Unalaska Residents Weigh In on Aleutian Climate Trends

Study facilitator Chris Beck looks over audience members' votes on what kind of seasonality changes they're seeing in Unalaska. (Photo by Annie Ropeik/KUCB)
Study facilitator Chris Beck looks over audience members’ votes on what kind of seasonality changes they’re seeing in Unalaska. (Photo by Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

Scientists know that the climate in the Aleutian Islands is changing. But they’re making observations from a distance — while on the ground, the story is sometimes very different.

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That’s what a team of researchers found earlier this month in Unalaska, when they talked to locals about the climate change they’re seeing in their own back yards.

About 40 people packed into Unalaska’s Museum of the Aleutians to answer a simple question:

Chris Beck: We’re wondering, if — particularly for those of you who’ve been here for a while, or you’ve heard through other folks — you’ve been seeing changes or have heard of changes in the local environment that seem to go beyond the normal range.

Beck is a facilitator for the Aleutian and Bering Climate Vulnerability Assessment. It’s being done by the government groups and nonprofits who make up the Aleutian-Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative, or ABSI-LCC.

Beck got a few clear messages from his audience — that yes, the weather’s getting warmer and wetter, and some fishing seasons are moving around. But when he asked more detailed questions, like about wind patterns or new kinds of bugs, people’s observations were all a little different:

Frank Kelty: You know, we’ve had white Thanksgiving for the past couple of years. But traditionally, we used to play softball and it’d be snowing on Memorial Day. And we haven’t seen that type of event.
Bobbie Lekanoff: Last year, if you walked out front here, you would have seen about 40 whales. This year, not a whale.
Suzi Golodoff: We seem to be seeing more algae blooms, more red tide, much more frequently.
Jeff Dickrell: I’ve seen jellyfish, but I’ve never seen the abundance of them. And I know people on the research vessels that are going out for pollock trawls and pulling up nothing but jellyfish.
Lekanoff: Everything everybody’s saying is showing how variable it is.

In fact, the main thing the audience agreed on was that they couldn’t agree for sure on what was changing, or why. And that impressed University of Washington meteorologist Nick Bond, who’s part of the ABSI research team.

“Those questions were designed to get at some of the data we only have in anecdotal form,” he says. “Especially people noticing types of spiders they hadn’t seen before, let’s say. I thought that was fascinating.”

People were also quick to recognize that climate change may not be the only factor affecting things like fisheries and wildlife. Karen Pletnikoff, of the Aleutian-Pribilof Islands Association, is the chair of the ABSI steering committee.

“Knowing that we have all these different variables, and understanding what people’s priorities are and what their perspective is, helps us frame those questions in a better way,” she says, “so we can get the information that people really need to be able to make management changes or protect themselves from the impacts.”

For the Unalaska audience, the most visible changes were in air temperature and precipitation. They were most concerned about the health of their fisheries — commercial and subsistence. And they were worried about increased vessel traffic, as melting sea ice opens up new shipping routes in the Arctic.

But residents weren’t exactly panicking about all the unknowns surrounding climate change. Nick Bond, the meteorologist, says that’s a good thing.

“In some of the public lectures that I give about climate change in the Pacific Northwest, where I’m based, people will [go], ‘What’s the answer? Just tell me what’s going to happen.’ And when I tell them I can’t, then they go, ‘Well, get out of here,’” he says. “But here, the audience, I think, appreciated the uncertainties, and that we can’t say … anything like that with a great deal of specificity.”

Bond says folks in the Aleutians are more “tuned in” to their environment. They’re seeing climate changes firsthand — and they can tell how tough those changes are to quantify.

“Here, it’s just kind of in your face all the time — this morning, rain was blowing into my face, anyway,” Bond says. “And so I think there’s that appreciation for the importance of it, and everybody is so reliant on it. It’s a little bit different if you live in Phoenix, and you go from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car and office, and you’re kind of removed from it. So I think that connection is partly why people can appreciate what’s happening.”

Bond and the research team are planning a Q&A like they did in Unalaska for the Pribilof Islands, too. The anecdotes that all the region’s residents have to offer will help the ABSI group tailor their report to the people it affects the most — those who live and work in the changing place. The draft of their vulnerability assessment is due out in February.

People can get in touch with the research team and offer their own input at www.absilcc.org. To see more of Unalaskans’ responses to the ABSI team’s questions, click here.

Annie Ropeik is a reporter for KUCB in Unalaska.

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