Alaska is ground zero for climate change. Miranda Weiss moved to Homer, Alaska, in 1999. Her family relies partly on wild foods to live, and she’s watched these changes mount as both a resident and reporter. For The American Scholar, Weiss talked with six Alaskan women about their practical concerns, their anxieties, and how they’re handling these monumental changes physically and psychologically. Fires burn. Insects descend. Acidity and warm waters damage the marine ecosystem, killing birds and poisoning shellfish. As Weiss put it, “The bad news is relentless.” Melting permafrost doesn’t only topple buildings. It topples the economies and identities of subsistence hunters, Indigenous people, scientists, and commercial fisherwomen.
The changing chemistry of the ocean is not abstract to Hannah. She has a boat payment to make, a student loan to repay.
Across Alaska, there’s a $6 billion economy at stake, one that employs tens of thousands of people. More than half the nation’s commercial seafood harvest is at risk. Also on the line is the survival of scores of coastal communities dependent on the fishing industry, and the very character of the state itself.
Alaska’s commercial fisheries harvest more than 40 species of marine life, and fishermen and researchers believe it’s only a matter of time before the industry suffers a catastrophe. Already, the world is looking different to people who live on or by the ocean. They’re seeing warm-water species appear off Alaska’s shores. Oyster farmers are having a hard time getting spat—the small larvae used to start a crop—because their sources are affected by acidification. Lucrative crab and pollock industries are expected to face declines with further acidification and warming. Uncertainties swirl around salmon, which are notoriously sensitive to water temperature.