Alaskan Arctic villages hit hard by changes

Juliet Eilperin / The Washington Post /

Published Aug 7, 2012 at 05:00AM

POINT HOPE, Alaska — Fermented whale’s tail doesn’t taste the same when the ice cellars flood.

Whaling crews in this Arctic coast village store six feet of tail — skin, blubber and bone — underground from spring until fall. The tail freezes slowly while fermenting and taking on the flavor of the earth.

Paying homage to their connection to the frozen sea, villagers eat the delicacy to celebrate the moment when the Arctic’s ice touches shore.

But climate change, with its more intense storms, melting permafrost and soil erosion, is causing the ice cellars to disintegrate. Many have washed out to sea in recent decades. The remaining ones regularly flood in the spring, which can spoil the meat and blubber, and release scents that attract polar bears.

“They’re thawing and filling up with water,” Point Hope Mayor Steve Oomittuk said as he lifted a small wooden door to a cellar, surrounded by plastic sheets shielding the remaining snow cover from the sun. This spring, residents had to take some meat and blubber out and make room for it in their freezers at home.

“When you store it in a freezer, it tastes different,” Oomittuk said.

More quickly than any other place in the United States, the Alaskan Arctic is being transformed by global warming. The impacts of climate change are threatening a way of life.

The dilemma for the federal government — and state and local officials — is whether to try to preserve, if it is even possible, the heritage of the Inuit villages, their ice cellars, sod ancestral homes and cemeteries ringed with spires of whalebones. Or spend the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to move even one village.

Point Hope, with a 4,500-year history, has much to lose.

It’s not just a matter of culture and history but of survival. Households in Alaskan Arctic villages rely on hunting and fishing for most of their food consumption, and those activities depend on sea ice.

The importance of catching their own food is evident in the aisles of the Alaska Commercial Co., a supermarket on Bison Street in Kotzebue. Milk costs $9.99 a gallon, and a jumbo pack of drumsticks is $21.77. “You get a sense of our dependence on subsistence hunting,” John Chase said, pointing out the prices. He handles land use permitting for the state’s northernmost borough and oversees climate change issues.

The Arctic sea ice, which shrinks over the summer and grows in the winter, decreased by a total of 21.1 million square miles in June, the largest loss on record for the month since satellite records began, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Overall, summer sea ice has declined 40 percent since 1979, according to satellite imagery.

The hunters in Kotzebue, 180 miles south of Point Hope, struggled during this year’s bearded seal hunt. The slushy ice made it hard to find a firm place to stand, and many of the seals were submerged in water and harder to shoot and retrieve.

“This year’s ice was really bad. It makes it harder to see them. Some of the ice was brown and dark,” explained Karmen Monigold, 36, who has been hunting since she was 20. “Our food security is being threatened, not just by climate change, but by offshore development. When I think of my boys, they may not be able to hunt like I do.”

In the town of Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States and 330 miles north of Point Hope, the men and women who build trails on the ice so they can harpoon whales and pull them onto a solid surface now complain of mugaliq, a combination of slush, ice and snow that is harder to work on.

Point Hope, population 850, ends in a slender stretch of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea. The community’s heritage is clustered in this part of the sparse landscape for a reason: The sea’s bounty once sustained a local population of more than 5,000. But that proximity to the ocean is also why it is losing ground.

The North Slope Borough that encompasses Point Hope and Barrow has spent roughly $2 million building a 275-foot rock revetment near Point Hope’s runway to guard against erosion, and the Army Corps of Engineers spent $433,000 to restore an evacuation road that was damaged by storms and is the main alternative to the airstrip. The community also makes a line of defense out of gravel each summer.

“We pile up this gravel and try to stop the erosion,” Oomittuk said, looking out at the steep piles of brown gravel as the waves lapped against them.

“We see the things that are changing with the climate change, the offshore development, the ice moving out there, the destructive fall storms,” he said.

This summer, the town of Kotzebue put the finishing touches on a $34 million sea wall — primarily funded by the federal government — to protect its beach from powerful fall storms and erosion. Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Siikauraq Whiting, who is headquartered in Kotzebue, said she and other residents are committed to defending their community and way of life.

“The last thing I’m going to say is we’re a people of the past,” she said. “We still exist.”