Climate change hits northern communities hardest

Old Crow residents are seeing disturbing changes in their environment. The permafrost is melting and water is drying up.

Old Crow residents are seeing disturbing changes in their environment.

The permafrost is melting and water is drying up. Birds and fish have changed their migration patterns and there are new animals on land and in the water.

The signs of climate change can be seen all over the world, but the effects are most pronounced in North Yukon, said Northern Climate Exchange officer Katherine Sandiford.

“Northern Yukon is one of the most rapidly warming regions in the world,” said Sandiford.

Sandiford and a crew of environmental experts head to Old Crow today for its second annual climate change conference.

The agenda is to teach locals to live with the effects of warming and gather information on changes in the land.

Land ice is melting and creating a runaway greenhouse effect where the sun’s heat is absorbed by patches of land and ocean rather than being reflected by snow or ice, explained Sandiford.

On average, the world’s global temperature is rising one degree. Temperatures in the North are rising two degrees while areas like Northern Yukon and Alaska are experiencing a three-degree gain.

During the conference Old Crow residents will record the changes they see on the land. They hope to create a list of concrete changes to compare with in upcoming years.

Sandiford will teach the science of climate change and share stories from the Snow Change conference in Anchorage, AK, where circumpolar indigenous peoples gathered to share their experiences with the land, and how things have changed as the temperature rises.

“You hear lots of stories,” said Sandiford. “On the Alaska coast, the fish they’re used to fishing aren’t there anymore, so they have to adapt to fishing a new type of salmon.

“It was interesting to see people from BC exchanging recipes with Alaskans to cook the species of fish that have just shown up there,” she added.

It’s important to pay attention to the changes so they can be anticipated, said Sandiford.

Like most communities, the focus in Old Crow is on adaptation instead of prevention.

“Here people are connected with the land and they’re seeing changes out there and they’re really worried about them,” said conference organizer Jennifer Smith from Old Crow.

The conference comes as part of a series of energy awareness programs in the community.

This summer there was a community-energy baseline performed on Old Crow through the Aboriginal and Northern Community Action Program.

Local homes were monitored over a year to figure out how much energy residents used and how much garbage they produced.

“We found we used a lot of energy,” said Smith. The Canadian average is five tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per person per year while each person in Old Crow produces nine.

Because the community experiences colder climates it takes more energy to heat homes.

Old Crow also appointed an energy solutions technician to research how local homes can save energy with products like water-saving showerheads and hot-water heater blankets.

As part of the conference organizers also produced a Gwich’in-language climate-change pamphlet to be distributed throughout the community and to other speakers in the North, said Sandiford.

“One of the interesting things is that the there is no existing Gwich’in word for things like ‘climate change’ or ‘greenhouse gas,’” said Sandiford.

“So, for example, ‘climate change’ translates in to Gwich’in as ‘changes on the land.’ That puts it into more concrete terms.”

The conference will wind down Tuesday evening with the unveiling of a climate change mural painted by school children with the help of local artist Stan Njootli Jr.

The Community Stewardship Program partnered with the North Yukon Renewable Resources Council and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation to present the conference.

It is part of a Northern Climate Exchange community pilot project.

All Yukon communities were invited to apply for a $2,500 grant to run environmental awareness-building events.

Eight communities applied and Old Crow and Dawson City received funding this year.