Climate Change and Thawing Permafrost in Inupiat Communities of Alaska's Arctic: Observations, Implications, and Resilience
Permafrost is thawing in many regions of Alaska. As climate warms social-ecological systems that co-evolved in colder regimes are exposed to new conditions and unpredictable feedbacks. Heavy reliance on local ecosystems for material and cultural resources makes Iñupiat communities particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Using the transdisciplinary approach of resilience theory, we investigated current and potential effects of thawing permafrost in two Iñupiat communities in Alaska’s Arctic. Anaktuvuk Pass is situated on consolidated gravel permafrost in the mountains. Selawik rests on ice-rich permafrost in lowland tundra. We hypothesized that residents of both villages will report permafrost change, and that the impacts and perceived implications of thawing permafrost will be greater in Selawik. We measured active layer thaw depths and documented residents’ local knowledge about climate and permafrost change. Thaw depths were greater overall in Selawik. Most research participants in both communities reported changes in climate and permafrost. Selawik residents expressed higher degrees of certainty that change is occurring, and anticipate larger and more negative impacts. Of the two villages, Selawik faces greater and more immediate challenges to the resilience of its social-ecological system.