Rural Alaska

Sea ice loss affects biodiversity, economy and travel safety, Alaska hunters and scientists say

“Siku” means sea ice in the Siberian Yupik language. But about a hundred other Yupik words describe different types of sea ice, including icebergs, floating pressure ice ridges, solid ice safe for travel — and “pequ,” which is “an unsuitable area in ice field where the current causes ice to heave up or break up,” Vera Metcalf said.

Metcalf, executive director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, spoke at the Arctic Encounter Symposium last week about how critical sea ice is for her community of St. Lawrence Island. During a panel hosted by the Study of Environmental Arctic Change, Indigenous people, hunters, scientists, artists and policymakers shared their perspectives on what diminishing ice means for biodiversity, the economy, food security and travel safety for residents.

“It defines our seasons and determines our activities,” Metcalf said about sea ice. “We have a really intimate knowledge and understanding of what siku means to us — and (to) the survival of our hunters and the safety for their travel because they’re out there in extreme environments looking for our food security.”

With air temperatures increasing four times faster since 1979, the annual minimum sea ice extent has decreased by 13% per decade, scientists say. The freeze-up happens later and later in the season, and the shore-fast ice, composed of mostly first-year ice, is now significantly less stable, said Craig George, a retired wildlife biologist with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management.

Sea ice provides habitat for a variety of species, including polar bears and seals that rely on it for hunting, breeding and predator avoidance; algae and krill thriving under its surface; and bacteria and worms that only exist in the ice, said Francis Wiese, vice president and science director for climate solutions at Stantec, an engineering consulting company in Anchorage.

“When we lose ice, we effectively are losing biodiversity,” he said. “We are seeing a shift in species distribution and abundance in time and space for the North and that creates some losers and some winners. We see a change in the structure and function of the marine ecosystem, and ultimately we see a difference in the ecosystem services that the sea ice currently provides.”

[Bowhead whales’ migration patterns have shifted in the Arctic]


The implications of sea ice loss affect social well-being and human health as much as they do the bowhead whale, said Jackie Shaeffer, director of climate initiatives with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

“We are our environment,” she said. “No different than a seal or a polar bear, these changes ripple into our world as food security, food sovereignty as well as wellness — our spirituality and our well-being.”

Sea ice also provides natural, free infrastructure protecting coastal communities from erosion and increasing storms, she said.

“And that is gone,” she said. “Economically, every community along our coast is threatened by fall storms because we no longer have that very infrastructure.”

For hunters like Cyrus Harris, the head of the Hunter Support Program at the Maniilaq Association, sea ice melt means hazardous travel.

Traditionally, after freeze-up, hunters use new ice to scout for animals. If winds pick up during the hunt, they also use bigger thicker chunks of ice for shelter. In the past 10 years, that has been challenging, Harris said. During the fall time, the sea freezes up about a month later and tends to thaw out and re-freeze again.

“It’s very challenging to scout our way to and from. … We depend on ice thickness and depend on good, safe ice to be traveling on,” he said. “Without the ice froze, it becomes challenging to get back to shore.”

The change is similarly affecting industries relying on frozen ground for transporting materials — and scientists studying the ecosystem. The ice-based census of bowhead whales is one of the most important projects for the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, critical for the management of the species that is hunted in 11 whaling communities, George said. Now the department is investigating other methods to count bowheads, in case ice-based surveys become impractical, he said.

[Sharing traditional knowledge, Inupiat hunters advance whale science]

The complex implications of the diminishing sea include some positives.

For one, fishermen have access to open water in the Arctic for longer. So do captains of cargo and tourism ships: In the Bering Strait, from 2009 to 2019, vessel traffic transits almost doubled, from 262 to 494, according to Betsy Baker, global fellow with the Wilson Center Polar Institute.

Potential infrastructure developments like a deepwater port in Nome could further increase economic activity in Alaska, lead to a faster response to emergencies and provide a strategic position for national security, said Miles Baker with Miles Baker Alaska.

And as sea ice shrinks, local communities are continuing to adapt to the changing Arctic, mapping the whaling trails and ice thickness to ensure safe travel and adjusting their hunting seasons and diet.

“We live here in the Arctic, we’re not going anywhere,” Metcalf said. “The conditions may change — like siku is — but we’re here. The Arctic is home to us.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.