Alaska's Arctic villages struggle against climate change

As permafrost melts and coast erodes, villagers scramble to preserve their heritage.

The Washington PostAugust 7, 2012 

POINT HOPE -- 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 takes 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, Alaska's Arctic is being transformed by global warming. The effects 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's even possible, the heritage of the Native 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 villages rely on hunting and fishing for most of their food, and those activities depend on sea ice.

The importance of supplying 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. Chase handles land use permitting for Alaska's northernmost borough and oversees climate change issues.

The Arctic sea ice, which shrinks over the summer and grows in 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 U.S. 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, which encompasses Point Hope and Barrow, has spent roughly $2 million to build a 275-foot rock revetment near Point Hope's runway to guard against erosion. 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 builds an additional line of defense each summer.

"We pile up this gravel and try to stop the erosion," Oomittuk said, looking out at 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."

A dozen villages, however, are declaring defeat and trying to relocate.

Every year, the river encroaches farther and farther into Newtok, a village of 350 people that rests on melting permafrost on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Over the past 16 years, its trash dump and main barge landing have eroded into the water.

Newtok officials have identified a relocation site nine miles away on higher ground on Nelson Island, but they have not received federal funding for the move.

The village's tribal administrator, Stanley Tom, has started training villagers to build homes on the new site, but he said they are still waiting for federal permits and funding.

"Our village is sinking very fast, and we are now flood-prone," Tom said. "The government is so slow, they're taking their leisure time. ...Where is the money?"

The funds that Sen. Lisa Murkowski sees as essential to remote communities' survival are considered "bad earmarks" by many in Washington, she said. Nonetheless, she was able to direct $2 million to her state's coastal erosion program in fiscal 2010, on top of $500,000 she secured for the town of Shishmaref in fiscal 2005.

Meanwhile, the federal government is studying what can be done.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes announced July 30 that a federal interagency group on Alaska will work with the Arctic Research Commission to create a central hub of scientific information to inform public decision-making. It also will launch an effort to evaluate the environmental, social and economic effect of Arctic infrastructure development, given the changing climate.

Interior's Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperatives program is using computer models to project everything from where polar bear mothers will den this winter to how a changed landscape will shift species' distribution in Alaska by mid-century.

But there is a history of mistrust between villagers and the federal government. People in Point Hope remember Project Chariot, an aborted federal plan in the 1960s to create a new harbor by detonating six nuclear bombs nearby.

"A lot of this stuff is trust-building," Martin Robards, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Arctic Beringia Program, said of current efforts.

Aggie Henry, a housing security official in Point Hope, smiled when asked about possible federal assistance. "The federal government is not here. The Coast Guard is miles and miles away," she said, looking out onto the Chukchi Sea. "Our heritage and our culture and tradition is very important to us. We will have to adapt to it."

She said she is worried about the bowhead whales, bearded seals and walruses stored in the dark holds of her community's remaining ice cellars, each one about 13 feet square and 10 feet deep.

Fortunately, the flooding this year did not harm the five whale tails saved from the spring hunt. So this fall, Point Hope residents will carry them to city hall, clean them and cut them up. Whaling captains will be served first. Residents will bring buckets to carry some home.

"It's green and slimy and nice, with a good taste," Oomittuk said. "It has a strong smell. You have to be born to it.

"To us, this is what we grew up with. When food was scarce, you had to ferment everything you had left," he said. "It's all about survival."

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