Climate change and the Vuntut Gwitchin in Alaska

Level: Topic: Cold Environments

Link to AS syllabus: Exploitation and development in tundra areas and the Southern Ocean. Traditional economies of an indigenous population and recent changes/ adaptations. The concept of fragile environments. The potential for sustainable development.

Your 15 mark question on the Cold Environments topic has frequently been about the sustainable use of fragile environments such as tundra.

Tundra: Old Crow Flats

Old crow flats lies in Yukon in Canada, just a short distance from the Canadian border. It has low relief around 300m above sea level and is made up of peat bogs.

People have developed a traditional way of life and learnt to survive in a fragile environment. They depend on the existence of other life forms which are now under threat from modern global developments.

The area was not glaciated during the last ice age, instead it was covered by a huge lake. The soil here as deep as 50cm never thaws creating an impermeable layer which holds the lakes in place.

The Vuntut Gwitchin

The environment here is fragile due to the low temperature,  low precipitation, balanced soil structures, isolation and long hours of winter darkness. The Vuntut Gwitchin survive here.

The village of Old Crow is home to around 300 people, their name means people of the lakes. There are a total of 7500 people making up the Gwitchin nation. Originally nomadic, they are now settled but they still follow traditions based on the seasonal migration of the caribou herds across the tundra. Some families trap the muskrat which lives by the lakes.

Caribou: In spring they migrate north to the coastal plains  of Yukon to graze the rich pasture. In Canada these areas form part of the Ivvavik National Park so are well protected from development. On the Alaskan side they are part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which offers a much lower level of protection from development.

The Vuntut Gwitchin have always relied on the caribou to provide them with meat, bones, antlers and hides. They still hunt the caribou during their migrations by crossing the Porcupine River but now use snowmobiles and rifles. The people also fish at the lakes on Old Crow Flats and they trap muskrat. Muskrat fur can be traded and provides income for families.

Overhunting? Local ecologists confirm that only 4% of adults were hunted in a year and the annual birth rate was more than enough to compensate for this. They concluded that decreasing numbers could be caused by climate change. This could effect the Vuntut Gwitchin as they will not have enough caribou to hunt and the practice could die out.


The issues are that this previously sustainable way of life of the Vuntut Gwitchin is under threat as caribou numbers decrease. The disappearance of some lakes due to rising temperatures and the melting of the permafrost means that muskrat numbers are also declining. The people will have to resort to buying food in supermarkets at distance from their homes which is very expensive and will suffer a reduction in income.

To tackle the issues, government sponsored developments bring jobs to the people and money to the community. Sustainability is not just about preserving the environment, but also preserving way of life and economics. A gravel quarry was started in 2003 providing employment. The people have started growing their own crops to reduce the need to go to the expensive supermarkets.

Another problem is that of the population structure of the Vuntut Gwitchin, there are many elderly and young people, the working population have moved away to seek more opportunities and better paid work. The sustainability of this community relies upon the upkeep of traditions, the survival of the caribou and muskrat and the retention of the working population. If these cannot be maintained it is unlikely the community will be sustainable too far into the future.

Links to information on the Vuntut Gwitchin people.

Get ready for the music at the official website for Old Crow, Yukon. Its a hard site to navigate (and on the eyes) but try take a look at protecting the caribou.

BBC news article on the effects of climate change on the Vuntut Gwitchin people amongst other facts.

Old Crow Village.

Old Crow Village.

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