A few days before Christmas last year, Harry Brower, mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, was at home when he heard a stunning noise — the sound of waves lapping at the shore.
The sound was as wrenching and misplaced as hearing hailstones thud into the Sahara.
Until fairly recently, the Arctic Ocean regularly froze hard against the far north coast of Alaska by October. Last year, it was not until the final few days of the year that the ice encased the waves.
“We’ve had a few warmer days in the past, but there was nothing like the past winter,” said Anne Jensen, an anthropologist who has worked in Utqiagvik, the US’ most northerly town, for the past three decades.
It was so warm that the snow melted on Jensen’s roof, causing it to leak.
“This year’s winter stuck out, insanely. It was crazy. Even the younger people noticed that this is something that hasn’t happened before,” she said.
A certain stoicism is required to live in the North Slope Borough, an area of sprawling tundra larger than 39 of the 50 US states that takes in Alaska’s northern coast.
The native Inupiat population have carved out a life here in the brutal cold of the Arctic Circle for at least 4,000 years, subsisting on bowhead whales, seals and caribou.
Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, is the largest of the region’s scattered settlements and remains a flinty and unforgiving frontier town, despite the arrival of the Internet, buzzy snowmobiles and exotic vegetables — a pineapple costs about US$9.50 at the main grocery store.
However, the past winter, following a string of warm years, points to a pace of change not before experienced by this community.
The winter was the warmest on record in the Arctic, with sea ice extent hitting record lows in January and February, ending up at the second-smallest seasonal peak in the 39-year satellite record last month. The smallest was last year. The Bering Sea, which separates Alaska and Russia, lost a third of its winter ice in just eight February days.
Otherworldly temperatures were felt across the region, with the weather station closest to the North Pole spending more than 60 hours above freezing in February, about 25°C warmer than normal, which is equivalent to Washington spending a February day at 35°C or Miami baking at 51°C. The Arctic was, in spells, warmer than much of Europe.
Utqiagvik, pronounced oot-ki-ahh-vik, or “place where snowy owls are hunted,” reached minus-1°C, about 22°C warmer than normal. In December last year, the temperature readings from the weather station at Utqiagvik were so freakish that it triggered an automatic shutdown of the system to protect the data from “artificial” figures. It temporarily wiped a year’s worth of numbers.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the incident an “ironic exclamation point” to the climate change gripping the Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of the global average.
This winter’s extreme warmth was, in part, driven by an unusual number of storms in the Atlantic that brought balmier air to the Arctic, but scientists say that last year and this year should not be dismissed as mere outliers.
“There’s no reason why this sort of warmth won’t continue. Within the lifetime of middle-aged adults, the Arctic has completely changed,” said Rick Thoman, a NOAA climate scientist based in Fairbanks, Alaska. “The magnitude of change is utterly unprecedented. For a lot of the people who live there, it’s completely shocking.”
The changes are potentially existential on the North Slope, where sea ice provides a crucial platform for catching and hauling in whales — a key food source and cultural totem for the Inupiat.
The spring whale hunt, where emerging cracks, or “leads,” in the sea ice funnel whales into the path of waiting hunting crews, requires dependable environmental cycles that have served the Inupiat for thousands of years.
“All the indications are there will be a very early loss of ice this year,” Thoman said. “In the 1990s they could do whale hunting in Utqiagvik up until May or even June. There’s no real chance of that now — the ice will probably start breaking up by early May.”
“Native peoples of Alaska are very resilient; they’ve lived here for many millennia for a reason. Some will have to move, hunting will have to change. It can be done, but it won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap. There will be a big cost, both financially and culturally,” he said.
Utqiagvik is wrestling with a number of climate effects. Its coastline, increasingly shorn of sea ice, is eroding at a concerning rate. The melting of permafrost, long-frozen soils that scientists forecast could end up releasing huge amounts of carbon, is causing some buildings to slump, their walls radiating with cracks.
However, it is the potential threat to the whale quota that causes most angst. Slain whales need to be quickly pulled up onto the sea ice and butchered before the cetaceans’ cooling systems halt and they essentially cook from within. A lack of thick, multi-year ice could hinder the haul-out. Caught whales could even fall through the ice if it is too thin.
“A couple of years ago the ice was rubble, it was just breaking up,” said Nagruk Harcharek, who has spent many of his 33 years whaling near Utqiagvik. “It was really late this year and everyone noticed. I’d be lying if I said people aren’t worried.”
“Some families rely upon whales for their food. It’s so central to our culture. The spring hunt is spiritual — sitting out there on the ice edge is pretty quiet. There’s the unknown. There’s not much going on. You’re watching, waiting,” Harcharek said.
Other heritage is already being lost, with archeological sites along the coast being washed away at a quickening rate. In September last year, a major storm crunched into the coast and threatened Birnirk, a village that was inhabited for 1,000 years and is a national historic landmark.
“It’s very, very grim,” said Jensen, who has worked to excavate and protect several sites. “Most of the coastal sites will be gone in the next 10 to 15 years if the rate of erosion keeps up.”
Across Alaska, dozens of coastal towns are at risk of becoming uninhabitable, with a handful seeking to relocate. Melting permafrost is buckling roads into potentially deadly big dipper roller-coasters, as well as threatening to dislodge doses of locked-up mercury. Glaciers near Denali, the tallest mountain in the US, are disappearing faster than at any time in the past 400 years.
The Alaskan government said that this bewildering rate of change risks the physical and mental health of its citizens, citing a condition called solastalgia, the distress caused by severe disruption to the environment near home.
“Alaska is on the front lines of climate change,” Alaskan Governor Bill Walker said last year.
Walker, an independent, has convened a panel to come up with some sort of climate change strategy by September.
Somehow, it will have to suggest a way forward that does not rattle its economically important oil and gas industry, which has received staunch support from a US President Donald Trump administration that has started to dismantle help for those pummeled by rising seas and storms.
For a reliably Republican state, polling shows unusual numbers of Alaskans are concerned about climate change and, at least sometimes, openly fret over its consequences.
“People are feeling the impacts of climate change, we hear that on a daily basis,” Walker’s climate adviser Nikoosh Carlo said. “It’s a non-partisan issue here. For some communities, the next storm could wipe out critical infrastructure.”
The lack of any federal or state plan to deal with the looming climate crisis is not causing mass panic in Utqiagvik, at least.
“We are capable of adapting to any changes,” said Charlie Hopson, a veteran Utqiagvik whaler. “We’ve been around for thousands of years and we’re going to keep living. We do our own thing here. The government doesn’t know shit. We don’t need them.”
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