Alaska's Residents Grapple with Changing Climate Warming temperatures, melting sea ice and thawing ground are changing traditional hunting practices, bringing new health threats, and causing never-before-seen changes to the land. Alaska's residents are working to adapt and prepare as climate change hits home.
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Alaska's Residents Grapple with Changing Climate

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Alaska's Residents Grapple with Changing Climate

Alaska's Residents Grapple with Changing Climate

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I used to have glaciers up at my camp on the Kiakuk River(ph) where the salmon berries used to grow. But the glaciers have all melted in the ground. It's drying up so there are no more salmon berries. That's a quote from Benedict Jones, an Alaska native elder, describing the kind of changes he's seen near his village in northern interior Alaska.

Most scientists agree that climate change is happening at really an accelerated pace in the Arctic regions. So it should be no surprise that the people who live off the land there are already experiencing many of those changes. So this hour as we look and continue to broadcast from the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and look at the effects of global warming on the area and the effects here in the Arctic.

We're going to switch gears and talk a bit about how these affects our - affecting the people. How are they changing the people here, how they live and from how they eat and how healthy they are and all these kinds of things that these things do to people. We talked about the effects that we notice in nature now. We're going to talk about having people as part of those ecosystems. And we'll talk about how scientists studying climate change in Arctic regions can incorporate traditional knowledge into their research and how native communities can use that research to prepare for climate change.

Our program today is part of Climate Connections, NPR's yearlong collaboration with National Geographic on climate change. And as we say we're looking at how people shape climate and how climate shapes how we live.

If you'd like to join our discussion, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And if you're here in the audience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as usual, I'd see you climb up the microphones without having to be told this hour. That's great, so. We've gotten that - those instructions out of the way.

Let me introduce my guests. James Berner M.D. is a member of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year and the National Academy of Science's Polar Research board. He's been a part of the Alaska Native Health Care System for over 30 years and is currently senior director for science at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage. Welcome to the program, Dr. Berner.

Dr. JAMES BERNER M.D. (Senior Director for Science, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. La'Ona DeWilde grew up in the native community of Huslia, Alaska. She's a Ph.D. candidate in biology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Welcome to the program.

Ms. LA'ONA DEWILDE (Ph.D. Candidate, University of Alaska Fairbanks): Thank you.

FLATOW: Craig Gerlach is an anthropologist studying traditional food systems in Interior Northern Alaska. He's a professor in the resilience and adaptation program and a principal investigator with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Welcome to the program.

Professor CRAIG GERLACH (Resilience and Adaptation Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks): Thanks very much.

FLATOW: And now for the first part of the program here we're joined by Fran Ulmer, former legislator and lieutenant governor of Alaska. She's currently the interim chancellor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. But before she held the job, she directed the Institute for Social and Economic Research at UAA, and she joins us today to talk about a recent institute study that really put a price tag on the potential cost to Alaska's public infrastructure, including its roads, its utilities, schools and hospitals. All of these - at the cost of really paying the price for this rapid climate change and it gives Alaska policymakers from vital information as they decide how to prepare for climate change in their state.

Chancellor Ulmer, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. FRAN ULMER (Interim Chancellor, University of Alaska Anchorage): Hello, Ira. And thank you for coming to Alaska to discuss this important topic.

FLATOW: Well, you know, we do talk about the climate affecting nature. But we really haven't talked much about the infrastructure. You've been studying the infrastructure of the state.

Ms. ULMER: Well, you know, there are many, many ways in which climate change is impacting Alaskans. And of course, the most dramatic way is the destruction of communities from coastal erosion and from thawing permafrost. And you've heard about Shishmaref and Newtok and Kivalina, three communities of many communities that are looking at having to move because their communities are no longer viable.

This is creating a serious problem, of course, an emotional, a cultural, a financial toll on the people who live there. And the pretty dramatic description in - for not only Alaskans but people around the world who want to see, well, what difference does it make? But there are many more subtle changes that are taking place. And one of those subtle changes you've already heard about, people driving in Fairbanks who see a lot of roads buckling. We see buildings in some cases collapsing because of thawing permafrost.

So it seemed appropriate to do a bit of research to try to quantify the financial impacts associated with these changes. Like any kind of research, it's a model but really just tries to look at what is known today and predict alternative scenarios and get some idea of what the cause might be. And that is exactly what Peter Larsen, an economist at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, has been working on for about the last year.

FLATOW: So you really had come up with a bill of what this is costing everybody?

Ms. ULMER: Right, how much will climate change add to the future costs of Alaska's public infrastructure. And I want to emphasize that we only look at public infrastructure, not private property, looking at schools and roads and airport runways, water and sewerage, et cetera. We used a range of climate change projections - low, medium, high - looked at two different years out in the future, 2030 and 2080, and using thawing permafrost, increased flooding and more coastal erosion to kind of gauge the potential damage to infrastructure, the model projects what kind of difference it would make.

And generally, it - you know, the preliminary conclusion is that climate change could add 10 to 20 percent to public infrastructure costs, obviously, depending upon a lot of assumptions and in different regions, there will be different rates of change. But I think the important point of research like this isn't that it gives you a particular number, it gives you some sense that change is coming, and that change will cost us all money.

It has cost, not only in the short but in the long term, and not to factor that into the whole equation of what kind of public policy steps should be taken at the state, local, federal and international level. It's certainly something that we need to talk about.

FLATOW: Because this is the kind of money one would not have expected to have to raise or pay for previously.

Ms. ULMER: Well, it is since that you are going to replace existing infrastructure anyway. The point of an analysis like this, in using models to do so, is just to kind of calibrate the additional cost that comes from the changing conditions that we're experiencing in Alaska. And not only in Alaska, but as you've been discussing for the last hour or so, it's a pretty dramatic change here.

NASA reports that Alaska has warmed more than any other place on the planet over the last 50 winters. So it's probably not surprising to hear that we are observing these changes and that we are now trying to think about what those changes will cost in the future.

FLATOW: So you're figuring out, for example, what it would cost to just pick up and move a whole village?

Ms. ULMER: Well, this particular work that was done by Peter Larsen is not really focusing on the Shishmarefs of the world. It's really looking at all the infrastructure in communities, whether they're in the north or in the south, or in the southeast of Alaska. It's really the entire state. It's not only these few communities that are the most dramatic changed places, but really throughout the entire state.

FLATOW: Well, you used to be the lieutenant governor. Do you think that politicians, the policymakers are getting the message? Do you think that they're going to incorporate climate change into their decision-making?

Ms. ULMER: Well, it's like most other things that happen in the world of politics. It's highly variable depending upon the individual legislators or governor, or senators or representatives' experience.

Now, in Alaska, the experience is a lot clearer for the reasons we've talked about all morning. Other places in the lower 48, where the change isn't yet as dramatic, it may be harder to get people to, first of all, accept the fact that it's happening, or accept the rate at which it's happening, or accept the reality that doing nothing also costs the state or the nation money.

There's been a lot of discussion at federal level about, gee, if we implement mitigation, if we try to do anything to reduce the rate of climate change, that it will have an impact on the economy. I think work like this demonstrates that there will be an impact on the economy either way, whether we take action or not.

So we really have to be, I think, more proactive in individuals, business leaders, community leaders and elected officials in really thinking through the steps to not only mitigate, but also adapt to the climate change that we're experiencing.

FLATOW: Alaska is a huge state. Are all the people in all parts of Alaska, are they aware of what's going on in the rest of the places? Are they more, more sense of the places?

Ms. ULMER: Well, that's a really good question. As most of your listeners probably don't know, Alaska is two and a half times the size of Texas. We're the equivalent of one-fifth of the lower 48. That's - that means that we have many different climates, ecosystems, different cultures and economies. Different regions are experiencing different kinds of change.

So if you're in Southeast Alaska, living in the Tongass, the world's largest remaining temperate rainforest, land of giant cedars and spruce, and brown bears and salmon. What you're seeing in it and experiencing, melting glaciers and more rain and less snow, is different than if you're living in interior Alaska in the boreal forest where conditions are drying and the warmer conditions are giving rise to more forest fires and a lot more smoke.

You had a person talking about how difficult it is to breathe when there are big forest fires in the interior. All of that's really different than if you live in the northwest in treeless tundras or the Alaska coastal plain with the caribou(ph) and polar bears. I mean, it's a very diverse state.

So the answer to your question is, depending upon where you live, the way in which you are seeing and feeling climate change differs dramatically. And if you live in Newtok or Kivalina or Shishmaref and you see buildings collapsing into the sea because of coastal erosion and thawing permafrost, it's very up close and personal. If you live in Southeast, the changes may appear to be more subtle and you may not have quite that sense of intensity about we've got to do something about this.

FLATOW: Chancellor Ulmer, I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us today and good luck to you.

Ms. ULMER: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Fran Ulmer is a former legislator and lieutenant governor of Alaska and former director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. We're going to have to take a short break, come back and talk lots more about how the climate change is affecting people and your questions here in the audience and online. So stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking about Alaska and the impact of global climate change on the people and the infrastructures in the state, with our guests Dr. Jim Berner, senior director for science at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage; La'Ona DeWilde, Ph.D. candidate in biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; and Craig Gerlach, professor in the resilience and adaptation program and principal investigator with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Our number 1-800-989-8255. La'Ona, tell us about your village and where you come from and what do you take away from all of this, what have you seen?

Ms. DEWILDE: Okay. I grew up outside of Huslia, about 55 air miles or about 107 miles by river, with 13 siblings. And we went to town just a couple of times here to get like sugar and tea and coffee and get some mail. But mostly we just subsist in fish and hunt and made our cabins and sleds and snowshoes and stuff out of birch wood and sold most of our clothing from fur and, you know, we did a lot of beaver snaring in the springtime in February and March. And we just, you know, ate moose in the fall, had fish in the summer and picked a lot of berries all fall to preserve that and, you now, went to Huslia where my mom, that's where she was from. And she had a lot of siblings living in Huslia also, but where we were raised was where her past ancestors used to live also.


Ms. DEWILDE: So you'll see like underground houses and stuff out there.

FLATOW: Would you describe this as typical Athabaskan living?

Ms. DEWILDE: I would say that we were a little bit extreme compared to the people around us. For example, when we came into Huslia, people would - we even had like an accent that was different from the Huslia people.

FLATOW: And have your people seen the difference, the changes?

Ms. DEWILDE: Yes, definitely. Like when I was growing up, it would be 60 below for a long time and we never see that anymore. And also, like the way the rivers break up in the springtime, we've watched the ice just pile up like houses high, you know, and just rip the bank up and break all the willows down. Now, a lot of times the river just melts and the ice just melts. And like the sandbars are changing, there's more like shrubs in growth along the sandbars.

FLATOW: There's a lot weather to get around. You have to go through more liquid water than you used to instead of just over the ice.

Ms. DEWILDE: Yeah, the travel is a lot difficult during the winter time, especially around Huslia where, you know, there's a lot of water that they need to drive over and so there's been winters where the people were mostly just having to hunt and get wood on the hill of Huslia and can't really leave.

FLATOW: Do you think the people you talk to attribute these changes to global warming or do they think of it as more of a natural form of life?

Ms. DEWILDE: I think that most of them are contributing to global warming at this point in time just because of how extreme it's been and - including like lakes have been drying up a lot around Huslia where I grew up and even around here like (unintelligible) up by 10 and now there's fish lake. A huge lake that a couple of years ago when I went out there, there was just like dead fish in it, with their gills just like spread out like that which is a sign they died of lack of oxygen.


Ms. DEWILDE: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's talk about some of the other things that are affecting the Alaska natives. Jim Berner, you're a physician. Why is it that Alaska natives are especially vulnerable to health effects from climate change?

Dr. BERNER: Well, I think La'Ona has given you a good picture of how close to the environment that Alaska natives live. And I don't think everybody knows that Alaska has a - the largest Native American percentage of its population of any state. It's 19 percent of the state's population. And two-thirds of Alaska natives live in rural Alaska, in villages the size of Huslia and some a little bigger. About a third live in the larger communities like Anchorage and Fairbanks. Most of the states' non-native population live in larger communities and not in rural Alaska.

So scattered through rural Alaska, there's a population of people who's health is my issue. And one of the key things that I think Alaska natives clearly grasp is that their lives are linked to the environment around them, which is really rapidly changing. And while that brings some opportunities, it also brings a host of threats, not all of which are as easy to see as, say, Hurricane Katrina.

FLATOW: What kind of threats, for example?

Dr. BERNER: Well, I think, you can separate operationally the effects of climate change on health into two categories. There are the direct effects, which are intuitive like hypothermia, frostbite, heatstroke - they're two ends of the thermal injury spectrum - and then those are direct effects.

But the indirect effects operate through an intermediate mechanism, usually through an environmental factor. And a simple thing is the big increase in drownings in rural Alaska from people who've fall through the ice because they're crossing the ice near their village at a time when traditionally it's been safe, but now, it may not be. Now, that's a big loss when a village loses a hunter or any member of the village. And so traveling the land is more hazardous. It's less predictable.

But the other piece that's, to me, one of the challenges that we have to work, we have to develop a strategy to respond to, is the increase in what we call zoonotic diseases. A zoonotic disease is a disease of animals that can be spread to humans. And well, the foster child for that is rabies. Rabies is an animal disease but when humans get it, they die of it.

There are many, many, many zoonotic diseases in the animals in Alaska. There are new ones appearing. And right now, what we do is recognize new human cases of a disease we haven't looked for before and that's how we become aware of it. And we need to become, as the earlier speaker said, proactive.

FLATOW: Well, what would be one of those diseases?

Dr. BERNER: Well, for instance, we've seen in Northwest Alaska, there's a tiny segment of Northwest Alaska that used to be an endemic spot for a parasitic disease called echinococcus. It's an animal disease. It has a cycle in foxes and voles. And it was restricted to St. Lawrence Island, part of Russia and the adjacent Bering Sea coast.

Now, because of the climate warming, the voles that spread that and are host to that parasite have moved eastward, across the Arctic slope and they are as far east as Barrow. And as they spread, the human disease will spread as well. And the people in Barrow are just beginning to learn how to protect themselves from this disease. And I think it's up to us to be in to deal with this kind of emerging public health responses.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let me go to Craig Gerlach. You've studied how traditional food systems in the rural Alaska are changing as they climate warms. Tell us what you mean by traditional food systems. Where does the food come from for people living in rural Alaska?

Prof. GERLACH: In general, when I talk about or we talk about traditional food systems, we're talking about subsistence, how people make a living on the land, what they access, what kind of resources they use. There's not a one size fits all…

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. GERLACH: …solution for that because this is a big state that doesn't make a whole lot of sense ecologically or culturally. We have Yup'ik people in southwest. We have north slope Inupiaq(ph). We have interior Athabaskans, the species of - the focal species will differ depending. But in general, the traditional food systems is trying to both understand what people want to do on the land, what they do in the land, and in some cases, we're talking about how to recover knowledge about that.

And you mentioned something that if - a minute ago, someone did a - that's really key about looking at traditional knowledge and what people can record or have recorded about climate change, resource use, the distribution of fish and wildlife. And that's a piece of it. But one of the things that I'm confronting in research we're doing now is the conditions are changing in such a way that that knowledge, there's no recorded way to deal with the kind - the rapid kinds of changes that people are having…

FLATOW: They just don't have the experience.

Mr. GERLACH: People are having to confront now and it's…

FLATOW: And it (unintelligible).

Prof. GERLACH: It's new. It's the ecological and the climatic and the weather conditions are changing.

FLATOW: How much do the Alaska natives rely on commercially for produced food?

Prof. GERLACH: Well, you know, that's a research question that we're working on.


Prof. GERLACH: And the answer is, it depends. But in general, I believe it's true and maybe then, people can correct me if you don't think I'm right about this. But more and more and more people are having to rely on commercial foods and there are a variety of drivers here.

One is climate is changing. As La'Ona mentioned, lakes are drying up. You know, there's changes in hydrology and the river systems. There's oil and gas development, different kinds of development regimes that are constraining what people can do on the land. So anything that restricts access, success rates f harvest will force people to rely more and more on what's in the store.

FLATOW: Well, let's go to the audience. We have lots of people at the microphone when we go to this side. That's you. Yeah. Go ahead.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi. I have an economic question that will probably be better suited for the first half. I'm still going to ask it. Because of global warming's effect on the climate, what type of land would be a wise choice for a future investment in property in Alaska?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, that's what people worry about, don't they, you know? In Florida, they worry about whether they're going to be underwater in a hundred years. What do you worry about here, if you're, you know? If you're building - if the permafrost is going to be melting and the chain waters is going to be changing, and things like that. Anybody who wants to accept(ph) that?

Craig, do you want to?

Prof. GERLACH: Well, I'd like to know the answer because then I might invest in property. But, you know, that you're asking a really good question about development. And, you know, more and more in people, more and more and more multinational corporations, oil and gas - and everyone knows that story I think - but are investing inland, corporations are investing inland because, you know, they're for profit operations.

And what that does in some ways is, I don't want to use the word disenfranchised but it does limit what people can do on private property. Now, there's two sides to oil and gas. There's perhaps a downside for a local people in the villages with respect to access, you know, whether or not there are real significant impacts on the distribution of fish and wildlife has two sides to that debate.

FLATOW: Okay. Let's move on. Obviously, we're not - we're going to get really far with that question. Yes, sir?

Unidentified Man #1: Well, one of the things you were saying is people-affecting climate and the environment and yes, people do affect climate and the environment and yet, so seldom do I hear it ever discussed. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the population of the world triple and brushing headlong into four-fold.

Yet, I seldom hear with all the discussion on energy efficiency and reducing the emissions, et cetera, I seldom hear any discussion about the impact of the population growth and the impact that human growth and, you know, the geometric progression of population is just not discussed. Is it a taboo or why isn't it ever discussed?

FLATOW: Let me get - let me remind everybody that this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Got some reaction on population, Doctor? Any answer?

Dr. BERNER: Well…

FLATOW: The doctor in on this question?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BERNER: I guess I could use it to maybe address one of the health issues that is really, I think maybe prominent more than it would be because of population in rural Alaska. And that is there are growing village populations in rural Alaska. There are some villages with a declining population.

But for the most part, there are more people and that's because we are keeping infants alive. Elders are living longer and the health care system is much better. Now when that happens, there are more people out on the land, more people hunting. There are more caribou taken there, more salmon taken.

And as that happens, if this is a source of disease exposure for people, there will be more people exposed in this fashion just because of numbers. At the same time, it offers an unparalleled opportunity to institute a strategy to look at how rural communities can deal with climate change.

No rural - no large community for that matter can change the climate on their own. But what they can do is develop a capacity to identify emerging threats, and that's what they have to do. That is a doable, achievable goal.

And I think Alaska natives are in a unique position because of their organized communities, they're traditionally organized communities, to be observers of their own environments. And once that observational material is gathered in a regional network and then in the statewide network, and then as was mentioned earlier in circumpolar network, you can get all the pieces of the puzzle where you can see them and you can see it that changes in zoonotic disease and you can see the changes in human health and the opportunities as well as the threats.

And as soon as we start seeing trans-shipment through the Arctic during more of the year, we'll start seeing imported diseases from those ships, both animal and fish diseases and human diseases. So we need this kind of a network.

FLATOW: You mean, once the Arctic passages are open, and the ice is free in the summertime, we're going to be seeing all the health problems that was brought to the mainland coming to end.

Prof. GERLACH: That's exactly Alaska.

FLATOW: Fran, I got about a minute. Go ahead.

Ms. ULMER: Okay. I just want to mention that, yeah, we haven't talked about or heard population, you know, management or control today. But as far as what the native communities, I would say that, you know, the population is being like, people nowadays in the native communities are having with children than they did.

And you can see that even in my family of 14 of us that - the younger kids like me and my younger siblings, you know, we had kids later and we're going to have less kids in our older siblings.

And also, just the attitude in the village where long time ago when I was young, you know, what made you really a proud and great woman was that, you know, you had healthy, strong children and a lot of them. And, you know, now that's not really preached as much. And, you know, people are more talking about education and, you know, you see the little flyers about birth control and stuff like that.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break, come back and take more questions from the audience here in Fairbanks. Talking with Jim Berner, La'Ona DeWilde and Craig Gerlach. So stay with us. We'll be right back from Fairbanks. Don't go away.

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A brief program note. On Monday's show, Neal Conan talked with an Army interrogator who spent a year working at the U.S. prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

We're talking this hour about climate change and the people of Alaska with my guests Dr. Jim Berner, La'Ona DeWilde, Craig Gerlach. Our number 1-800-989-8255. And La'Ona DeWilde comes from Huslia, Alaska. That's a native community.

And you - and I always wonder whether people here, Alaska natives, think that this is just another thing that Western culture has brought upon us. Are they angry about this? Is there an anger that you've upset our way of life and we had nothing to do with this?

Ms. DEWILDE: Well, it's hard for me to speak for all Alaska natives. But I will mention something that we were doing a workshop in Huslia and some of the elders - and I remember this, years ago, too, that, yeah, they were pretty upset that humans went to the moon.

And it was, they just thought it was really arrogant and showing off. And some of the elders, you know, they, as far as the climate changing and stuff, they, yeah, they feel like it was brought on by these humans that have all these abilities to go to the moon and, you know, they can change the climate too.

FLATOW: Dr. Berner, you deal with these, you know, these people all the time. Do you get any of that sense that this is something that is out of their control and is, you know, upsetting to them?

Dr. BERNER: Well, I've heard a few things like La'Ona has. But what I hear day after day because I deal with medical problems as well as the kinds of public health problems, we're talking about Alaska natives are a joy to work with. They have this wonderful philosophy even though there are five different major cultures they share this.

They sort of play the cards they're dealt with and they've lived in a tough, tough place for 10,000 years and they've dealt with it. And they will deal with this and their major request, really, is for some collaboration and partnerships to help deal with it.

And that doesn't mean necessarily the kinds of changes that we're talking about on a global scale to reduce CO2 emissions. That's how to get by a strategy to survive in their communities and continue to have sustainable, small native communities all over Alaska.

FLATOW: Craig Gerlach, for Alaska natives, this is just another thing I added on to the development as you see it, right? And now, we have global warming on top of development, which is already some upsetting.

Prof. GERLACH: And La'Ona says she doesn't speak for native people. I clearly don't. But I can bring to this what I've heard from native people and oftentimes, we'll start our discussion about climate change and we transition to a variety of other issues like socioeconomic impacts.

What kinds of interactions do rural communities' options, what kinds of options do they have to interact with a larger economy? And the other thing is that there's all these communities have different kinds of infrastructures, different capacities. We're talking about communities' off-the-road systems in many places.

And so they're restricted, their options for responding to change are becoming more and more restricted, you know. So we need to go back to Matthew's from the first hour. You know, Matthew was talking about systems and so as Torre and everyone else, and I think we need to think about how rural people will respond to change in the context of what is the system that they're actually interacting in.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Yes, ma'am. Step up to mic.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes. I'd like to thank you and your staff for making the trip to Fairbanks to give Alaskans a chance to tell the nation how climate change is really affecting our life.

FLATOW: Well, you're welcome for giving us the opportunity to be here.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #2: Okay.

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: And we have learned - I'll just say it parenthetically - we have learned so much, you know. We - I fly a desk now, basically, after 20 years of being outside as a reporter, and every chance we get to go out, and we learned - I learned so much about the Arctic and of the tundra and everything else and how it all works here. It's a changing - some life-changing experience. I want to thank you for taking time to it…

Unidentified Woman #2: And I do have a question.

FLATOW: Yes, go ahead. You can (unintelligible), believe me.

Unidentified Man #2: It might have been more appropriate for the first panel, but I'll take any advice I can get. I'm a member of a climate change working group - that's the Northern Alaska Environmental Center - and we would love some advice on how we can educate and motivate our policymakers on the local level, the state level and the national level to join the global community in really start taking some action to decrease our emissions.

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: Well, any - does that speak for itself in that question? That - I sense the same frustration our panelists have as with the questioner, right? Would that be correct?

Prof. GERLACH: You know…

FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

Prof. GERLACH: I'd make a comment on that. And first of all, I'd like to be on that committee. If you guys can find out what the answers are, I'm all for it. But I think the one thing I have seen in the last 10 years of working on climate change issues is that that now we have a variety of different venues and organizations that, you know, from the mayors to the governmental organizations and non-governmental to the state that are setting up their own panels that suggest to me that there's a much greater awareness of these issues. And I don't think necessarily people know the answers yet. But there is certainly an awareness that I didn't see even five or 10 years ago, which I think is positive. And the difference between policy and politics - I don't know, is Fran still on the phone?

FLATOW: Well, you know, we've seen also the - just this week, the presidential candidates are now actually talking about climate change as an issue. It never was.

Prof. GERLACH: That's what I'm actually saying, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah, I mean, they're actually talking about who's now - can wear the green mantle more than the other person. It's interesting. I never thought I'd see that so soon, either.

Yes, sir?

Unidentified Man #3: This past year, the United States Academic Decathlon, which is an academic competition at the high school level, one of their main topics was climatology and the change that climate has been undergoing all over the world. And I certainly learned a lot from that and I know there are other members here in the audience and I know they learned a lot. But what can we, as individuals, do to sort of educate and raise awareness on an individual level in our communities both here in Alaska and across the country?

FLATOW: Well, anybody want to tackle that? What can people do? (unintelligible) La'Ona, do you do any outreach to your people when you go back home there to your village?

Ms. DEWILDE: Well, I go back and have brought, like, people back from the university to do workshops as I've mentioned, and definitely, just having, like, two workshops in a small village like that will - it'll change people's perspective pretty much - it could forever, you know, what people talked about and the stories they shared and what they learned will be passed on to the next generation. And I think after that workshop, I've noticed a lot more discussion about climate change and whether or not, you know, it's human cause and…

FLATOW: I understand that you used to be a firefighter.


FLATOW: Because of your experience as you've developed a fire management plan for your village and you actually were able to keep track of the fires that were out there. Tell us a little bit about that.

Ms. DEWILDE: Yeah, I worked for eight years for BLM as a hotshot and then a smokejumper and traveled all over to villages and in remote areas just to fight in fires. And over time, I started to notice that there was a lot of fuel buildup there, Huslia, and also, there's other villages like that. And when Huslia was first - build it, it was built on a old fire scar and most of the vegetation there was an early succession vegetation so it wasn't flammable and, you know, 50, 70 years later, you have a lot of fuel buildup.

And so, yeah, we built - the community of Huslia worked with BLM to build a perimeter around the area and same with other villages that have started to basically, you know, develop their perimeter around their village because when the fires are coming, it's - you don't really have time to start cutting a line like that.

FLATOW: Craig Gerlach, if we're talking climate change and we're talking changes in season, does that affect the growing period of crops and that native Alaskans can learn or change or can - do they even wonder about this? Or do you work with them?

Prof. GERLACH: I work with them a lot on this and there are many different questions about it. The first approximation of impact through climate on local communities that I understand are, you know, changes in river levels, changes in the hydrology, changes in the drying of the landscape, things that affect traditional resource use. And that affects the ability for barges to bring, you know, in the absence of the roads bring - barges to bring fuel to community, the commodities, food into the communities, rising price of fuel. Those are issues that are very important.

Because of those problems and because of a variety of other issues, people in the rural communities are starting to experiment - think about new ways to secure their food supply, you know, because they're vulnerable when they're dependent on Fred Meyers here in Fairbanks or a store. They're extremely vulnerable in multiple ways.

But what they're thinking about is - okay, what about gardening? Small-scale gardening and this is not, you know, Midwestern corn agriculture here. It's not what we're talking about but very small-scale gardening efforts. And there's actually a historical tradition for that in the villages that's been largely unrecognized and not incorporated in the customary and traditional legal framework but it's old, you know, and there are records to prove that but we're looking at 60, 70 years of records of variables of success. But now, people are saying, let's go back to that, let's think about it, and not all villages are onboard with this.

But, you know, an elder talked to me not too long ago and he said, if we don't start doing something again with controlling our own local food supply, given all the other impacts, you know, we're going to have problems and…

FLATOW: It's interesting because the rest of America is beginning to wake up to that.

Prof. GERLACH: Well - yes.

FLATOW: Also, let me just - a reminder. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow in Fairbanks.

People are saying if you really want to save energy, conserve energy and grow food locally, eat locally - you don't truck (unintelligible) water from the South Pacific to drink out of a little bottle, you know, and that sort of thing. So it saves a lot of energy that way.

Prof. GERLACH: Yeah.

FLATOW: Let me go to the audience here. Yes?

Unidentified Woman #3: Hi, I'm part of a group, Mothers for Alaska, and we are group of moms and grandmothers, mostly from the Arctic villages in Alaska. And we formed specifically to testify to our legislators and our state and then to also get the word out - we need to talk to our legislators.

These women have been talking with - they're experiencing a lot of things your panelists talked about. Their berries are boiling in their pods before they can pick them. Their permafrost cellars to keep their foods safe are melting. Their fish are diseased.

My question is, is there any kind of public education - public health education going out into the villages to tell them about the gardening. I know they know about the gardening but to reemphasize about what to do when their food sources are damaged or bring them ill health and also - well, I forgot the last part of that question.

FLATOW: But you covered a lot…

Unidentified Woman #3: But that's it.

FLATOW: …of topics.

Unidentified Woman #3: Thank you.

FLATOW: Yes, Dr. Berner, can you react to that, please?

Dr. BERNER: I think region by region, there is some early attempt to do exactly that. And there have been some well-publicized episodes of illness related to permafrost food cellar failure. So - and it isn't the only kind of threat that that permafrost changes has made. A village that has a sewage lagoon that has a permafrost containment and pins on that, if that permafrost begins to melt in the summer, at the level of the sewage, then you can get subsurface migration without anything being visible on the surface to nearby surface-water supplies.

So there are lots of different things that we have to begin to look at and monitor on a village-by-village basis, and often the response to it is pretty intuitive once you know the problem is there and the extent of it. Sometimes, it isn't intuitive. But all that needs to be, I think, addressed in a systematic fashion, and it is not right now. There are interested agencies in it. However, it's not yet moved into the - that place in the public's priority that says let's finally do something about this.

FLATOW: Unfortunately, I only have time for just one more quick question from the audience.

Yes, go ahead.

Unidentified Woman #4: I wanted to follow up on Ira's comment the first hour about insects, and I wonder if changing insect distributions are not an under-recognized impact on global warming in terms of - their distribution's changing more rapidly than other species so that they prey on both plants and animals and can therefore impact distributions which are - and plants and animals are food and fuel for both humans and other animals.

FLATOW: Craig? Craig or Dr. Berner, you want?

Dr. BERNER: Well, I mean, I'll take a quick cut at that. There are also vectors of disease.

Unidentified Woman #4: Right.

Dr. BERNER: And so they can be plant or animal diseases, and as fast as the insect range and distribution is changing so is that of bacteria. So for instance, waterborne bacteria's moving into the Prince William's Sound area, new diseases that we didn't - we never seen north of Vancouver, are now appearing in Prince William's Sound and caused an epidemic on a cruise liner. So you're right. As the environment warms, it becomes a possible for all sorts of new vectors of disease and new food species to move north.

FLATOW: Well, quickly. Yes, La'Ona, go ahead.

Ms. DEWILDE: Okay, I just want to mention something about the communities, the villages and stuff. We've been focusing on climate change and how it's impacting them but when you're looking at this, you have to keep in mind that there's huge cultural changes and, you know, economic challenges, you know, energy needs, alcoholism, super high suicide rate. And so when we're evaluating how people are feeling about, you know, us or the, you know, United States causing the climate to change and how they feel about that, we have to keep in mind that, you know, they're dealing with a lot more huge problems right here and now and some, you know, just to keep that in mind.

FLATOW: Well, that's a good place to end. We've run out of time. I want to thank my guests, La'Ona DeWilde, Ph.D. candidate in biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, who grew in the native community of Huslia, Alaska; Dr. Jim Berner, member of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year and National Academy of Sciences Polar Research Board, senior director for science at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage; Craig Gerlach, professor in the resilience and adaptation program and principal investigator with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of credits)

FLATOW: We'll see you next week in New York. I'm Ira Flatow in Fairbanks.

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