How have changes in Arctic environment over the past 50 years affected the Alaska Native community?

Native observations of change in the marine environment of the Bering Strait region

Caleb Pungowiyi
Special Advisor on Native Affairs
Marine Mammal Commission
P.O. Box 217
Kotzebue, AK 99752, USA

Since the late 1970s, Alaska Natives in communities along the coast of the northern Bering and Chukchi Seas have noticed substantial changes in the ocean and the animals that live there. While we are used to changes from year-to-year in weather, hunting conditions, ice patterns, and animal populations, the past two decades have seen clear trends in many environmental factors. If these trends continue, we can expect major, perhaps irreversible, impacts to our communities. With these concerns in mind, we believe this workshop will be a vital opportunity to discuss our concerns and observations with scientists who are working on similar issues in the same area, and to work together to figure out what can be done.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the patterns of wind, temperature, ice, and currents in the northern Bering and Chukchi Seas have changed. The winds are stronger, commonly 15-25 mph, and there are fewer calm days. The wind may shift in direction, but remains strong for long periods. In spring, the winds change the distribution of the sea ice and combine with warm temperatures to speed up the melting of ice and snow. When the ice melts or moves away early, many marine mammals go with it, taking them too far away to hunt. Near some villages (such as Savoonga, Diomede, and Shishmaref), depending on the geography of the coast, the wind may force the pack ice into shore, making it impossible to get boats to open water to go hunting or to move boats through if they are already out. The high winds also make it difficult to travel in boats for hunting (even winds of 10–12 mph from the wrong direction can create waves 2–3 feet high, stopping small boats), reducing the number of days that hunters can go out. For all these reasons, access to animals during the spring hunting period is lower now than it was before.

From mid-July to September, there has been more wind from the south, making for a wetter season. With less sea ice and more open water, fall storms have become more destructive to the coastline. Erosion has increased in many areas, including the locations of some villages, such as Shishmaref and Kivalina, threatening houses and perhaps the entire community. Wave action has changed some sandy beaches into rocky ones, as the sand washes away. There have been no new sandy beaches, but there are many new rocky ones.

The south shore of St. Lawrence Island has also been affected a great deal by erosion in recent years. Some shallow spits that used to be above water are now underwater, due perhaps to a combination of higher water and erosion. The storms and high waves—up to 30 feet—also change the sea bed near shore. After storms, kelp and other bottom-dwelling plants and animals such as clams can be found washed up on the beach. These disturbances to the bottom affect shallow feeders such as eiders.

The formation of sea ice in fall has been late in many recent years, due largely to warmer winters, though winds play a role as well. In such years, the ice, when it does form, is thinner than usual, which contributes to early break-up in spring. Another aspect of late freeze-up is the way in which sea ice forms. Under normal conditions, the water is cold in fall, and permafrost under the water and near the shoreline helps create ice crystals on the sea floor. When they are large enough, these crystals float to the top, bringing with them sediments. The sediments have nutrients used by algae growing in the ice, thus stimulating the food chain in and near the ice. When the ice melts in spring, the sediments are released, providing nutrients in the melt water. In years with warm summers and late freeze-up, on the other hand, the water is warm and freezes first from the top as it is cooled by cold winds in late fall or early winter. Less ice is brought up from the bottom, and fewer nutrients are available in the ice and in the melt water the following spring, and overall productivity is lower.

Precipitation patterns have also changed. In the last two years, there has been little snow in fall and most of the winter, but substantial snowfall in late winter and early spring. In the winter of 1998–99, the weather was cold so that the ice was thick, but there was no snow. The lack of snow makes it difficult for polar bears and ringed seals to make dens for giving birth or, in the case of male polar bears, to seek protection from the weather. The lack of ringed seal dens may affect the numbers and condition of polar bears, which prey on ringed seals and often seek out the dens. Hungry polar bears may be more likely to approach villages and encounter people.

Other marine mammals have been affected to greater or lesser degrees by the changes in sea ice, wind, and temperature. The physical condition of walrus was generally poor in 1996–98, as the animals were skinny and their productivity was low. One cause was the reduced sea ice, which forced the walrus to swim farther between feeding areas in relatively shallow water and resting areas on the distant ice. This is the pattern for females and young in summer, and when the ice retreated far to the north in the Chukchi Sea, the animals suffered. Males typically haul out on land, and may have eaten most of the food near the haulouts, forcing them to go farther in search of clams. Due to wave action and sedimentation, the productivity of the sea bed may have declined, too, making it harder for walrus to find food. In the spring of 1999, however, the walrus were in good condition following a cold winter with good ice formation in the Bering Sea. When the winter ice forms late and is too thin, walrus cannot haul out and rest the way they need to, and they will be in poor condition the following spring.

Most seals seem to be doing fairly well. Hunters have been having more success hunting bearded seals lately. The seals are in good condition, and it may be that there are more of them or that they are concentrated in hunting areas for some reason. Spotted seals, on the other hand, seem to have declined from the late 1960s/early 1970s to the present. In 1996 and 1997, in which spring break-up came early, there were more strandings of baby ringed seals on the beach. These weanlings were probably left on their own too early. The mothers train their young on the shorefast ice where they den, but if the ice melts, the seals must abandon their dens early. Ringed seals seem to need more time to train their young, and are greatly affected if spring is early. There are fewer seals in the Nome area these days, perhaps as a result of less shore ice for ringed seal dens.

There are many other biological changes and effects in the region, such as:

There is no record of this type of extended change. In the 1880s, during the time of the Great Famine in western Alaska, there were very cold winters for a long period. The main factor in the famine was the decimation of walrus and whale populations due to the commercial harvest by Yankee whalers, but lots of ice and the long, cold winters did not make things easier.

As we think about the future and where these trends may lead us, we wonder what alternatives are available to Native villages in Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic. If marine mammal populations are no longer available or accessible to our communities, what can replace them? In the Great Famine, there were no alternatives to the food provided by hunting and fishing. Today, there are stores with food and other resources that can be harvested. A gradual change might give us time to adjust, but a sudden shift might catch us unprepared and cause great hardship. As managers, we need to think about the overall effects on marine mammals and other resources. Some may adjust, but others will not. The polar bear and walrus are likely to be the most affected. With these thoughts in mind, we need to consider the potential emergencies facing villages that depend so heavily on marine mammals. How can we prepare ourselves, and how much can be done to prevent hardship?

Our ancestors taught us that the Arctic environment is not constant, and that some years are harder than others. But they also taught us that hard years are followed by times of greater abundance and celebration. As we have found with other aspects of our culture's ancestral wisdom, modern changes, not of our doing, make us wonder when the good years will return.