In the winter of 2015-2016, it has snowed more in New York, Boston and Washington DC than it has in Anchorage, Alaska, where the last two winters have seen more rain than snow. For a population whose identity is tied to winter, this is not just an inconvenience, but a tragedy.
Now that it’s March, the days are beginning to quickly lengthen. The sun is melting the remaining patches of dirty snow, and black ice is finally clearing from sidewalks. As the trees begin to bloom with confused budding leaves, it is easy for many locals to put this year’s pitiful winter behind them and focus on the summer months to come. Not all Alaskan residents have this luxury, however.
In rural communities where living with the elements can literally be a matter of survival, adjusting to the changing climate is not as simple as taking off the snow tires a couple months earlier than usual. In a recent New York Times article, “Nowhere to go Amid Alaska’s Melting Ice,” author Rena Silverman describes the detrimental consequences of the warming climate in the coastal Alaskan village of Shishmaref. Cold weather used to protect the coastal village and it’s 600 residents from winter storm surges and wind-driven waves by creating a natural ice barrier. Now, the warming weather has diminished these barriers, exposing the community to flooding and dangerous erosion. If the village does not relocate, it will remain threatened by the deadly ramifications brought on by the warming climate.
Shishmaref is not alone, however. Thousands of rural Alaskans are battling the challenges of climate change and its many villainous forms. Therefore, rural villages need initiatives that can address the shape shifting nature of climate change while taking into account the essentialism of culture and tradition throughout the state. One way of doing so is to tap into the unique bank of knowledge that lives within each of these communities, called Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Policymaking
Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture about Traditional Ecological Knowledge (or TEK) titled, “Traditional Knowledge in a Changing World.” The discussion was hosted by Danielle Stickman and Maryann Fidel, two lifelong Alaskans, and employees of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. YRITWC is an indigenous grassroots non-profit dedicated to the preservation of the Yukon River Watershed. TEK is at the core of their mission, and therefore vital to their work protecting the Yukon River watershed. The lecture focused on the combination of TEK and western science, and the duo’s ability to address climate change in a more sustainable, more impactful way.
TEK is defined as “aboriginal, indigenous, or other forms of traditional knowledge regarding the sustainability of local resources.” However, the speakers emphasized that although this definition is correct, it is missing some key components that truly define TEK. The narrower definition describes TEK as a stagnant, or fixed, body of knowledge, but the speakers highlighted that TEK is constantly evolving, passing through generations of Native Alaskans as their ecological surroundings continue to change. The evolving nature of TEK is the key feature that makes it such an invaluable resource for creating resiliency against climate change. TEK has evolved over thousands of years of intimate experience with nature and the environment. It is the communicable link between the past and the future.
The speakers also emphasized that TEK helps “the rules to match the reality.” Frequently public policies are established that treat the problem under focus as a uniform phenomenon, but each Alaskan community is experiencing its own unique battle with climate change. For instance, while Shismaref battles coastal erosion, villages within interior Alaska are facing the challenges of thawing permafrost, altered hunting patterns, and even wildfires. By using TEK, policy makers can better understand the unique challenges that each community faces, and hopefully shrink the gap between perspective and understanding.
As an example of TEK in practice, the Alaska Nanuuq Commission paper titled Traditional Knowledge about Polar Bears in Northwestern Alaska illustrates its significance and utilization in the realm of wildlife management. The warming Arctic has drastically impacted the habitat of ice dependent polar bears, as well as the lives of Alaska Natives who use the species as a vital source of subsistence. This paper highlights how TEK was used to research the impact of the changing arctic sea ice extent as seen through the eyes of local individuals, and how that information can aid in developing impactful policies that will benefit both the bears and Alaska Native populations.
An additional application of TEK is demonstrated by the authors of "Participatory Mapping of Local Disaster Risk Reduction Knowledge: An Example from Switzerland." In this instance, research demonstrates how TEK’s deeply rooted cultural nature can help societies develop more effective oversight, early warnings and adaptations to better cope with their own local climate-related natural hazards.
Alaska is the largest, and one of the most diversely populated states in our country. These are two of my favorite features of Alaska, but these two facts alone make the state’s relationship with climate change much more complex than for many states of the lower 48. “Traditional Knowledge in a Changing World” underscored this, as well as encouraged the use of TEK as a means of effectively grappling with the state’s complexities. The lecture also highlighted the many challenges that rural Alaskans are facing every minute of every day. Like other states, there is an urban-rural divide among Alaskan residents. Nevertheless, I believe that the use of TEK in policy and practice can benefit all residents of this last frontier, no matter where they call home.
Elizabeth Matthews is AMRDI's Alaska-based intern. She is a recent graduate of Colorado State University, with a degree in Zoology. She has studied anthropology and natural resource management in South America, and hopes to soon continue her international aspirations in graduate school. For the moment, however she is happy to be back in her home state of Alaska.