The Arctic Sounder

Utqiagvik whalers and scientists collaborate to map ice trails and measure ice thickness

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Arctic Sounder in May 2022.

When late Utqiagvik Elder Warren Matumeak began to document whaling trails, he sketched a handwritten map of the ice around the northernmost village, noting what kind of ice the trails had.

Exactly 20 years later, Utqiagvik whaling captains and scientists are collaborating to continue the tradition of mapping the trails and measuring ice thickness, an initiative that benefits both local community and researchers.

Back in the spring of 2006, Matthew Druckenmiller, who was then a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, received approval from the Barrow Whaling Captains Association to document where the whaling trails are each spring, survey ice conditions and provide maps to the community. The initiative has been especially useful during years when communities decide on where to place a trail and where to hunt in response to the ice conditions.

“The handwritten maps did kind of provide the inspiration for this project in many ways, but the trails are different every single year,” Druckenmiller said. “(The project) allows us to provide resources and maps to the whaling community at a time when there are a lot of people out on the ice. It also allows us, as researchers, to take a snapshot of what the shore-fast ice thickness looks like in any given spring and how the community is making decisions around those conditions.”

For the first two years of the project, scientists focused on documenting the locations of the trails and providing maps for the communities, but in 2008, they also started more systematically surveying ice thickness along all the trails. By now, Druckenmiller and his colleague Joshua Jones have gathered 15 years of records, showing ice thickness along with the map that the community makes each spring.

To annually map the ice, scientists head out in early April to talk to whaling crews about ice conditions and the trails. Then they take their electromagnetic device to measure ice thickness on the trails, collect recent satellite imagery and make maps for the community.


“It gives the community a resource for making decisions, a resource for being safe,” Druckenmiller said. “It’s not something that they depend on, but they certainly appreciate the maps and I think it’s a resource that they’ve come to expect during spring.”

Maps are different every year because the trails are different. Whaling crews build trails, following the thickest patches of ice and avoiding hazards, Druckenmiller said. They also factor in the shape of the ice edge – whether it’s consistent around the community or more promontory on one side and closer to the community on the other. They also need to make sure that the ice conditions are right not only on the trail, but also at the edge of ice.

“Because if they’re successful and they land a whale, they need to make sure that the ice conditions at the edge are suitable for pulling a whale up and harvest,” Druckenmiller said. “People factor in a lot of things when they decide where they want to put their trail and then also where they want to put their camp. …. Each year is kind of its own unique little story about how ice has provided for spring whaling.”

This year, the ice conditions have been stable so far. Whalers did have an attachment of questionable ice that came in prior to whaling, but the trails stayed reliable. The season is on in full force and might last through a good part of May, but Utqiagvik whalers already landed at least 10 bowheads.

“Conditions have been minus 10 Fahrenheit, and warm-up at about 7 a.m. till 8 at night,” local observer Billy Adams told the scientists. “East winds have been 5 miles per hour all week keeping the lead open for the whalers.”

Adams is one of the local observers – a paid partner who provides daily updates about ice and weather to the scientists at Alaska Arctic Observatory & Knowledge Hub. He and other observers have been pointing out different ice features – for example, how shore-fast ice now commonly incorporates rotten ice – mounds and mounds of refrozen slush are now often part of the ice coverage.

While hunters can easily travel across “rotten ice” during cold spring months, later in the season, these parts of ice make movement riskier. Rotten ice have a different consistency and can break apart quickly as soon as air or water start warming up, causing a challenge for the spring hunt.

By noticing such details of ice conditions, local observers and hunters inform scientists about unusual changes in the ice coverage.

“One of the things that this project affords,” Druckenmiller said, “is that interaction with the whaling community, with the hunters.”

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.