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, the Alaskan Arctic is being transformed by global warming. The impacts 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 is even possible, the heritage of the Inuit 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.
“So much of our culture is being washed away in the ocean,” said Oomittuk, 50, who was born in a sod house, common here until the 1970s. “We live this cycle of life, which we know because it’s been passed from generation to generation. We see that cycle breaking.”
It’s not just a matter of culture and history but of survival. Households in Alaskan Arctic villages rely on hunting and fishing for most of their food consumption, and those activities depend on sea ice.
The importance of catching 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. He handles land use permitting for the the state’s northernmost borough and oversees climate change issues.
The Arctic sea ice, which shrinks over the summer and grows in the 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 the 1970s, when mapping of the ice with satellite imagery began.
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.