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Assessing vulnerability of subsistence travel to effects of environmental change in Interior Alaska

Helen S. Cold, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Todd J. Brinkman, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Caroline L. Brown, Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Teresa N. Hollingsworth, USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station
Dana R. N. Brown, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Krista M. Heeringa, International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks


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Amplified climate warming at high northern latitudes is challenging societies that depend on local provisional and cultural ecosystem services, e.g., subsistence resources, for their livelihoods. Previous qualitative research suggests that climate-induced changes in environmental conditions are affecting rural residents’ ability to travel across the land and access local resources, but detailed information on the nature and effect of specific conditions is lacking. Our objectives were to identify climate-related environmental conditions affecting subsistence travel and access, and then estimate rural resident travel and access vulnerability to those environmental conditions. We collaborated with nine Interior Alaskan communities within the Yukon River basin and provided residents with camera-equipped GPS units to document environmental conditions directly affecting subsistence access for 12 consecutive months. We also conducted comprehensive interviews with research participants to incorporate the effects of environmental conditions not documented with GPS units. Environmental conditions reported by rural residents were categorized into seven condition types. We assessed vulnerability to each condition by accounting for both likelihood (number of times a condition was documented) and sensitivity (magnitude of the effect from the condition) information derived from GPS observations and interviews. We also tested for differences in mean vulnerability values among environmental conditions and between community types (road-connected vs. remote) using a one-way analysis of variance. Rural community travel and access were most vulnerable to changes in ice conditions, erosion, vegetative community composition, and water levels. Environmental conditions that impeded natural travel corridors, e.g., waterways, more strongly influenced remote communities than those connected by roads. Increased vulnerability to environmental change puts remote communities at increased risk for food-security issues. Our study used a novel community-based approach to integrate local knowledge with scientific analysis to document and estimate the relative effects that specific environmental conditions are having on access to subsistence resources across Interior Alaska.

Key words

access; Arctic; climate warming; subsistence; traditional ecological knowledge; travel; vulnerability

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087