Alaska Native Perspectives on Earth and Climate

As the environmental, economic, and political consequences of climate change are felt in Alaska, the Arctic, and throughout the world, we have much to learn from both the traditional knowledge of Native peoples and ongoing scientific research. These two methods of observing nature and solving the challenges of survival can provide complementary perspectives on these issues. This collection looks at Alaska’s unique geology and the impact of development and climate change using both of these tools, and features Alaska Native scientists who are working toward solutions.

  • Safeguarding Alaska's Waters

    This interactive activity featuring videos adapted from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, KTOO, and NOVA: "The Big Spill" explains how oil and other environmental contaminants jeopardize the health of populations along the Alaska coastline. Since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, strategies to safeguard against incidents that may disrupt the local ecosystem include: using tugboats to help steer tanker vessels, requiring the use of double-hulled tankers in Alaskan ports, developing near-shore clean-up response tactics in the event of future spills, and contaminant impact studies.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Inuit Observations of Climate Change

    This video adapted from the International Institute for Sustainable Development profiles the Arctic Inuit community of Sachs Harbour and its collaboration with scientists studying climate change. Changes in the land, sea, and animals are readily apparent to the residents of Sachs Harbour—many of whom hunt, trap, and fish—because of their long-standing and intimate connection with their ecosystem. Scientists from a climate change study project interview the residents and record their observations. The scientists can use these firsthand accounts along with their own collected data to deepen their understanding of climate change in the polar region.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Soil Microbes and Global Warming

    Discover how one-celled organisms in permafrost may be contributing to greenhouse gas levels and global warming in this video adapted from KUAC-TV and the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Investigate how soil microbes, once thought to be dormant in cold temperatures, may actually be actively decomposing organic matter throughout the Alaskan winter and contributing significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In addition, learn how microbial activity may be part of a positive feedback loop that also links shrub growth and warmer soil temperatures.
    Grades: 6-12
  • Volcanoes in the Infrared

    Learn how thermal imaging is used to help predict volcanic eruptions in this video adapted from KUAC-TV and the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. See how satellite sensors can measure ground temperatures over large areas using infrared radiation. Observe how another device, a forward-looking infrared radiometer (FLIR), provides higher resolution images, and understand how monitoring volcanoes can reduce risks for air traffic and local residents.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Alaska Native Teens Help Researchers

    Learn how local students contribute to research about global warming in Alaska. Hear from students who are learning to use both Native and Western perspectives of nature to better understand global warming and its consequences. Examine why it is important to study changes in the environment—such as the transition of tundra to boreal forest, how the changes may affect the way of life in local communities, and how these communities will need to find ways to adapt. Video adapted from KUAC-TV and the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

    Grades: 6-12
  • On the Yukon River

    Explore the role of salmon in Alaska Native cultures and the efforts to help maintain healthy salmon stocks in this video segment adapted from the Yukon River Panel. Learn about the Yukon and Teslin River programs that regulate the harvest of salmon to keep stocks at healthy levels. Listen as subsistence users share stories about their experiences with salmon and discuss the changes they have seen in salmon stocks. See how one research team collects data to study salmon and freshwater productivity. Hear about concerns for future generations and the importance of stewarding this important fish stock.

    Grades: 6-12
  • 1964 Alaska Earthquake

    Learn about the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 in this video adapted from the Valdez Museum & Historical Archive. Hear a first-person account of the event, watch an animation that illustrates the subduction of the Pacific plate under the North American plate, and observe how Valdez was affected. In particular, learn about how the earthquake liquefied the ground, generated tsunami waves, and forced the community to rebuild in a new location.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Arctic Climate Perspectives

    This video, adapted from material provided by the ECHO partners, shows the changes now happening in Barrow, Alaska, due to global warming. The Iñupiaq people who live in Barrow present their observations of these changes based on their centuries-old knowledge of their environment, and describe how these changes are already affecting their lives. Scientists who have come to Barrow to study climate change also offer their perspective.

    Grades: 6-9
  • Global Warming Threatens Shishmaref

    Learn about how global warming and changing sea ice conditions affect the Alaska Native village of Shishmaref, in this video segment adapted from Spanner Films. Hear firsthand accounts about how climate change has altered the condition, extent, and freeze-up of sea ice. Understand how the local subsistence way of life relies on the presence of sea ice. Learn about how houses were relocated after a strong storm in 1997 and how erosion continues to threaten the village.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Arctic Mission | Hunters Navigate Warming Arctic

    Learn how hunting is a fundamental part of the Inuit culture and how environmental changes are threatening the Inuit way of life. Observe hunters on the ice, and see how modern technology has found a place in traditional practices. Learn about the unpredictability of, and changes in, snow and ice conditions. Hear hunters describe some of the challenges they are facing, and explore how traditional knowledge can partner with Western science to address the changing environmental conditions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • An Unpredictable Environment

    Inuit observers describe how their traditional understanding of weather patterns is being challenged by unpredictable weather behaviors in this video segment adapted from the International Institute for Sustainable Development. A female Inuit elder explains how it was traditionally the task of the women and girls to forecast the weather for hunting trips. Recent changes in climate have increased the uncertainty of using the traditional knowledge of Alaska Native science to predict the weather and associated animal behaviors, and this is having an impact on the subsistence lifestyle.

    Grades: 6-12
  • La'ona DeWilde: Environmental Biologist

    This video produced by WGBH profiles La'ona DeWilde, an Athabascan and doctoral student in environmental biology. DeWilde chose her career because of her strong traditional belief in respecting animals and caring for the environment. Her work today involves helping local villagers record observations that can be used collaboratively with Western science to help solve problems that affect Alaska Native peoples, including climate change and water contamination.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Building the Alaska Oil Pipeline

    Learn how the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was conceived and built in the 1970s in this video segment adapted from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. When oil was discovered in northern Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, the challenge facing engineers was how to transport it to refineries outside of Alaska. Engineers developed plans for a north–south pipeline that, unlike other pipelines, would be built aboveground due to the pervasive ice-rich soil layer called permafrost. The pipeline cut through the Alaskan landscape, causing much contention, especially among Alaska Native peoples and environmentalists.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Oil Contamination Affects Food Web

    This video adapted from KTOO examines a virus outbreak that affected the Pacific herring population in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1999. Because the herring play a very important part in both the local economy and the subsistence lifestyle practiced by the area's Alaska Native people, community members and scientists have sought to identify the cause of the virus. One hypothesis suggests that oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, though not the direct cause of the virus, is a stressor that allowed the virus to take hold in the fish 10 years after the spill.

    Grades: 6-13+
  • An Alaska Native Community Helps Seals

    In this video segment from First Alaskans Institute, learn about northern fur seals (laaqudan), their importance to the Alaska Native diet, and how the community of St. Paul Island participates in their conservation and protection. Explore some of the human-produced hazards that affect the seals and observe how students act as stewards by cleaning up plastic and nets from beaches. Discover how Islanders are integrating old and new ways of knowing, such as in their crafts and in careers in ecotourism and research.

    Grades: 3-13+
  • Students Measure Changes in Lake Ice and Snow

    In this video adapted from KUAC-TV and the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, learn how students help scientists study the relationship between climate change and lake ice and snow conditions. Examine how lakes store solar energy and how measurements of snow density, ice thickness, thermal conductivity, and temperature gradients provide information about climate. Observe students participating in ALISON (Alaska Lake Ice and Snow Observatory Network) as they gather data that can be used by everyone within the network.

    Grades: 6-13+
  • People of the Arctic

    In this video segment adapted from the National Film board of Canada, learn about Inuit culture. Interviews with indigenous peoples and archival footage document concerns about how their traditional ways of life have changed from living off the land to being more dependent on the larger world; the importance of a traditional education that teaches technical skill and character; the connection between the local environment and global climate changes; and how adaptability has its limits.

    Grades: 3-13+
  • Explore Alaska's Volcanoes

    In this interactive activity adapted from the University of Alaska, learn about four of Alaska's active volcanoes: Augustine, Cleveland, Okmok, and Veniaminof. Explore each volcano through photographs and investigate how different types of satellite images (synthetic aperture radar, thermal infrared, and color composite) are used to study volcanoes. In addition, learn why it is important to be able to predict the movement of volcanic ash, and observe how a computer model called Puff simulates the movement of ash after an eruption.

    Grades: 6-13+
  • Steve MacLean: Conservationist

    This video produced by WGBH profiles Steve MacLean, an Iñupiaq scientist who works for The Nature Conservancy. In his role as a conservationist, MacLean works to preserve biodiversity in the Bering Sea, a unique marine environment being threatened by climate change. Brought up in the Alaska Native ways of knowing, he explains that Alaskan cultures are intimately connected with nature and suggests that people should not be separated from natural systems when considering solutions to environmental issues. MacLean strongly recommends a career in science for Alaska Native peoples interested in making a difference where they live.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Gwich'in Tribe Protects Caribou and Culture

    In this video adapted from Bullfrog Films, Evon Peter, chief of Arctic Village, explains the significance of the Porcupine caribou herd to the Gwich'in people. Over a 10,000-year relationship, the caribou have become part of the Gwich'in nation's social fabric. Peter discusses the importance of the caribou calving grounds, which the Gwich'in treat as a sacred place, and the threat that exists to caribou from proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

    Grades: 6-12