“When it comes to permafrost loss, what can we do about that? What we can do is better understand it,” Hayes said. “What’s most important now is scoping out the extent of the issue.”
Studying the changes
Interior’s Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperatives program is using computer models to project everything from where polar bear mothers will den this winter to how a changed landscape will shift species’ distribution in Alaska by mid-century.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s happening to the land, and what will happen to the land,” said Greg Balogh, the program’s coordinator.
But there is a history of mistrust between Alaskan native villagers and the federal government. People in Point Hope remember Project Chariot, an aborted federal plan in the 1960s to create a new harbor by detonating six nuclear bombs nearby.
“A lot of this stuff is trust-building,” Martin Robards, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Arctic Beringia Program, said of current efforts.
Aggie Henry, a housing security official in Point Hope, smiled when asked about possible federal assistance. “The federal government is not here. The Coast Guard is miles and miles away,” she said, looking out onto the Chukchi Sea. “Our heritage and our culture and tradition is very important to us. We will have to adapt to it.”
She said she is worried about the bowhead whales, bearded seals and walruses stored in the dark holds of her community’s remaining ice cellars, each one about 13 feet square and 10 feet deep.
Fortunately, the flooding this year did not harm the whale tails saved from the spring hunt — five in all. So this fall, Point Hope residents will carry them to city hall, clean off the blubber they are wrapped in and cut them up. Whaling captains will be served first. Residents will bring buckets to take some home.
“It’s green and slimy and nice, with a good taste,” Oomittuk said. “It has a strong smell. You have to be born to it.
“To us, this is what we grew up with. When food was scarce, you had to ferment everything you had left,” he said. “It’s all about survival.”