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Climate Change Puts Health of Arctic Villagers on Thin Ice

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Climate change hits Arctic villages first, posing new threats for water sanitation, food sourcing and preservation, and physical injury. “[Subsistence] users [here] are more affected than any other race, because we’re in the cold climate where ice is melting at a disturbing pace,” Sylvester Ayek, Inupiat elder, wood-carving artist, hunter and subsistence user told Indian Country Today Media Network.

Until recently, little research was conducted in remote villages experiencing the strongest temperature swings and inclement weather. But investigations by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s (ANTHC) Center for Climate and Health are changing that. Funded with a $250,000 Indian Health Service grant, according to the The Arctic Sounder, the inquiries are shedding light on rising health concerns resulting from climate change in 12 of Alaska’s northwestern most communities. So far, researchers have released a pair of reports on the Iñupiat people residing by the Chukchi Sea in Kivalina and Point Hope.

Alaska’s temperatures have risen at more than twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. in the past 50 years, according to the consortium. This means thinning ice, land erosion, melting permafrost, and fewer game and water infiltration, causing a slew of health risks. For instance, beaver populations have spiked with the warmer weather. The rodent’s desecration is suspected of heightening the risk of giardia, an intestinal infection often referred to as “beaver fever,” reported Mother Jones. “In general, people could drink from [the creeks and rivers] freely,” Michael Brubaker, the director of the health consortium’s Center for Climate and Health, told the Sounder. “Now they have beavers defecating into the river.”

In Kivalina, erosion and flooding cause riverbanks to deteriorate. As a result, the community water system is overrun with sediment, which requires additional filtering and danger of ingesting unsanitary water. In 2004, the village’s 400 residents were forced to rely on sponge baths due to erosion and late freeze-up that damaged the leach system of the washeteria, where people bathe and wash clothes. The system shut down for the winter, and villagers suffered limited access to clean water. As hand-washing and bathing decreased, respiratory and skin diseases increased, said health aides, according to the consortium’s report.

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In Point Hope, excessive algae blooms now shroud the lake that provides the 700 local villagers with water. The water system is temporarily closed while filters are cleaned a dozen times daily. Regular cuts into water sanitation cause more serious issues for Arctic communities, which have limited time to treat water before rivers and lakes freeze, Brubaker told the Sounder.

And the threat of food poisoning increases with rising temperatures. Meat stored in ice cellars carved from melting permafrost can become contaminated with pathogens that cause sickness. “We used to have frozen whale meat and maktuk all winter and summertime, too,” said Joe Towksjhea, a Point Hope resident, in the consortium’s report. ���It is not frozen anymore.”

According to Sylvester Ayek, who hunts on King Island nestled in the Bering Sea, the greater problem is the dwindling number of animals due to late freeze and early thaw. “What we hunt is usually around ice. And when the ice goes earlier, like these past few years, the game is gone,” Ayek told Indian Country Today Media Network.

This issue appears to drastically affect villagers, and especially elders, in Point Hope, leading to more reports of malnutrition and anemia. Adding to the lack of available food, the period for rack-drying fish, seal, and caribou has shortened, increasing the likelihood of food-borne illnesses caused by bacteria—not to mention the lingering scent of raw meat in milder temperatures that attracts hungry polar bears.