FORT YUKON, Alaska – It may sound strange to someone from the Lower 48, but in interior Alaska, 2 degrees Fahrenheit in early March is balmy.
This winter’s record-setting warm temperatures are just the latest in an ongoing string of environmental changes for the indigenous Gwich’in village of Fort Yukon, ten miles north of the Arctic Circle in northeastern Alaska. In the Arctic, where the impact of climate change is being felt much faster than in the rest of the world, locals have been noticing changes for years: new flora and fauna, weaker ice, and shorter winters, to name a few.
“For the elders in the community, they’ve seen the entire ecosystem change,” said Fort Yukon local Ed Alexander. “A lot of it is a dramatic change. We have a whole other ecosystem here.”
Welcome to Fort Yukon – called Gwicyaa Zhee in the Gwich’in language – which lies on on the front lines of climate change. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising two to three times faster than in the rest of the world.
Around 500 people live in the village, which sits at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine rivers in the Yukon Flats region of Alaska’s interior. Founded as a Canadian trade outpost in the mid-1800s, Fort Yukon is largely made up of traditional log houses set along a once-salmon rich river. Locals have traditionally lived off the land, catching salmon, hunting moose and caribou, picking berries and growing their own food.
“That’s what we survive on,” said Julie Mahler, who, 30 years ago, homesteaded in the woods more than 200 miles from town, where she raised her six children. “We don’t hardly see the caribou up there anymore. Very few.”
The caribou have changed their migration routes, Mahler said. The frozen rivers and lakes are now dangerous, as temperatures rise. She’s seen animals fall through once-solid ice—people, too.
“We’ve never seen it like this before,” Mahler said.
The salmon, she added, are now smaller and increasingly laden with sores. The rivers are running brown instead of blue, and she’s recently seen strange growths on moose.
“At the time, when we used to get king salmon, they were 30, 40-pounders,” Fort Yukon elder Ronald Englishoe told a delegation of Arctic Council and U.S. State Department visitors to the village on March 13. “Today, we get fish that aren’t even eight-pounders.”
The officials were visiting while in Fairbanks for the 2016 Arctic Science Summit Week, a series of meetings that brought together Arctic researchers and policymakers from around the world.
“The vegetation is moving north real fast,” said Clarence Alexander, the former Grand Chief of the Gwich’in of Alaska. Experienced woodsmen in Fort Yukon are losing eyes as new species of plants have overgrown traditionally clear dog sled trails, he said.
Ed Alexander remembers the first time he saw a cardinal in Fort Yukon, around three years ago. “When you see a red bird for the first time in your life, you take note,” he said.
Other recent research has highlighted major changes for the spruce forests of the Yukon Flats area. They are burning more often, scientists found last year, and thus releasing more carbon to the atmosphere that was once stored in trees, soils and permafrost.
For the parents of Fort Yukon, the changing environment means their children will experience a different world than their ancestors, with the traditional Gwich’in lifestyle in the crosshairs of a changing climate.
“It’s going to be totally different for them. She won’t have moose to eat, or salmon,” said Kelly Fields of her 10-year-old daughter. “We probably won’t have as many gatherings, if traditional foods do go away, which they slowly are.”
“It’s going to be pretty tough, I’d say, 20 years from now,” said Tony Carroll, Fields’ husband.
For Ed Alexander, the prospect of his three daughters inheriting a different world is troubling. Around three million people live in the Arctic worldwide, and the indigenous people of the region are among the first to feel the major impact of climate change, despite having the least to do with its causes.
“We can’t judge how they’re living,” Ed Alexander said of the world to his south. “But we can let them know how it’s impacting us.”