Measuring perceptions of climate change in northern Alaska: pairing ethnography with cultural consensus analysis

Courtney Carothers, Caroline Brown, Katie J. Moerlein, J. Andrés López, David B. Andersen, Brittany Retherford
Posted on: 12/30/2015 - Updated on: 1/18/2019

Posted by

Tera Johnson



Given current and projected warming trends in the Arctic and the important role played by subsistence hunting and fishing in the life of northern rural communities, it is increasingly important to document local observations of climate change and its impacts on livelihood practices. We describe ethnographic research exploring local observations of climate changes and related impacts on subsistence fisheries in three Iñupiat communities in northwest Alaska and six Athabascan communities in the Yukon River drainage. We found consistent agreement among perceptions concerning a broad range of environmental changes affecting subsistence practices in these communities. These observations of environmental changes are not experienced in isolation but within the context of accompanying social changes that are continually reshaping rural Alaskan communities and subsistence economies. In this paper we reflect on our research approach combining multiple methods of inquiry. Participant observation and semidirected interviews provided the conceptual framework for broadening our focus from climate and environmental change to community residents’ understanding of climate change in the context of their holistic human-environment worldview. Cultural consensus analysis allowed us to assess the extent to which perceptions of change are shared among hunters and fishers within and between villages and regions and to identify those phenomena occurring or experienced at smaller scales. Reflecting on this multimethods approach, we highlight important questions that have emerged about how we understand, synthesize, and represent local knowledge, especially as it is used in regulatory or management arenas.