When traditional ice cellars are flooded, the damage extends beyond the stored food. Traditional practices for preservation and cooking are disrupted.
“It affects our food security,” said Doreen Leavitt, director of natural resources at the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope. “It affects our sovereignty to store our food in a traditional way, serve it in our way. It affects our culture as a whole.”
ICAS, the regional tribal government, is working to preserve ice cellars by outfitting some with thermosyphon technology — a passive pipe filled with a cooling fluid — to keep them frozen.
“Those ice cellars need some help with cooling,” ICAS consultant Lars Nelson said. “The plan is that the ice cellars will just freeze.”
Leavitt, who grew up in a whaling family in Utqiaġvik, experienced the problem in spring 2015. Her family landed a 50-foot whale, so they cut up the meat to store it in an ice cellar, or Siġluaq. But that year, the meat did not completely freeze, and the blood ran out from it, making the meat dry.
“We want to blood to stay so we can ferment the meat and have it moist when we serve it,” Leavitt said.
Besides affecting the quality and taste of food, disappearing ice cellars hurt Iñupiaq practices. Traditionally, whaling captains empty and clean their ice cellars and put fresh snow in them before starting the whaling season.
“Whaling captains and the crew understand that you have to prepare your cellar before you catch the whale; otherwise the whale won’t respect you,” Nelson said.
Leavitt agreed. “You have to have your ice cellar empty; that way the whale gives itself to you. With climate change, they open their ice cellar, and it’s full of water.”
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Utqiaġvik whaler Kunneak Nageak said that several years ago, when his town saw a lot of rain “that really soaked the tundra,” the ice cellar of his whaling crew caved in.
“Tundra got so heavy and started caving in, and then all that rain dripped down and froze on the bottom, forming like an 18-inch-wide icicle on the bottom,” Nageak said.
Nageak said he went down the cellar when the ice was frozen and used a jackhammer to break that icicle. He also reinforced the cellar.
Multiple studies have registered how ice cellars in Arctic communities are affected by a warming climate, as well as soil conditions and urban development. In Alaska, ice cellars have mostly been used along the Arctic coast.
Iñupiat communities have been looking for alternatives to traditional ice cellars. Some households switched to using man-made freezers, which can be effective but they affect the taste and the quality of the food, Nelson said. Additionally, power outages, frequent in the villages, can make this storage method unreliable. So the search is on for creative ideas to preserve traditional ice cellars.
Thermosyphons are pipe-like refrigeration devices that function by transferring heat from the surrounding permafrost outside, cooling the ground they are placed in and preserving stable temperatures in ice cellars. Low-cost and low-maintenance, the pipes are filled with fluid that moves heat from down below up to the top, said Rorik Peterson, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Thermosyphons work best in winter.
“It works in the winter, it only works when it is colder outside than it is below ground,” he said.
The technology has been studied and used on the North Slope before — for example, to keep oil wells cold, Peterson said. In a 2011 analytic study, Peterson and Kyle Wendler examined ways to use the technology in ice cellars, and the results seemed promising. So in 2017, Kaktovik residents built an ice cellar for the whole community to share, based on traditional designs and using thermosyphon technology.
“They kind of wanted to make a community of it,” Peterson said. “That was the reason that they built a new one.”
Now, what ICAS wants to do is save some of the existing ice cellars, installing thermosyphon pipes under the perimeter of the ice cellars. That’s something that Peterson believes can be effective.
“I don’t think we’ve seen that done yet,” Nelson said. “It’s the first of its kind.”
Using funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, ICAS will gather applications from across the region and choose which ice cellars can be renovated. They’ll need to make sure it’s accessible for the heavy equipment drill in winter.
“We are happy to see anyone who has an existing ice cellar … but we are trying to ensure accessibility,” Nelson said. “Every project needs to be coordinated. Every ice cellar is a separate project.”
Peterson explained that it is important to implement the technology in an existing cellar carefully.
“If you bring in large machinery to install this, you need to be careful that you don’t actually make the problem worse,” he said. “You want (thermosyphons) as close to the cellar as possible ... but then you need to be careful that you don’t disturb what’s already there.”
So far, several people have submitted applications, which are available at icas-nsn.gov, and program managers are starting to work on processing them, Leavitt said.
The program managers will track effectiveness. If the test sites prove the concept is effective, ICAS officials said they will seek additional funding to expand the technology to more ice cellars.
Another outcome that program managers hope to get is to begin “gathering information about existing ice cellars, analyzing the range of applicants, and starting an ice cellar database” to see how ice cellars are changing across the region, Nelson said.
Nelson said that this project, as well as other innovative ideas to modernize cellars using new technology, is another example of the ability of Indigenous communities to persevere.
“As Iñupiaq people here, we adapt,” he said. “We always adapted.”