature,
which the previous discussion, as well as the observations of
the people, demonstrates to be on the rise. Additionally, long-
term stream ow records (>30 years) of the YRB indicate a
general upward trend in groundwater contribution to stream
ow predominately caused by permafrost thaw (Walvoord
and Striegl 2007). This increase in groundwater contribu-
tion to stream ow, which increases overall river discharge,
coupled with increasing air temperatures is a clear indicator
that the effects of climate change are causing river ice breakup
earlier in the year.
Despite the minimal amount of information relayed by
the interview participants about vegetation, owing to the
gender imbalance of this study (see Limitations above), it
was clear that those with knowledge of the vegetation have
observed changes. Scientic research has shown that photo-
synthetic activity of terrestrial vegetation increased from 1981
to 1994, suggesting an increase in plant growth associated
with a lengthening of the active growing season (Myneni et al.
1997). Additionally, this increase was observed to be greatest
in the regions between 45ºN and 70ºN (Myneni et al. 1997),
encompassing this study area, as noted earlier. The Normal-
ized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which utilizes
satellite images to analyze plant growth, vegetation cover,
and biomass production, has also shown that both the onset
and the length of the growing season has increased North
of 45º latitude for the period of 1981-1994 (Holben 1986;
Shabanov et al. 2002). Further investigation of vegetation
changes is needed in the study area; there are clear indica-
tions that climate change is affecting vegetation, but more
indigenous women must be interviewed to fully understand
the changes in the study as men often “do not pay much at-
tention” to the vegetation.
The interview participants spoke of a change in the range
of species of mammals (moose and beaver) as well as a de-
crease in the number of some bird species (ptarmigan). It is
difcult to know if the range of an entire species has shifted,
because few studies have been conducted at this scale (i.e.,
251VOL. 70, NO. 3, FALL 2011
a continental scale), and only a moderate number have been
conducted at a regional scale (Parmesan 2006). However, as
Parmesan (2006:646) reports in her review of the literature,
“Nearly every Arctic ecosystem shows marked shifts.” Both
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007)
and the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA 2005)
have reported that species of mammals and birds have begun
responding to climate change and predict that the range of
species is likely to shift as ecosystems undergo changes due
to a warming climate. Additionally, as observed by interview
participants, the ACIA (2005) reports that the number of
salmon has been far below expected levels, the sh were
smaller than average, and their traditional migration patterns
seemed to have altered.
The inclusion of indigenous knowledge to understand
the local and regional effects of climate change is of the
utmost importance. As noted above, the documentation of
more localized observations results in a more nuanced un-
derstanding of climate change and uncovers new areas for
quantitative and qualitative study. Additionally, indigenous
knowledge encompasses observations, lessons, and stories
about the environment that have been handed down since
time immemorial. This allows for a temporal expansion of
environmental knowledge in places, such as the Subarctic of
Alaska, where scientic studies have only begun collecting
data on a scale of decades.
The changes in the environment observed by hunters,
elders, and the community as a whole in St. Mary’s and
Pitka’s Point, Alaska are having impacts that range from
subsistence to safety. Moreover, climate change has become a
socioeconomic issue as the people have less success gathering
driftwood coming down the Yukon and Andreafsky Rivers,
and travel is hindered by dangerous ice conditions.
The scientic evidence supporting a warming climate in
the Arctic and Subarctic is indisputable (ACIA 2005; IPCC
2007). Furthermore, it has become clear that the planet is
beyond mitigating the effects of climate change and must
begin looking towards adapting to a new climate. Indigenous
knowledge and scientic research must work in concert to
further understand specic climate change impacts in specic
locations in order to develop appropriate adaptation strategies.
Utilizing multiple knowledge systems by sharing knowledge
across disciplines, class structures, social boundaries, and
cultures will result in more informed and appropriately imple-
mented adaptation strategies. Thus, by sharing knowledge,
achievement of real solutions to the complex challenges posed
by climate change may be answered.
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