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Rough and tumble sea ice becoming rarer as Alaska's North Slope warms

  • Author: Ned Rozell
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published March 1, 2015

On a February day long ago, a family living in a sod hut near the Arctic Ocean saw blocks of sea ice bulldozing their way onto shore. Wind shoved more ice until the mass towered above them and started dripping water through a ventilation hole. The father moved his family outside just before a slab fell on the hut and crushed him.

An ivu — the Inupiat word for mounds of ice that sometimes plow onto land, powered by winds and currents — is not often fatal, nor is it common these days. But stories of a few like this one from 1890 are now preserved on audio and some video as part of a recently completed project.

Through the years, UAF researchers have traveled to Barrow for interviews and have gathered existing recordings of the few Americans who live with sea ice.

The Natives interviewed talk of how sea ice used to form on the ocean in September and persist until June, while now they see open water in November and December. Also, these days, less ice survives summer's heat to form "multiyear" ice, which can better support the weight of a harvested whale.

No more pile-ups

"The stories reflect that the ice used to be thicker," said Karen Brewster of the UAF Oral History program, which compiled the interviews at "Pile-up events of thick chunks of ice were common. Now the ice just breaks up because it's too thin to pile up in the same way."

Brewster and others interviewed 26 North Slope residents from 1978 to 2013. Sea-ice scientist Lew Shapiro started talking with elders in the late 1970s when oil company executives became interested in the damage sea ice might inflict upon their structures. Shapiro's colleagues Ron Metzner and Kenneth Toovak interviewed more than a dozen people, including Otis Ahkivgak, who in 1979 told that story of the ivu that killed a man in 1890.

Twenty years after Shapiro's work, Matt Druckenmiller earned his doctorate from UAF in part by interviewing Native hunters about their whaling trails and ice conditions. His request to Brewster to preserve the audio and photos inspired her to complete the project after adding a few of her own interviews.

The recordings are not edited, making the listener feel as if in a Barrow living room. This style makes the listener work for the gems, such as when Harry Brower talks about 1975, the year the ice never went out.

'Rapid change'

Scientists appreciate a long-term view. Sea-ice specialist Andy Mahoney, who learned much from Lew Shapiro and like Shapiro works at UAF's Geophysical Institute, offered a current example as he flew by helicopter over the ice of Camden Bay in late February 2015.

"As we approached the coast, we spotted a narrow lead at the shore, indicating the land-fast ice was in the process of detaching from the coast," he said via email from Deadhorse. "I was surprised to see this at this time of year and was tempted to think I was witnessing a rare and perhaps unique event."

After pondering the open water all day, Mahoney pulled up satellite images after dinner and saw a similar event in a previous year.

"At a time when the Arctic is undergoing rapid change, it's more important than ever to understand what is truly unprecedented and what is simply a repeat of earlier events," he said. "This is why interviews with those who have a longer view of changes than the rest of us are particularly valuable."

Ned Rozell is a science writer at the UAF Geophysical Institute. Used with permission.

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