From left to right, U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Adelaide Johnson, Yakutat student intern Quinn Newlun, and Juneau intern Sierra Ezzré collect data along Yakutat's shorelines.

From left to right, U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Adelaide Johnson, Yakutat student intern Quinn Newlun, and Juneau intern Sierra Ezzré collect data along Yakutat's shorelines.

Climate change and glacial uplift in Southeast’s rural communities

Climate change is already affecting the way Southeast Alaska’s Native communities harvest and gather traditional foods, according to a recent Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station study.

The study paired both social and physical sciences, analyzing how climate change and glacial uplift are impacting the land, and how those changes affect the people that live there. Its ultimate goal is to help people figure out ways to adapt to the changing environment.

Social scientist Linda Kruger, hydrologist Adelaide “Di” Johnson, and a team of student interns this spring and summer studied tidelands and interviewed community members in Yakutat, Hoonah, Angoon, Kake, Klawock, and the Organized Village of Kasaan.

“So many of the plants and animals that they depend on are changing in their patterns, timing, quality, and quantity,” Kruger said.

The researchers did in-depth surveys from low tideline to just inside the tree line around the different communities, identifying plants, animals, and slope and ground material — sand, rock, soil, etc. Student interns helped by having conversations with 10 families in their community about what kinds of plants and animals they harvest, and what they’ve seen change, Kruger said.

The team is now analyzing its results, something they hope to finish by early next year.

This research pairs well with a study Kruger did a few years ago with Jim Powell, a research fellow at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In that study, one of the most common things elders and community members said is that the world has become unpredictable.



The timing of fruits like blueberries and salmonberries, or when fish appear in the community’s streams — “now everything is topsy-turvy as far as timing goes,” Kruger said. “It makes it really hard to plan. We heard stories about people who were having a hard time drying fish because it was so wet, and it didn’t used to be that time of year.”

Other times, people have had to buy food at the grocery store when they normally would have harvested something wild.

“Traditional foods just aren’t there to support the ceremonies and the gatherings like they used to be,” Kruger said, mentioning herring. Native Southeast Alaskans talk of a time herring runs were so prolific that, figuratively speaking, a person could walk on the backs of herring across the water. Herring have also largely disappeared from places like Juneau, where they were once harvested and abundant.

Another thing many people mentioned is that some frogs that used to be common seem to have disappeared. This is especially worrisome because frogs are “sentinel species.” Changes to their behavior or health can indicate larger-scale changes are coming.

The third thing people have noticed is something clearly managed by people — the dramatic increase in sea otters, which has a corresponding effect on shellfish.

Sea otters were abundant in Southeast Alaska until the Russians nearly wiped them out while hunting them for furs. They were reintroduced, and have been protected since.

Rural residents also have strong concerns about cruise ship and other kinds of pollution, acidifying oceans, and new kinds of toxins showing up in shellfish.

In addition to the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning — PSP — increased blooms of pseudo-nitzschia, an alga that can produce the biotoxin domoic acid, which in turn can cause ASP, or amnesic shellfish poisoning, this summer closed fisheries south of Alaska, and showed up more in Southeast Alaska than normal.

Individual communities also have community-specific concerns, Kruger said. Yakutat residents worry about contamination left over from World War II. Kasaan is concerned about pollution from an old mine.

Community interns Quinn Newlun of Yakutat, Alaska Skaflestad of Hoonah, Randy Roberts of Hoonah, Natasha Kookesh of Angoon, Simon Friday of Kake, Madison Scamahorn of Kasaan, and Mitchell England of Klawock spoke with families in their communities, focusing on what they gather, and how that’s changed.

Sierra Ezrré of Juneau, a member of the Eagle Wolf clan, is helping out with scientific data collection. This summer, she traveled to Yakutat to help.

“We’d wake up super early in the morning so we could get there when it was low tide, and we’d measure out three segments… and identify species… along those segments,” she said. “The real science and whatnot has been cool to see.”



Some of what Ezrré was measuring, under the guidance of hydrologist Adelaide Johnson, will help scientists understand how the land is physically changing. Southeast Alaska is undergoing a process known as isostatic rebound — for millennia, the heavy weight of tons of ice pressed down on the land until the glaciers retreated. Now freed of that weight, the land is springing upwards. Northern Southeast Alaska is springing upward more than southern Southeast Alaska, so the north may end up undergoing more change, particularly in bays, Johnson said. In the south, water will inundate the coast more.

“The big message here is that the shape as well as the slope really matters. If you’ve got… a low gradient bay and the water is coming in, it’s going to move much further in… or if the sea level is… retreat(ing) because of the rebound of the land, it’s going to move much further out, and you’re going to have drying of those areas,” Johnson told Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s Southeast Environmental Conference attendees in September.

“In Kake, some of the bays and estuaries are going to be exposed,” she said. Kake will see an increase in rocky areas, and a decrease in sediment coast and estuaries, Johnson said. Kake will also lose some of its eelgrass habitat, which could adversely impact salmon rearing.

In Hoonah, the team predicts a major change in the length of its estuaries, an increase in some of the rock and sediment habitat, and increases in the kinds of red algae that surround it, including ribbon kelps.

Angoon will see an increase in its rock and sediment areas, and estuaries’ shoreline length may shorten.

Next year, Kruger and Johnson hope to extend their study to other places in Southeast Alaska — Juneau, Sitka, and possibly Saxman — as well as Chugach National Forest, Prince William Sound, and Cordova.

“It’s happening gradually, over time, but in the last few years, people have been struck by how quickly things have been changing, and how dramatically,” Kruger said. “It’s a combination of things. It’s not just changing in one area. Weather patterns, timing, as well as things like the effects of pollution, and invasive species, and sea otters.”


• Contact Mary Catharine Martin at

Here’s a video from Kruger and Powell’s earlier study, focusing on Yakutat and four Prince of Wales communities.








Juneau-Douglas High School junior and Eagle-Wolf Tlingit Sierra Ezzré poses with Haida culture-bearer Carrie Sykes at the July 2015 Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leadership Conference in West Virginia. Ezzré is one of the interns working on the project.

Juneau-Douglas High School junior and Eagle-Wolf Tlingit Sierra Ezzré poses with Haida culture-bearer Carrie Sykes at the July 2015 Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leadership Conference in West Virginia. Ezzré is one of the interns working on the project.

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