Navajo tribal elder observations of climate change impacts: Validating local knowledge and informing adaptation
In recent years, many Indigenous communities have engaged in studies that incorporate local knowledge in combination with conventional scientific data. These studies have provided compelling information about changes to ecosystems that are already underway due to climate change. They have also led to an increasing local awareness of climate change impacts, spurring community action and increasing adaptive capacity. We present one such study that includes the lifetime observations of 73 tribal elders from the Navajo Nation. Today, the Navajo land base of more than 65,700 km2 (approximately the size of Iceland) is a remote and ecologically sensitive semi-arid region that has suffered prolonged drought combined with increasing temperatures. People currently living on these Native lands rely on an intimate knowledge of the ecosystem, passed on for generations through oral traditions, to maintain their traditional lifestyle.
Information from elder consultations complements the scant long-term meteorological records and historical documentation for the region, and serves to refine our understanding of the historical trends and local impacts of climate change and drought. The observed changes, in addition to challenging socioeconomic circumstances, are significantly altering the habitability of a region already characterized by harsh living conditions. Among the most cited changes was a long-term decrease in the amount of annual snowfall in the latter half of the 20th century that coincides with a transition from wet conditions to drier conditions, and a decline in surface water features. Other noted changes include the disappearance of springs, and of plant and animal populations (particularly medicinal plants, cottonwood trees, beavers, and eagles). The lack of available water, in addition to changing socioeconomic conditions, was mentioned as a leading cause for the decline in the ability to grow corn and other crops. Changes in the frequency of wind, sand and dust storms were also observed. We conclude that a long-term drying trend and decreasing snowpack, superimposed on regional drought cycles, will magnify the cultural erosion and desertification of the Navajo Nation and leave its people increasingly vulnerable to climate extremes.