Alaska Forum on the Environment – Day Three: Stories only we can tell

Anchorage 2/9/16

“We can tell our stories!” The speech to open Day Three of the Forum came from Terry Chapin, a University of Alaska Fairbanks emeritus professor, spelling out what Forum participants, whether scientists, villagers or bureaucrats, could do about climate change. While the problem is globally huge, Chapin said the way to begin making a difference is to take small steps. And stories are just such a small step – the way to get the word out about just how drastically climate change is already affecting Alaska, where people are few, but the temperature rise is far more severe than at temperate latitudes, where people are abundant.

So here are a few such stories, starting with an ongoing saga that any of us can watch develop at a website, .   LEO is the Local Environmental Observer Network run by Mike Brubaker and others at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. This site is a collection of reports from some of its 1331 members about any unusual natural phenomena they’re seeing where they are – mostly remote Alaska, but now spreading around the world. Anyone can be a member. In fact you have to be a member to see the observations, sometimes with context added. Brubaker took the audience through a live online browse of selected reports for each month of the past year – a woman who caught vibrio from an oyster at a restaurant, two pumas robbing a fish wheel in Tazlina, lots of intense insect hatches, strange timings and abundances of berries, the waves of seabird mortalities

Why did all those seabirds die? Because there was no food for them

Indeed, the observations told a story – what some have called the “global weirding” of our part of the planet.

All week I have been watching stories unfold. From Nome, there was the Day One spill and oiling story we posted here earlier from Gay Sheffield

Alaska Forum on the Environment – Day One: the first Bering Sea transboundary spill

And also Austin Ahmasuk of the Kawerak Native regional non-profit corporation, talking about just how concerned they are about spills in the Bering Strait and Northern Bering Sea area, noting new vulnerabilities due to warmer ocean temperatures.

Warm Bering Sea last fall shocked longtime researcher

He said he went to the waterfront to watch the cruise ship “Crystal Serenity” arrive on its way to its pioneering voyage through the Northwest Passage. “It emerged from the fog, and it was huge,” he said. “It towered over Nome, and I mean towered over it. I was looking for the escort vessel that was supposed to be with it. It was not there. The ‘Shackleton.’ There had been a change in plans I had somehow not caught. The ‘Shackleton’ was in the southern hemisphere.” Nobody thought to tell Nome, or ask Nome what it thought about the giant cruise ship having no escort through the Bering Strait. That’s how slipshod things are with this budding new Arctic ecotourism industry, the industry that this year is banking on taking clients to look at the sunken wreck of the recently discovered Erebus of the famously lost Franklin Expedition.

Chapin got me started hearing stories everywhere at the Forum, many of them the kinds of stories that only we can tell, like the Kaltag phytotechnology experiment that needed to keep willows picked in the winter in cold storage for spring planting and used Iditarod straw. Only we have the Iditarod. I’m thinking that Terry is onto something here. And it’s not just stories about local things, but patterns – stories going back in time, like ANTHC Senior Scientist Jim Berner’s rundown on how food security is being affected by the warming climate. “Some of it is just the trees moving north. The forest brings new species with it to where the tundra used to be,” so we see beavers in the arctic. And stories spanning the sphere. If you look at trace contaminants from fish, traced in humans, you see them higher in Greenland and Finland, closer to the Russian arctic industrial complex. And stories that come into focus against a background of experience. It would take someone like Berner to realize that the diets of Alaska’s Native people have been changing for decades, something that needs to be factored into how immune systems might deal with such pathogens on the rise as toxoplasmosis, trichinosis, tuluremia, brucellosis and others increasingly carried by animals. Berner notably told the crowd that the harmful algal blooms saxitoxin and domoic acid are now “there in every ocean” touching Alaska. And he noted that detection and monitoring are improving, pointing with pride to a program that provides hunters with strips they can dip in an animal’s blood, dry out, place in an envelope and mail to the lab, and all the antibody, genetic and isotope information they can get from those samples now. The technosphere is helping to bring out the story.

Some of what I’ve seen could become news stories, no doubt. But maybe it’s more important that these accounts live on as just plain stories – stories that people tell to one another; stories that when shared can give people a little taste of the vivid realities now pressing upon us at our higher and more troubled latitudes. Terry Chapin pointed out that more and more people are spending less and less time outdoors. They’re living on screens and devices. In this sort of world, maybe the technosphere gives these vivid realities more power to resonate.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *