• Assessing effects of climate change on access to ecosystem services in rural Alaska

      Cold, Helen S.; Brinkman, Todd J.; Hollingsworth, Teresa N.; Brown, Caroline L.; Verbyla, David L. (2018-12)
      Across the planet, climate change is altering the way human societies interact with the environment. Amplified climate change at high latitudes is significantly altering the structure and function of ecosystems, creating challenges and necessitating adaptation by societies in the region that depend on local ecosystem services for their livelihoods. Rural communities in Interior Alaska rely on plants and animals for food, clothing, fuel and shelter. Previous research suggests that climate-induced changes in environmental conditions are challenging the abilities of rural residents to travel across the land and access local resources, but detailed information on the nature and effect of specific conditions is lacking. My objectives were to identify climate-related environmental conditions affecting subsistence access, and then estimate travel and access vulnerability to those environmental conditions. I collaborated with nine Interior Alaskan communities within the Yukon River basin and provided local residents with camera-equipped GPS units to document environmental conditions directly affecting access for 12 consecutive months. I also conducted comprehensive interviews with research participants to incorporate the effects of environmental conditions not documented with GPS units. Among the nine communities collaborating on this research, 18 harvesters documented 479 individual observations of environmental conditions affecting their travel with GPS units. Environmental conditions were categorized into seven condition types. I then ranked categories of conditions using a vulnerability index that incorporated both likelihood (number of times a condition was documented) and sensitivity (magnitude of the effect from the condition) information derived from observations and interviews. Changes in ice conditions, erosion, vegetative community composition and water levels had the greatest overall effect on travel and access to subsistence resources. Environmental conditions that impeded travel corridors, including waterways and areas with easily traversable vegetation (such as grass/sedge meadows and alpine tundra), more strongly influenced communities off the road network than those connected by roads. Combining local ecological knowledge and scientific analysis presents a broad understanding of the effects of climate change on access to subsistence resources, and provides information that collaborating communities can use to optimize adaptation and self-reliance.