Tribes are harnessing cutting-edge data to adapt to the climate crisis

Climate change is already damaging Indigenous ways of life. Yet tribes are adapting.

The village of Taholah on the Quinault Indian Nation is just a stone’s throw from a pebbled stretch of beach pocked with the tiny holes of razor clams. The town is wedged between Washington state’s rocky Pacific coastline and a hillside of towering cedar and Douglas fir evergreens.

It’s been the home of the Quinault peoples for 12,000 years. And for the last 50-odd years, the home of tribal member Larry Ralston.

Back in 2008, when Ralston first learned climate change would cause sea levels to rise, he thought of those clams. “If we lose them, well, that is who we are,” he’d said then. “The cultural and subsistence significance of this is dramatic.”

Pacific Northwest tribes like the Quinault are already experiencing the effects of climate change, and they’re already adapting. A new collection of scientific resources developed through a collaboration with the University of Washington is helping Northwest tribes plan and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Quinault people speak of “clam hunger,” a physical, emotional, and spiritual craving that connects them to their ecosystem, their ancestors, their very existence. Clam hunger can drive people to eat this food despite scientists and resource managers telling them that toxins render it unsafe, researcher Kate Crosman told the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Crosman studies the effects of climate change on coastal communities.

Even before the ocean started to rise, other effects of climate change began harming clam populations. Over the past several years, hypoxia, related to climate change and ocean acidification, has killed thousands of shellfish on Quinault beaches.

Dead shellfish and fish routinely rot now on Taholah’s beaches. “Some are still living—literally gasping for oxygen,” Quinault Marine Resources scientist Joe Schumacker said.

The Makah Tribe, located on the northwest Washington coast, is also witnessing the negative effects of climate change, said Michael Chang, Makah Tribe climate adaptation specialist.

“For the Makah, whose traditional area is the northwest Olympic Peninsula and marine waters in Washington state, the environment, the culture, and the community are all interconnected,” he said.

And the Makah have started planning and preparing for climate change adaptation. They began with an ocean acidification impacts assessment back in 2015 that snowballed. When they did that assessment, they found that they couldn’t talk about impacts to ocean resources without also talking about impacts to the land and the air, and about the impacts of all of those resources on the tribe’s culture, Chang said. “So instead of one specific project, we are viewing this as an iterative planning process.”

Now, the tribe is completing multiple related projects, including impacts assessments, community engagement plans, an adaptation plan, carbon footprint analysis, and a carbon mitigation plan.

Resources developed by the Climate Impacts Group at University of Washington for tribes in the Pacific Northwest and Oregon, Nevada, and Utah’s Great Basin may prove useful to tribes like the Quinault and the Makah. The collection of resources is designed for the 84 tribes in those regions in their various stages of the climate preparation process. The package will help tribes evaluate impacts, conduct vulnerability assessments, perform adaptation and economic planning, and locate financial resources.

The collection of resources is designed for the 84 tribes in these regions in their various stages of the climate preparation process.

The Makah have already tested out the the resources developed by the Climate Impacts Group, which provide Western climate science and planning materials tailored to the unique needs of tribal communities. The tools and resources are useful in taking large regional climate data and zooming in to provide information at a more local scale, Chang said.

“This is super-helpful because many regional climate models can’t provide hyper-local climate projections, which is crucial when making planning and adaptation decisions,” Chang said. Using the university's models, it’s possible to determine the potential effects on individual streams, rivers, and forests, he said.

The project reached out to every tribal chairperson seeking input into what climate information their tribe wanted or needed to prepare for climate change, said Meade Krosby, project lead, and Climate Impacts Group senior scientist.

All told, it took two years to compile the resources.

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The new climate resources are mainly online and include a climate tool, links to resources and a technical support line for tribal staff and members. Photo from the University of Washington.

“It was a huge team effort that included university scientists, a tribal advisory group, and tribal staff and community members from across the Northwest and Great Basin,” Krosby said. “It was driven by needs expressed by tribes as they plan for climate change and the effects it could have on their natural and cultural resources.”

The online guides offer data specific to geographic areas of interest for different tribes, accessible via user-friendly interactive tools.

“We made it easy for the tribes to use. It puts all the information together in one place,” Krosby said. “You look up your tribe, a map pops up, and you can explore how 20 different things—from sea level to snowpack—are expected to change in the future.”

Stefanie Krantz, the climate change coordinator for the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho’s Columbia River Plateau, said the tribe has already benefitted from the work CIG did in scaling down the climate data. “We were going to have to process all of the data ourselves, and develop visualizations,” Krantz said. “They built graphs for us. We had already done some of the work, but it saved us so much time.”

The Nez Perce is also using the site’s streamflow data, a critical measurement of water and aquatic habitat quality for culturally important salmon, Krantz said. The Nez Perce had already created stream temperature maps—relevant to salmon survival—for the entire Columbia River Basin. “Not having to [also] develop stream flow graphs and maps ourselves is very helpful,” Krantz said. “Climate Impacts Group also provided maps for other topics such as soil moisture, which is quite helpful.”

Gradual and extreme climatic events are already transforming the cultural identity and quality of life in the regions, according to the recent Fourth U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Temperatures have risen nearly 2 degrees since 1900, the report says.

The region can expect a sea-level rise, flooding, ocean acidification, and extreme events like heavy precipitation, Krosby said, as well as diminished snowpack, pervasive drought, increased wildfires, and other threats, some difficult to anticipate. And the communities on the front lines of climate change dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, like tribes and Indigenous peoples, are experiencing the earliest and often the worst effects.

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A tribal fire crew member in Oregon monitors a prescribed burn, a key tool for preventing large wildfires that are likely to become more common under climate change.Photo from Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Their cultures are deeply connected to their ancestral lands, waters, and natural resources. There is a need to protect the viability of their economies and livelihoods as the changing climate impacts their hunting, gathering, and fishing, forestry, agriculture, energy, recreation, and tourism enterprises.

Salmon, crucial for nearly all the tribes in the region, is projected to lose 22 percent of their habitat by late century due to warming stream waters if nothing is done to stop or slow carbon emissions, according to the National Climate Assessment. The Climate Impacts Group resources include projections of how stream temperatures and stream flows might change, Krosby said.

The tribes in the Pacific Northwest are leaders in climate adaptation and have mounted multifaceted responses to the threats they face.

If a tribe wants to know how their salmon might be affected, they can look up projections of individual stream temperature changes to see which reaches may become too hot for salmon survival or which may offer cold water refuge from warming.

“If you want to use Western climate science to inform planning, you need specific local data that can be difficult and expensive to get hold of if you’re not at a university,” Krosby said.

There’s plenty of other resources available, including a tribal climate technical support desk that tribal members and staff can call with questions. Krantz has used the hotline to get more advanced advice from Krosby.

“Meade can point us to scientists [who] have the information we want. If we need more information about wildfires, she can point us in the right direction,” Krantz said.

The tribes in the Pacific Northwest are leaders in climate adaptation and have mounted multifaceted responses to the threats they face, Krosby said. The Climate Impacts Group's tailored, state-of-the-art climate data further provide resources and data at a level of detail not yet available to most cities around the country.

Some tribes may use the tools extensively, and others may not need them at all, Krosby said. In any case, their access to such cutting-edge science and resources could serve as a model for other tribes and communities as they prepare for climate impacts.

In 2015, a toxic bloom of algae—unprecedented in scope, intensity, and toxicity, said Quinault scientist Schumacker—affected marine and shellfish fisheries all along the West Coast.

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The resources are designed to serve all tribes in the Northwest and Great Basin regions. Map by Rob Norheim/UW Climate Impacts Group.

Scientists linked the bloom to warmer waters in the Pacific. As the coastal bloom decay, it promotes ocean acidification and low-oxygen conditions. Scientific findings posted at Climate.gov predict that warmer ocean conditions will become more persistent as a result of global warming, posing a risk of more frequent domoic acid closures along the West Coast and, no doubt, more clam hunger.

The Climate Impacts Group tools do not address ocean conditions, although Crosby said they plan for the next iteration to do so. But recently she connected a tribe’s climate change coordinator, who called the technical support desk for resources on ocean acidification, with the Washington Ocean Acidification Center at UW, who “was happy to take the call,” she said.

“There’s been huge interest in using this to serve tribes throughout the country,” Krosby said. “We’re talking about expanding."

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Terri Hansen originally wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Terri is a member of the Winnebago tribe and has covered Native and Indigenous issues since 1993. Her focus is science and the environment. Follow her on Twitter @TerriHansen

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