Unusual Weather Events Associated with Climate Change in Alaska Have Adverse Health Outcomes: Findings From a Community-Based Sentinel Surveillance System
Residents of the circumpolar north are experiencing the environmental effects of climate change, including unusually mild and dry weather in winter, flooding from rapid snowmelt in the spring, and storms of unusual intensity in the summer and fall. This study evaluated the health risks associated with such environmental effects to inform the development of adaptation strategies in Alaska.
A cohort of more than 90 study participants representing eight communities across Alaska provided monthly surveillance surveys from April or May of 2011 to March or April of 2012. The survey’s structured thematic sections included community observations on local weather, hunting and harvesting, food and water safety, and general health and air quality. Open-ended text fields for each theme and for general observations were included.
Residents of communities in which at least one study participant described unusual weather events over the previous month experienced reduced food security, (OR=3.76, p<0.01), increased incidence of unintentional injury (OR=3.62, p<0.05), and reduced self-reported overall health (OR=0.55, p<0.05) compared to communities not experiencing such events. Communities in which at least one study participant described changing when and how they travel in response to unusual weather events experienced reduced water security (OR=2.59, p<0.05), increased incidence of hypothermia (OR=4.70, p<0.01), frostbite (OR=3.67, p<0.01) and unintentional injury (OR=4.72, p<0.01) compared to communities not experiencing such events. A second round of surveillance data collection will further measure these associations, and assess the utility of adaptive practices intended to reduce them.
This study demonstrates that the environmental effects of climate change are associated with adverse health outcomes in Alaska. It further demonstrates the effectiveness of sentinel surveillance systems for informing climate change adaptation. Such systems can inform strategic planning by community stakeholders in those communities seeking to reduce morbidity and mortality from climate change.