Chances are, when you think about climate change in the Arctic, the image of a polar bear struggling to make its way across a sea of shrinking ice comes to mind. It’s a narrative you’ve seen in hundreds of news reports and documentaries.

The rapid changes now taking place above latitude 66º30'N, the geopolitical line that bounds the Arctic Circle, also threaten people’s lives and livelihoods. You may think you know that story, too.

But Michaela Stith, a lifelong Alaskan and 2018 Nicholas School graduate, is here to tell you that you don’t. Not the full story, anyway. Not the way she knows it as “a Black, mixed-race girl from Alaska” who’s spent the last three years researching, and nearly her entire life experiencing the corrosive confluence of environmental, social and economic injustices faced by Indigenous, Black and dark-skinned residents of the Arctic region.

As a program assistant at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute in Washington, D.C. and a former associate of the Arctic Council’s Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat, Stith has seen firsthand how climate change—fueled almost entirely by fossil fuel consumption and unsustainable resource use outside the Arctic region—is compounding this legacy of racism and bringing new threats.

She’s written about her experiences and travels across the Arctic in the critically lauded book “Welp: Climate Change and Arctic Identities,” published in May 2021 by New Degree Press.

Duke Environment asked Stith to share some of her insights in a guest column.