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12/10/14 - Health effects of climate change include higher rates of unintentional injury, asthma

Joaqlin Estus

 Climate change and Alaska Natives: Part Three

Alaskans have heard a lot about the effects climate change has had on land in the state. But new studies suggest it’s also having a big impact on the health of residents. 

Climate change is occurring in Arctic regions much more quickly than other parts of the planet, and Alaskans are feeling the effects on their health.  That’s according to David Driscoll, Director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies. “We found that there were some significant health issues associated with environmental effects of climate change across the state,” said Driscoll.

The Institute’s been conducting a study on climate change and health, in two rounds, each with 90 participants who have lived in Alaska for at least 25 years. They filled out a monthly survey for two years, answering questions about themselves, members of their household and neighbors in communities in Northwest, Interior, and Southeast Alaska. Demographically, participants mirrored local populations, which are 80 to 90% Alaska Native.

Driscoll said they heard the most comments about unintentional injuries due to thinner ice on rivers and lakes, or unusual weather, such as rainfall in the middle of an Arctic winter that turned to ice. “So people suffering slip and fall injuries, people going through the ice,” said Driscoll, “people being caught out on trails when they're traveling to fish camp or to other locations outside the villages.”

He said unseasonably severe storms or cold also created hazards. “There were also events of cold-related injuries, so frostbite and other sorts of issues, and unfortunately there were some mortalities.”

Driscoll said warm, dry weather and the effects of the spruce root beetle, whose numbers were once kept down by the cold, have contributed to more asthma and other respiratory disease.

“In many cases, those were associated with exposure to smoke from wild fires, oftentimes associated with beetle-killed forest,” said Driscoll. “And then also dust. So during periods of warming or drought when there isn't a lot of rainfall or snowmelt, high wind events kick up a lot of dust, and that affects a lot of folks living in rural and remote communities.”

In recent years on the Yukon River, unseasonably warm spring temperatures, rapid melting, and large ice floe movement have led to catastrophic floods in several communities. And the river is breaking up about a week earlier than it did historically. U.S. and Canadian agencies are tracking variables such as precipitation, snowpack, permafrost, and glacial runoff to determine what changes, if any, are due to climate change.

Still, in the village of Alakanuk on the lower Yukon River, Jerry Davis of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, said it’s clear flooding and erosion there are getting worse.

“It's beginning to affect the infrastructure of the village, not only structures, but  also the very expensive water and sewer lines that were installed 20 years ago a sufficient distance from the river,” said Davis. “But due to the erosion, which has accelerated, those lines are now threatened.”

Alakanuk city administrator James Blowe said the situation is urgent. “If we lose our water and sewer system, it's going to be a major blow to our village,” said Blowe. “We'll lose teachers. We'll lose people from our village. It will be devastating to our village.”

Without a sanitation system, the quality of drinking water may be jeopardized. And, when they have to haul it by hand or pay for it by the truckload, people conserve water, and rates of respiratory disease and skin problems rise.

Mike Brubaker is Director of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium  (ANTHC) Center for Climate Change and Health. He said the anxiety and fear triggered by poor conditions -- such as the inability to hunt or travel due to thin ice or unstable sea ice, or living in a house that’s sinking into the thawing permafrost -- can also be damaging.

“Mental health is huge, very important” said Brubaker, “and especially when people live in places where they’re facing new kinds of threats, like coastal storms. Maybe their home isn’t in as safe a location as it used to be. And people live for entire seasons with that kind of stress going on.”

But Brubaker said people are also finding ways to stay healthy by adapting to the environmental effects of climate change. ANTHC and UAA are working with communities to develop adaptation strategies.

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