Living Off the Land in a Changing Arctic Climate

Moose are one of the main resources for subsistence hunters in Alaska. Areas that are recovering from a low-severity wildfire can attract the ungulates. “If we didn’t have fires ripping through, we would have fewer moose walking through here and fewer full freezers,” said Todd Brinkman, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

by Kate Ramsayer / FAIRBANKS, ALASKA /

Scrambling up the bank of the Tanana River south of Fairbanks, Theresa Hollingsworth was looking for examples of how the forest recovers after a wildfire. She found an unexpected sweet surprise.

“Blueberries!” she yelled from the banks.

Gathering handfuls, she instantly planned a return trip later in the week to go picking. “You fill your freezer with as many berries as you can.”

It’s a way of life for many Alaskans, said Hollingsworth, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory. People have favorite—often secret—berry spots they go back to year after year. They also hunt and fish, stocking freezers with moose and salmon and other game.

For many Alaskans, summer is time to stock freezers with blueberries. Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer
For many Alaskans, summer is time to stock freezers with blueberries.
Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

Many of the rural villages in this giant state—more than twice the size of Texas—aren’t connected with roads, said Todd Brinkman, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“The road network for a lot of these rural communities is on the rivers, or trail networks through the woods,” he said. “That’s their access to the grocery stores—grocery stores being the forests around them.”

But many residents are reporting that the changing environment is creating obstacles to how they reach these resources. So Brinkman and Hollingsworth are working on a research project with the NASA-funded Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, or ABoVE, to investigate how access to game, berries, and neighboring villages is changing in a warming climate.

In March, Brinkman gave camera-equipped GPS units to subsistence hunters in eight or so villages across Alaska. Over the next year, the residents will document anything that blocks or hinders their travel, whether it’s an early thaw of river ice, a wildfire, a trail sunk by thawing permafrost or something the researchers haven’t yet thought of.

“We’re letting the subsistence users really drive the research,” Hollingsworth said.

In one area, for example, women were wary of collecting blueberries in their traditional spot, since a wildfire had torn through and left dead trees in danger of toppling over. Wildfires can also change the types of plants that grow back, which in turn could impact the wildlife as well as the people living nearby.

Scientist looks at plants.
Theresa Hollingsworth examines the moss and lichens on a forest floor. Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

Rural residents have also noted changes to the rivers, Brinkman said. People boat along rivers in summer and use them as a snowmachine trail in winter, but the in-between periods while the ice is breaking up or forming make travel incredibly difficult. If a warming climate means early ice break-up, it’s significant to people who depend on that river, he said.

The character of some rivers is also changing. Residents are noting that the permafrost in the banks is thawing, leading to erosion. More erosion means wider rivers, which also means shallower rivers.

“Where the permafrost is exposed, it’s challenging navigating on a lot of these river systems,” Brinkman said.

A river.
The Tanana River south of Fairbanks, Alaska. For many rural residents, rivers are an important transportation route.
Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer
A riverbank.
Brinkman looks at a riverbank of thawing permafrost, which is dripping water and sending clumps of soil into the river. Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

After a year’s worth of these disturbances are recorded, Hollingsworth and others will examine the sites. They’ll analyze remote sensing images, including those from Landsat satellites, for before-and-after comparisons. They’ll visit the site, inventory the ground cover and trees and take soil samples and other measurements to get a sense of what is happening with the ecosystem. The researchers can also use remote sensing images to relate changes to access in one place to changes that could be happening in similar ecosystems.

And they’ll talk with the residents about how these changes are impacting their everyday lives, Brinkman said. “We’ll start to understand the types of disturbances we should dig into.”