Aerial view of Accomplishment Creek and the Sagavanirktok River in the Brooks Range of Alaska.  Photo by D.L. Kane

The Intersection Between Climate Change, Water Resources and Humans in the Arctic

Daniel White (, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Lilian Alessa (, University of Alaska
Larry D. Hinzman (, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Peter Schweitzer (, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Freshwater is critical to the sustainability of humans in the Arctic. Water used for drinking or cleaning can promote good health or propagate disease. Water supports the plants and animals used for subsistence harvest. Water prevents or promotes access to food or shelter. Water has always been and will always be integral to the culture of humans in the Arctic.

In the past 30 years, the climate in the Arctic has warmed appreciably and there is evidence for a significant polar amplification of global warming in the future. Recent studies suggest that climate change will have a significant impact on arctic hydrology. Changes in the hydrologic cycle will affect both the presence of surface water and the thermal balance in soil. While preliminary evidence suggests a changing climate will have a significant impact on the hydrologic cycle in arctic regions, very little evidence is available to predict how the quality and quantity of freshwater available to humans is likely to change. Even less is understood about how hydrologic changes will affect the health, sustainability, and culture of humans in the Arctic.

The overall objective of the proposed research is to understand the vital role of freshwater in the lives of humans in the Arctic, how it has changed in the recent past, and how it is likely to change in the future. We seek to build a model that will allow us to predict climate-induced changes in the hydrologic cycle and their effects on water quality and availability. We will then attempt to understand how these changes will impact the life and culture of people in the Arctic. This study will take place on the Seward Peninsula where climate induced changes in the hydrologic cycle are already being observed. Although the Seward Peninsula is south of the Arctic Circle, it is a very good analogue for a warmer Arctic. It is predominantly underlain by continuous permafrost in the northern and central peninsula and the predominant vegetation is tussock tundra, although white spruce are invading. This project will draw upon community interaction, historical documentation, field observations, laboratory experimentation, and computer modeling. The PIs have extensive experience conducting research on the Seward Peninsula, working both in the physical and social sciences.

The broader impact of this project is two fold. Regionally we will employ a public outreach program to promote water resource education and awareness in Alaskan villages. This project will involve efforts to increase participation of Alaska Natives in undergraduate and graduate studies. Outreach will be accomplished by integrating this proposal into existing education infrastructure that exists between the University of Alaska and some Seward Peninsula villages.

Globally, the broader impact of this study lies in its extractability to the entire circumpolar Arctic. The Seward Peninsula lies at the southern boundary of continuous permafrost. In this environment, slight changes in the permafrost will cause long lasting changes to the hydrologic cycle and the quality and availability of freshwater. If the climate continues to warm, the boundary of discontinuous permafrost will advance northward, eventually impacting all humans in the Arctic.

The intellectual merit of this proposal lies in the building of a model for interdisciplinary work that truly integrates the physical and social sciences. This project couples the work of a cultural anthropologist, biologist, hydrologist and an engineer. No one part of this project is independent. In order to understand the potential impacts of climate-induced changes in the hydrologic cycle on humans, two things are required. First, the potential hydrologic changes must be quantified. This requires regional scale modeling of a physical science. Second, the social science is necessary to characterize the human dependence on the resource and response to potential changes. Without the true integration of these two objectives one cannot begin to understand the intersection between climate change, water resources, and humans in the Arctic. While our study is on water as a resource, this experimental approach could be extended to other resources in the future.

Arctic CHAMP
Science Management Office

Contact Information
Role of the Arctic-CHAMP Science Management Office
Photo: Aerial view of Accomplishment Creek and the
     Sagavanirktok River in the Brooks Range of Alaska.  Photo by D.L. Kane