In Arctic, climate-change threats include giardia, food poisoning
March 2nd, 2011 | Alex DeMarban
Melting ice cellars that threaten to caused food poisoning as whale meat rots. The first recorded case of giardia, just as beavers show up for the first time. Algae blooms and melting river banks that contaminate water systems.
Climate change presents new risks for food care, sanitation and wellbeing in the Arctic, but little research has been done in remote villages experiencing some of the biggest temperature swings.
That's beginning to change, thanks to a pair of reports that meld scientific data with local observations in the Northwest Alaska communities of Point Hope and Kivalina.
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The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium plans to release assessments of other villages by the end of the year, giving researchers the first comprehensive look at the impact of climate change on the region's health. A review of Noatak village is next.
The information is already being used to combat new challenges, said Michael Brubaker, lead researcher and director of the health consortium's Center for Climate and Health.
For example, one follow-up project will create local climate-change observers who provide regular reports. And new research is underway in hopes of better understanding why giardia has recently emerged in some communities.
"These reports mostly identify potential problems related to climate," Brubaker said. "Hopefully by illuminating that, the research community can partner with local leadership and come up with specific responses."
The village assessments are funded with a $250,000 Indian Health Service grant, and include input from the Northwest Arctic Borough and the Maniilaq Association, the region's tribally run social service organization. The communities to be assessed fall under Maniilaq's service area, but the health consortium doesn't have the money to review all 12 communities.
Researchers plan to produce a good sampling of coastal and upriver communities in the region, and they're working with representatives from all the communities through webinars and regional conferences, Brubaker said.
Some good news
With Alaska on the leading edge of climate change, temperatures in recent decades have increased dramatically in the two Inupiat villages situated northwest of Kotzebue beside the Chukchi Sea.
Overall, the Northwest Arctic saw average December and January temperatures increase seven degrees between 1949 and 2006.
In another 50 years, Point Hope's average December temperatures could rise as much as 22 degrees, the study notes.
The results won't be all bad.
New salmon species are beginning to populate rivers for the first time, creating an important new subsistence opportunity. The indoor flu season should shrink as people leave the house on warmer days. And there might be more economic opportunity, such as commercial fishing.
But the reports cover a litany of concerns.
Some important topics: Clean water and sanitation.
In Kivalina, a village of 400, river banks crumble continuously during the warm season, flooding the water system with sediment and requiring extra filtering and expense.
The health consortium found a relationship between collapsing river banks and "turbidity events" —periods of cloudy water —at the water plant, said Brubaker.
And in 2004 in Kivalina, erosion and late freeze-up damaged the washeteria's leach field system. The washeteria's an important site where people collect treated water, wash clothes and take showers. It shut down for the winter.
At that point, residents were "back on sponge-bath status, except for the school," the only other building with tap water, said Brubaker.
The lack of access to treated water in the winter made hand-washing and bathing more difficult. Health aides reported more respiratory and skin diseases during the shut-down, the report said.
The health consortium has requested a follow-up study, and the Centers for Disease Control and Maniilaq are now reviewing clinical records to see if the data supports those observations, Brubaker said.
As for the water system in Point Hope, a village of 700, algae blooms are an increasing problem in the lake that provides the village's water.
Algae appeared with warm water temperatures in the summer of 2007 and 2008, forcing technicians to clean filters dozens of times daily. Sometimes, they spent several hours a day fighting algae.
That's doesn't just increase the utility's costs. It's also a water safety issue, because Arctic villages have a limited time to treat water before rivers and lakes freeze, Brubaker said.
The Wulik River watershed that provides Kivalina its water is home to increasing numbers of wood-chewing beavers, as longer growing seasons have helped alders and willows grow from shrubs into trees.
Meanwhile, health officials are increasingly worried about giardia, an intestinal infection known as beaver feaver, which was first recorded at the local clinic 2006.
Other animals could be to blame, but researchers are eyeing the beavers, and suspect the sick person drank untreated river water.
That's a landmark change for an area with once-pristine creeks and rivers, said Brubaker.
"In general, people could drink from them freely," he said. "Now they have beavers defecating into the river, and that raises the risk of giardia."
The emerging disease could be a big problem in an area where many people prefer to get their water from lakes and rivers in part because it's cheaper, he said.
The report cautions residents to make sure they boil or treat water from the wilderness, Brubaker said. Health aides have also been notified to warn others and to look for giardia symptons in patients.
The region has experienced a small number of other giardia cases, according to state records. Researchers want to know more about each case, including where the individual lived when they got sick, Brubaker said.
Less marine mammal harvests
Another big problem, especially in Point Hope: Ice cellars carved from the permafrost, which once stayed frozen year-round, are melting in spring and filling with water.
"There's a lot of bailing going on in the ice cellars in Point Hope," said Brubaker.
The odor has apparently drawn polar bears close to town —some have clawed through thawed ground and into the cellar —presenting an important safety concern.
The warmer cellars could also cause contaminated meat and lead to more stomach infections from botulism, salmonella, and e-coli, the report notes.
"The ocean is coming and eroding the beach, real fast. Some of the cellars are all gone—maybe a mile out, just eroded," Joe Towksjhea of Point Hope is quoted as saying in the report.
To learn more, scientists with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the U.S. Geological Survey have installed sensors to better assess the warming temperature in ice cellars and in Point Hope's water lake, Brubaker said.
Another worry: few walrus have been harvested in Point Hope since 2006, because changing sea ice conditions may affect the animals' patterns.
Health aides report more malnutrition and anemia in Point Hope, especially in elders. They believe the drop in sea mammal harvests may be a factor, the report notes.
In Kivalina, it's been more than a decade since the community harvested a bowhead whale. The study notes that in 2007, one-quarter of households reported they didn't get enough sea mammals. Residents were most likely to blame bad ice conditions.
The increased warmth has also shortened seasons for drying caribou, fish and seal before they rot.
Clinical reports did not show higher amounts of foodborne illnesses in Kivalina, but residents should take care when storing and preparing wild food.
"Pregnant women, infants, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for severe infections," such as those that result from eating wildlife diseased with infections, the report said.
The reports also address climate change's better-known problems.
Both communities are subject to erosion, in part because late freeze-up leaves the coastline thawed and more vulnerable. Flooding is also a problem, and Kivalina is looking at moving and rebuilding somewhere else.
One high-risk area in Point Hope includes a culturally important mass grave from early last century, where people may have been buried following an epidemic of the Spanish flu or one of the other diseases that decimated many Native communities.
In both villages, ice also often isn't thick enough to support whale or walrus that need butchering. It also threatens hunters.
"On May 8, 2008, three Point Hope whaling crews were cast adrift when a huge slab of shore-fast ice broke free," that report notes.
Snow-gos have crashed through the ice in Kivalina, including three or four during one recent autumn, said Andrew Baldwin Jr., the VPSO in Kivalina, according to the study.
"Two machines were lost," Baldwin was quoted as saying.
Other studies planned
In addition to the CDC's efforts to study infectious disease rates in Kivalina, the tribal health consortium is working with other organizations to answer additional questions raised in the reports.
With the city of Kivalina, the health consortium has requested money from the state for a feasibility study that will consider improving the water and sanitation system.
A rock revetment wall built by the Army Corps of Engineers is expected to extend the village's life by another 15 to 20 years.
"We can't wait around for 15 or 20 years to make sure people have adequate water and sanitation," Brubaker said.
Also, the Institute for Circumpolar Health at the University of Alaska Anchorage will also train observers to collect information about climate change.
"They think these are sentinel communities for climate change," Brubaker said.
Some recommendations from the reports
In Point Hope:
A Climate Reference Network Station site should be created to better forecast storms and monitor changes. A local observer program created under the NWS could also combine traditional knowledge and science in weather forecasting and observation.
Develop flood and storm surge projections using erosion rates and other data. Improve meteorological forecasting. That, as well as continued erosion and flood-prevention measures, such as additional sea wall construction, could help prevent injury and protect infrastructure.
An evacuation shelter should be created outside the flood zone. The school in town currently serves as the evacuation shelter.
New ice cellars should be created in more stable areas. Community-cold storage facilities could be built.
Obtain funding to study alternatives for evacuation routes and new shelters.
With a new revetment wall expected to extend the community's life by 15 to 20 years, water treatment alternatives should be studied and built.
Create an observer program to collect data on weather, erosion and changes to permafrost, wildlife and other areas.
A food survey and a review of changing subsistence practices should be conducted to understand the use and availability of local foods.
Release advisories on the presence of giardia in the Wulik watershed and methods for treating raw water.
Create a community system for hauling honeybuckets that are now delivered by hand.
For more information, contact the Center for Climate and Health by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (907) 729-2464.
Alex DeMarban can be reached at email@example.com