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Climate change stressors and social-ecological factors mediating access to subsistence resources in Arctic Alaska

Kristen M. Green, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford University
Anne H. Beaudreau, University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences; University of Washington, College of the Environment, School of Marine and Environmental Affairs (current affiliation)
Maija H. Lukin, National Park Service (Western Arctic National Parklands)
Larry B. Crowder, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University


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Human access routes to coastal subsistence resources are being altered in Arctic regions as temperatures warm. The accessibility dimension of climate impacts on coastal resources is critical to food sovereignty and resilience of Indigenous Arctic communities, yet the issue of access is understudied relative to food availability. This issue also has implications for the role of governmental agencies in mediating resource access in a changing landscape. We examined the role of climate stressors in affecting access to customary and traditional foods (subsistence) by Indigenous (Iņupiat) communities within and near Arctic National Parklands. We apply access theory to better understand (1) the climate stressors that most impact access to coastal animals and harvest areas, (2) how they affect the availability and reliability of harvest of coastal species, and (3) the mechanisms that facilitate or constrain access to coastal subsistence resources. Our study employed a combination of expert interviews and synthesis of pre-existing environmental time series data in the communities of Kotzebue and Kivalina, Alaska. We found that chronic climate stressors (sea ice retreat, coastal erosion, and changes in weather) most impacted harvest access. To mediate these changes, harvesters ubiquitously reported the use of access mechanisms including capital, knowledge, technology, and social identity; social relations, authority, and time were also reported at high rates. Potential adaptations in these communities include increased reliance on technology and capital to access animals despite landscape changes (e.g., using boats in the absence of sea ice), switching species or relying on social networks for sharing resources when animals become harder to find, and exploring alternatives to harvesting (such as growing food) in response to increasing access challenges. Our findings highlight the stewardship and sovereignty of Indigenous communities as a basis for resilience in a rapidly changing environment.

Key words

adaptation; access theory; Arctic; climate change; Indigenous food sovereignty; subsistence; traditional ecological knowledge

Copyright © 2021 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087