Picture of Kirsten PatrickKirsten Patrick is a Deputy Editor at CMAJ, currently at the IEA World Congress of Epidemiology in Anchorage, Alaska


The 20th International Epidemiology Association World Congress being held in Anchorage, Alaska, this week is focusing on global epidemiology in a changing environment, and particularly, delegates are discussing and learning about the epidemiological effects of climate change. While much research being presented in concurrent sessions and posters is the usual mix of national and regional epidemiology (infectious diseases, nutritional diseases, cancer…), and epidemiological methods research (always interesting to a journal editor), the ‘circumpolar perspective’ is the subject of many sessions. What is happening in the world’s frozen regions as a result of climate change?

It may or may not surprise you to hear that people who live in areas that are frozen year-round aren’t high-fiving each other about the mean increase in temperature of 3°C. They aren’t throwing off their traditional fur clothing in celebration. This is because communities are being destroyed by warming in polar regions.

Patricia Cochran
from Nome, Alaska, a small community on the Bering Sea, said ‘Everyone in the community knows of someone who went out on a hunting trip and just didn’t come home.’ The melting of glaciers and permafrost is creating lethal conditions for traditional hunters who navigate along frozen waterways. But there are a myriad consequences of a few degrees warming in these regions.

Permafrost in Alaska has already warmed to an average of 3° per year, with more warming projected. This threatens both human communities and animal habitats and food chains. Communities are built on permafrost and permafrost melt threatens the destruction of community infrastructure such as homes, water and sewer systems and air strips.

Some Alaskan communities have begun to experience 100°F days in the summer. Rainfall is heavy in usually dry seasons. Patricia showed pictures of vain attempts to dry fish in a recent season that was too wet, which meant that communities are without a traditional food source for the winter. Increased allergies to biting bugs and threats to sanitation from disrupted waste systems are other emerging health concerns, as are increasing presence of parasites in traditional food sources through salination of fresh water and new arctic pathogens as a result of weather change.

Forest fires are a growing problem – often started by lightning strikes in summer storms. Tundra fires are a very serious problem. There is so much methane and flammable material like moss in the tundra that tundra fires can burn for years. They are largely underground and often difficult to detect. The impact on air quality from a fire that burns for months on end is serious. Tundra fires destroy animals’ habitats and consequently the food chain, which threatens traditional food supplies for Inuit communities.

In winter ice rain is becoming common – icing rain disrupts walking and transport in Northern communities and also food system for animals.

The list goes on…

And this is aside from the global problem that will be faced by the bolus of trapped methane gas that will contribute to global emissions when the permafrost melts, and the rise in sea levels that will occur when glaciers dump into the oceans.

Many speakers mentioned the importance of adaptation strategies. We are way beyond the point where the effects of climate change on Northern communities can be reversed and it is a case of ‘adapt or die’. Communities are finding ways of adapting to conditions. They are finding ways of using traditional and accumulating native knowledge and combining it with scientific discovery to work out how to protect themselves. They are partnering with regional academic bodies that aim to plan properly for a future that involves warmer poles. But communities that could be destroyed may need to relocate and there are many social issues attendant on that. Relocation is costly from a material (who will pay?) and a social (leaving ancient ancestral burial sites) perspective, and red tape may be problematic. You can’t have a school without an airstrip, can’t have an airstrip without a post office…..

If you are interested in circumpolar environmental epidemiology and strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change in polar regions, take a look at these initiatives:

The Northern Research Forum

Arctic Monitor

Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic planning