Climate change is melting arctic ice caves

Qaiyaan Harcharek is the harpooner of his Iñupiaq whaling crew in Utqiaġvik, the northernmost city in Alaska. “I was lucky to have nine whales,” he said, which is no small feat. Bowhead whales can be up to 60 feet long and weigh 75 to 100 tons. Landing requires extensive skills, deep relationships with whales and the arctic environment, and cooperation between all crew members.

The Iñupiat have hunted bowhead whales for generations in the spring and fall. “We are whalers. This is who we are as a people and this is what has allowed us to thrive in this difficult environment for thousands of years, ”said Harcharek. In the vast borough of Alaska’s North Slope, most of the 9,700 residents are Iñupiat, and although bowhead whales are not an endangered species, they do face environmental and man-made threats to their continued recovery.

A whaling crew member just after cleaning and preparing the ice cellar for the arrival of a whale. (Photo courtesy of Qaiyaan Harcharek)

After a successful hunt, the whale crews spend hours towing the whale to the icy shore, then skinning it in specific portions for families and parties. “Right after we catch a whale, the next day we cook enough to serve the whole community,” Harcharek explained. The rest of the whale – thousands of pounds of meat and maktak, or skin with fat – is distributed to families involved in the process or cooked during the community Thanksgiving, Christmas and Nalukataq festivals, the festival of spring whaling.

No part of the whale is wasted. Or it was only recently. It is common for Iñupiat families to store whale meat and other subsistence foods in frozen cellars deep underground, but in recent years, many people have reported that their cellars are getting too hot and causing food to spoil. , or failed completely due to flooding or collapse. . For example, a 2014 inventory of ice cellars in the coastal village of Wainwright conducted by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium found that 19 wineries out of 34 had been abandoned.

Traditional siġluaqs, or ice caves, are made by tunneling 10 to 20 feet into the earth’s surface and creating a small room at the bottom of the permafrost. A heavy cellar door, three to four feet wide and made of wood, covers the entrance. To reach the crisp piece of dirt, which should stay around 10 degrees Fahrenheit year round, you have to climb down a long ladder – and bring in a light.

“Now we’re going to lose all of our si allluaq very soon because of the ocean and the flooding. . . . They also melt. It’s warmer inside, ”said a Point Hope resident named Macy, quoted in the 2020 book. Whale snow by Chie Sakakibara. “Now we have to haul the water in buckets from the siluaqs because the permafrost is melting. Otherwise, our whale meat will go badly. . . . Will we need a large freezer in the future? “

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world, causing permafrost degradation “extensively, persistently and rapidly”, according to the new research published in the journal Advances in climate change research. Although thawing permafrost is a major problem affecting ice caves, they can fail for a variety of reasons, including other impacts of climate change, poor maintenance, and soil disturbance from urbanization.

Sunset over an ice cellar.  looking up from an iñupiat ice cellar.  (Photo courtesy of Qaiyaan Harcharek)

Sunset over an ice cellar door in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Qaiyaan Harcharek)

Despite the risks, Harcharek plans to build a new ice cellar on land that will one day be the site of his family home; he is married and has four children, including twins. He said he would establish the cellar in an area of ​​low soil salinity (since salt water melts faster than fresh water), dig deeper on higher ground, strengthen the tunnel with solid materials, and carefully monitor and maintain the cellar. Harcharek is not ready to give up on siġluaq, as it is not just a place for storing and preserving food – it is considered the land-based home of the bowhead whale, an animal central to Iñupiat culture.

The Iñupiat take great care to prepare their caves for the arrival of a new whale – by pulling out old blood, oil, and dirt and lining the ground with fresh snow – because they believe whales know what crews have a clean home waiting for them.

“There is a lot of hard work and pride” in cleaning the ice cellar, Harcharek said. “When you do, you try not to think negative thoughts. It’s a humiliating and sort of cleansing process. . . and it is this connection that we have with the whale and the way we are going to take care of it that allows us to potentially be successful [in the hunt]. “

When the last ice cellar is no longer usable, a piece of Iñupiat culture will disappear. But people, Harcharek said, will find new ways to live – as they always have. “You have to adapt to your surroundings because if you don’t, you will die.”

Adapting to a Changing Arctic

Alaskan natives have adapted to cycles of climate change in the past, said Meda DeWitt, a traditional Tlingit healer. “However, when you start to watch how fast this is happening, that’s where [this time is] different. We are entering a situation in which we have not been completely before. “

Many native Alaskans – not just the Iñupiat – face food insecurity as the rapid collapse of the environment disrupts natural cycles, including caribou migration patterns, berry season, and grazing. mounted salmon. This poses a threat to their survival. “In some of our communities, it’s 80 or 90 percent reliance on subsistence foods” that are picked, fished, hunted or grown in small-scale agriculture, said Tikaan Galbreath, the Intertribal agricultural councilAlaska state technical assistant and member of the traditional Mentasta tribe.

It is not possible for people in rural communities, many of which can only be reached by bush plane or boat, to depend on grocery stores due to the extremely high cost of importing food. “It’s an amazing variety when a gallon of milk costs $ 10 or a loaf of bread $ 8,” Galbreath said.

Sudden environmental changes also cause immense grief to Alaska Natives as they disrupt their cultural and spiritual relationships with the land and other living things. DeWitt, who in February was talking during the Alaska listening session of the Democratic National Committee on the Environment and the Climate Crisis, said: “Everyone in general is grieving that they are not having access to our traditional practices because of the climate change. This climatic mourning is also known as solastalgia, and this is something that indigenous peoples have been trying to express for a very long time.


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