2018 was the second warmest year for Bethel in nearly 100 years of record-keeping. According to Rick Thoman, a climate scientist in Alaska, Bethel has been no stranger to a warming climate, especially in the last five years.
“So this is the fifth year in a row with the average temperature for the calendar year above freezing in Bethel, and there’s never been a five-year period with the average temperature above freezing in the past century until now,” Thoman said.
Those changes are hitting home in a lot of ways. Bethel’s signature sled dog race, the Kuskokwim 300, had to make a last-minute change to its traditional race route in 2018. The Kuskokwim River is taking longer to freeze, so more residents in remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities have to travel by air instead, which is expensive.
“It’s not frozen up for safe travel, but it’s not really good for boating yet anymore. In that length of time, is that transition season increasing over time in these warming years?” said Thoman.
The fragile tundra is also beginning to erode faster. This is forcing many villages to consider relocation as the impacts hit closer to home. Just a few big storms would be all it would take to wash Napakiak’s school into the river, and the coastal village of Newtok is gearing up to build more infrastructure at its new site in the spring.
“It’s going to mean the increasing greening of the tundra with the shrubs growing taller. Over a very long term, a couple of generations, trees will continue to spread westward. So for instance berry-picking areas, I’ve read that areas that were good berrying in the past are now getting overgrown with shrubs,” Thoman said.
Even though temperatures may fluctuate month-to-month, Thoman reiterated that for Bethel and many other Alaska communities, this trend of warmer winters is not going away.