‘The ice should have been safe’: International panel gathers climate change stories from Western Alaska

Sea ice near Nome. (Photo: Zoe Grueskin, KNOM)

Western Alaskans’ stories of how climate change has impacted their lives will be included in an international report set to be released later this month.

Representatives from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were in Nome and Shishmaref this week to hear input from the region directly. 

“We’re just about to put out the first report we’ve ever done that looks in depth at the oceans and the frozen parts of the planet,” said Ko Barrett, vice chair of the IPCC.

Barrett said the special report involves tracking water from the tops of glaciers all the way down to the bottom of the saltiest seas. She has been to areas all over the world that are considered vulnerable to climate change impacts, like small islands in the Pacific Ocean.

During her first trip to rural Alaska earlier this week, Barrett said she came in without expectations.

“I’m just hoping people will share their stories about how things have changed in their lifetimes and what they’re worried about for their children and for future generations,” she said. “Just to get sensitized to what are the key issues people are feeling.”

And on Tuesday in Nome, local residents did exactly as Barrett had hoped.

Several people — like Ukallasaq Okleasik, Brandon Ahmasuk, and Roy Ashenfelter — talked about how subsistence fishing, or hunting for marine mammals, has become more difficult due to sea ice changes. 

Ahmasuk mentioned the importance of sea ice for travel between communities in the Bering Strait region and how that is less reliable because of climate change. Okleasik shared a personal story of loss about his father passing away when trout fishing on unsafe ice. 

“The ice should have been safe, but it wasn’t… People are now risking their lives for food security,” he said.

According to Barrett, stories like these and other comments shared by Western Alaskans will be included in the IPCC’s final report, as well as some highlights of subsistence concerns from around the world. Through the six-chapter, 900-page long document, one chapter focuses specifically on the polar regions. Barrett says more than 100 scientists and 30 countries are assessing the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC).

Anahma Shannon, the director of Kawerak’s environmental program, said this report is an opportunity for local and regional residents to be heard on a global scale, which has been a long time coming.

“And I think it’s great, like Ko said, that it’s not some people in a far-off land that have never set foot in Alaska, making decisions about what’s going to happen here,” she said. “That they’re taking into account local knowledge, and how information really translates to people here, to keep people safe, to protect infrastructure. I think that is essential to making those kind of decisions.”

Barrett’s two-day visit to Nome and Shishmaref was recommended to her by people she’s been working with, so that she could see communities in Western Alaska and better understand the realities of climate change in this part of the world.

Despite Barrett’s visit to the region as an influential representative of IPCC and a spokesperson for the final report, Shannon points out that Shishmaref has been the focus of top federal agencies before.

“I think that Shishmaref has been the center of a lot of visits and discussions with people in high-up places. But how much money has come to them to make the changes? How much attention has turned into actual mitigation strategies? I’m not sure; I don’t know what to expect.”

Shannon says she plans to follow up with Barrett and see how the knowledge, information, and stories she gained, during her trip to Western Alaska, were used.

According to Barrett, various governments could adopt policies on climate change as a result of the final report, which is influenced by her visit to Nome and Shishmaref.

“And in the end, the report is unique in that most of the governments of the world adopt the findings of the report. So that gives it some real standing in the world, and it gives it a lot of prominence in the media,” she said. “You may have seen, a year ago we put out a report on the effects of what 1.5 degrees of warming would be; that was our organization. And that had widespread coverage. The hope is that decision makers, and policy makers, will be taking a look at these findings as they make their decisions.”

The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) is expected to be released by the end of this month. Barrett said when she is presenting and discussing the final document with politicians and policymakers, she’ll carry Western Alaskans and their stories in her mind and heart.