Experts Finding New, Hard-to-discern Climate Change Impacts on Health of Arctic Peoples

Oct 14, 2016

The health impacts of climate change ...

“In public health, we’ve all been on a steep learning curve, and we’re learning how to pull climate change into our analysis, into our preventive thinking,” says Michael Brubaker with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Experts who work in remote Alaskan communities, like Brubaker – who directs the Consortium's Center for Climate and Health – say they’re finding out more about how climate change is harming the health of people who live in the far north.

“Ten years ago, when we talked about climate change and health impacts, people really looked at you askew. They didn’t know what you were talking about,” he said. “Now it seems a very much more natural conversation.”

The National Climate Assessment spells out the negative health impacts of climate change on Alaska Native peoples who depend on sea ice for subsistence.
Credit 2014 NCA

John Walsh is chief scientist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center, who along with Brubaker participated in a recent panel talk at UAF about those health impacts. Walsh says health-care practitioners in remote Alaskan communities are finding those impacts are sometimes hard to discern. He cites the example of subsistence users sickened by eating marine mammals contaminated by toxic algal blooms that are thriving in unusually warm Alaskan waters.

“We’ve been seeing these record water temperatures down in the southern Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska (where) satellites are showing algal blooms like have never been observed before,” Walsh said.

Another panelist, Bert Boyer, directs the university’s Center for Alaska Native Health Research. Boyer says warmer weather and lack of snowfall threaten food security by simply making it hard if not impossible for Arctic indigenous people to hunt. He says that’s contributed to rising rates of obesity and diabetes, largely related to increased consumption of prepared or fast food, often bought from the few grocery stores in some of the biggest towns in western Alaska.

“It changes things in way we really can’t predict,” he said.

Boyer says other climate-change impacts include more injuries from people slipping on ice or breaking through it while hunting; also, increased incidence of water-borne diseases, and elevated rates of asthma due to rising levels of dust and other airborne pollutants.