Climate change is forcing Native Alaskans to move from their ancestral homes Climate change is transforming the Arctic, and putting indigenous communities in Alaska at risk.

This is what's at risk from climate change in Alaska

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Climate change is transforming the Arctic. It's warmer, wetter, stormier. And according to a recent annual assessment, the Arctic Report Card, these changes are putting Native communities at risk. Jackie Qatalina Schaeffer, director of climate initiatives for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, co-authored the report. She talks about her experience with climate change as a Native Alaskan from a coastal community.

JACKIE QATALINA SCHAEFFER: I grew up on a rocky beach where all our subsistence activities took place. So that beach in that time frame as I got into high school was starting to erode. Now there was no beach, and it was hitting the road that was now on the shoreline. And then in my early adult life, they built a seawall. And that seawall is just a huge metal seawall. But it protects the community from, you know, coastal erosion and tidal influence for flooding. But it also has been compromised a few times in my adult life.

MARTÍNEZ: Why are the effects of climate change being felt so strongly by Alaska Natives in particular?

SCHAEFFER: Well, Alaska Native communities and our people are on the front lines of climate change. The Arctic itself is - you have to consider it the cooling system for the planet. And so the impacts are direct, and there's nowhere to go. So it's not like we have the privilege of migrating away from danger anymore because of land designation and land ownership. And, you know, working with federal partners is important because 65% of Alaska is federal land. And so we have to look at it now through a different lens. But those communities were placed on vulnerable spaces already, so the environment was already fragile before they were placed there. So climate change is greater impact to those Native communities because of that.

MARTÍNEZ: So relocation doesn't sound like it's an option then.

SCHAEFFER: Relocation is an option. We do have a few active relocating communities. But you have to understand that now you have to do land exchanges or purchase lands. And when you have a community of, say, under 200 people, there is no way that financially it will ever pencil out if you have to completely build a new community somewhere else and then negotiate a land exchange or purchase of that land.

MARTÍNEZ: So for the communities that are in vulnerable spots but maybe do not have much of an option to relocate, what kinds of dangers are they facing?

SCHAEFFER: We still have communities that are up to 80% living off subsistence lifestyle, which is living off free food from nature. So as stewards of that land, water and sea, you are able to access 80% of your food from that land base. And so when climate changes that land base, now those things are compromised. And so what can you do? Well, what we're trying to do is mitigate away from danger but still live within the same geographic land base that your ancestors did. So you can still have that traditional lifestyle, but maybe adding to that new community or when you're just mitigating, hopscotching away from danger, engineering differently. So you have homes and infrastructure that is not going to be compromised by the next storm. You actually have a mitigation plan in place.


MARTÍNEZ: That was Jackie Qatalina Schaeffer, a co-author of this year's Arctic Report and an Inupiaq from Kotzebue, Alaska.


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