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On Thin Ice

Like canaries in a coal mine, our northernmost Americans are the first to face the alarming challenges of global warming

by Charles Wohlforth

Published in the March/April 2004 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph by Micheal Sewell/Visual Pursuit, used with permission

THE BRINK OF THE SHOREFAST SEA ICE cut the water like the edge of a swimming pool. A white canvas tent, several snowmachines and big wooden sleds, and a sealskin umiaq whale boat waited like poolside furniture on the blue-white surface of the ice. Gentle puffs rippled the open water a foot or two below, except near the edge, where a fragile skin of new ice stilled the surface. Sun in the north reached from the far side of the lead, backlighting the water and highlighting the imperfections in this clear, newborn ice with a contrast of yellow-orange and royal blue. It was after midnight on May 6, 2002, three miles offshore from the NAPA auto parts store in Barrow, Alaska.

A fox ran past the camp, beyond the ice edge, danced as it ran upon that new skin of ice floating on the indigo water. An hour or two earlier there had been no ice there at all and now it looked no thicker than a crust of bread. The fox used tiny, rapid steps. Its feet disappeared in motion. Its back arched high and its tail pulled up tall, as if strings were helping suspend it on that insubstantial film of hardened water. Somehow it knew how much weight a brand new sheen of ice could hold, and knew how to calibrate each step within that limit. The Iñupiaq whalers of Oliver Leavitt’s crew watched and muttered with admiration as the fox pranced out of sight. All were experienced hunters, but they were impressed by this skill. This animal knew something valuable.

A thousand years of hunting the bowhead whale from floating ice had instilled in the Iñupiat both a profound understanding of this environment and a special ability to perceive its changes. Whalers seek out multiyear ice because it provides a strong platform for pulling up whales and it anchors the shorefast ice in place with its great mass. In the winter of 2001—2002, however, as for several years prior, little multiyear ice appeared at Barrow. The shore ice didn’t form as solidly as it should, and it lacked the big, solid anchors that multiyear ice, or even new ice with large pressure ridges, would have provided. And on March 18, something strange and unsettling had happened. The ice went out, leaving open water right up to the beach in front of Oliver Leavitt’s house. No one could remember the ice going out that early. Normally, it goes out in July. A dozen seal hunters floated out to sea on the ice. Search and Rescue helicopters went out to find them and bring them home. Some didn’t know they were floating off into the Arctic Ocean until the helicopter showed up. You can’t tell you’re moving when your whole world starts to drift away.

Later, ice returned and refroze to the shore, but it wasn’t sturdy ice and it still lacked good anchors. As whaling season began, a strong west wind pushed the ice against the shore for several days, then a strong east wind tested it and cleared away some of the junk ice. Oliver’s theory now was that these events had cemented the ice adequately for safe whaling. He had chosen a flat area of ice with a color and height above the water that told him it was strong enough to pull up a whale. But every so often he sent someone to look at the watery crack that was a little behind us, or to check the dark ice—weak, brand new ice—that lay a mile or two back between us and dry land.

Morning came (not dawn, for the sun had rolled lazily along the northern horizon all night instead of setting) and Oliver sat, as he had since the previous day, on a long wooden sled next to his thermos and VHF marine radio, silently gazing on the water and the ice chunks and bergs drifting by slowly on the calm surface. Besides the danger of breaking off, another threat occupied his mind: a big mass of ice we could see across the lead, which was moving very slowly by toward the southwest, but also seemed to be getting closer at an imperceptible pace. Oliver said, “That’s the dangerous ice. If people start noticing it’s coming in, we’ll be out of here in five minutes flat.”

The momentum behind an ice floe, even if moving only slowly, is stupendous; when it hits the unmoving shore ice, the collision can be like an immense, mountain-building earthquake, a terrifying event called an ivu. Oliver was young at the time of the big ivu in 1957, but he remembered how the ice went crazy, with big multiyear flows standing up on end and shattering far from the edge, forcing the crews to scramble for their lives over miles of cracking, piling ice, leaving camps, boats, and dog teams behind—their entire means of supporting their families. He had told such cautionary stories to the younger members of his crew, including his harpooner son, Billy Jens Leavitt.

That morning we saw only one whale, a far-off black back rolling across the surface, and heard another, a roaring blowhole exhalation from somewhere we could not see. Normally at this time of year, a crew would be seeing whales every few minutes. Crews farther down the lead were paddling in search of one, thinking the migration might be passing by on the other side of big ice across the lead.

Iñupiaq chatter on the marine VHF radio began to flow with comments from nervous captains up and down the lead. They saw the big pressure ridges across the open water growing noticeably closer. Oliver uttered a few words of Iñupiaq on the radio and the discussion stopped. “You got to talk to them quick before they scare themselves,” he said. Each captain’s experience and expertise were well known, an important factor in how whalers evaluated conditions and safety. Oliver Leavitt’s name carried unquestioned authority.

AS AFTERNOON PROGRESSED the sun was bright and unseasonably warm. The ice reflected brilliantly while the deep, dark water swallowed light. The details of the pressure ridge mountains across the lead were clearly visible. The radio grew lively again. Oliver stood and watched the ice across the water intently. Everyone else stood too, waiting for what he would say. Then, calmly, “We better start packing up.”

The younger men began by emptying the tent. Oliver worked on disabling the weapons and putting away the radio. Now you could see the ice moving through the water directly toward us. Everyone knew his job without a word, but Oliver said, “Better hurry up, Billy.” When speaking to the younger part of the crew, he addressed only Billy Jens, like an officer giving orders to a sergeant. Things not fitting in right, the boys started throwing stuff on the sleds haphazardly. “Better hurry up, Billy,” the tone this time a little higher.

As I was jerked into motion behind a snowmachine, I could see the collision begin. The glassy film of new ice from each side made contact and the delicate tracery that had supported the fox shattered and disappeared into the ocean.

We bounced wildly down the ice road, the boats pitching up to crazy angles on their sleds before they topped the ridges and raced down behind the snowmachines. Then we stopped on a big flat pan of ice near town. No fear, no sense of relief. These days, with the bad ice and warm weather, an escape like this was routine.

SCIENTISTS PREDICTED that global climate change would come first and strongest in the Arctic. They went there to learn how the sky, ice, snow, water, and tundra interact to drive changes in the world’s environment. Scientists have measured Barrow more extensively than any other Arctic research site in the world. You can hardly turn around without bumping into a science project. Fascinating discoveries accumulated along that path. But the Iñupiat already knew the patterns in the system and how they changed through time.

Arnold Brower, Sr., one of Barrow’s most successful whaling captains, now in his eighties, had watched as the Arctic climate changed. “Unusually changed,” he said. “And the pattern of animals, as to how they behave, like caribou and the fish, the seasons of spawning and seasons of ice forming on the surface.

Whaling captain Harry Brower, Jr., said, “It’s hard to find a place to pull up the whale. If you have this first-year ice, it’s not really thick enough to hold the whale, pulling it out of the water. Elder Thomas Itta, Sr., saw many differences while hunting, ranging far afield from the village of Atqasuk on his snowmachine. Hunting was no longer possible in June and July because the weather was too warm to keep the meat from spoiling. Far more sea gulls and jaegers were flying in the area, and hawks appeared for the first time. Even the snow had changed. The snow on the tundra was thin and hard but in the bushy willows it built into soft, deep drifts, as deep as six feet. There never used to be so many willows. “They started growing here, there, and all over now,” Thomas said.

Oliver Leavitt took longer to convince than some others that the climate had warmed. He kept hoping the difference lay in the way people were perceiving the weather, or that the changes were part of a cycle that would finally swing back to normal. But if it was a cycle, it was such a long one that no one could remember conditions like these.

The Iñupiat had developed a collective body of knowledge over a thousand years of subsisting from their environment. They were trained observers and they knew how to process their disparate observations into useful information for making decisions. In a language perfectly suited to the problems it addressed, they held long talks that synthesized what many people had seen over broad spans of time and space.

One whaling captain’s intuitive understanding of the ice was the product of many minds over many centuries. But the word intuition could get you in trouble. Oliver Leavitt went out of his way to say intuition had nothing to do with how he handled himself on the ice. His skills were based on experience. I think he was responding to a pseudospiritual use of the word. But even without drawing on the supernatural, the success of the Iñupiat in their environment did suggest a spiritual foundation. “The biggest connection between traditional knowledge and the spiritual way of life is about respect; respecting the environment, respecting the land, respecting the animals,” said Oliver’s friend Richard Glenn. A geologist by training, Richard had grown up in California but decided to take his place among his mother’s people in Barrow. Now he was co-captain of a whaling crew. “Traditional knowledge to me is centuries of trial and error. So what looks like an elegant solution is something that has only been learned because we’ve tried to do it in the wrong way in the past and this way works better. And that is also built around respect. Safety is built around respect. Survival is built around respect. You think you’re better than the weather? Let’s see what the weather has got in store for you.”

ON MAY 2, 2002, Oliver Leavitt’s crew went on the ice again. The ice collision that had prompted our escape had not caused an ivu, and the campsite was intact. The sun blazed, surrounded by sun dogs, and the temperature was too warm for parkas, up to thirty-four degrees. The snow was melting and water stood in puddles in dips all over the sea ice..

As the evening wore on, Billy Jens checked the ice crack behind us. He prepared to pack up for a quick escape. At 1 a.m., the entire ice sheet we were sitting on dropped a little with a jolt. Soon the camp was packed again and we were retreating, back down the trail with the sleds bouncing, crashing, and splashing over pressure ridges and through the slush and expanding pools.

The following day was warm again. The water was bright and motionless. The ice pack had receded dozens of miles from the shorefast ice. Many whalers on our part of the lead had given up.

At 5:15 p.m. a prayer of thanksgiving came over the VHF, the harpooner of George Ahmaogak’s crew thanking God for a safe and successful hunt—they had killed a whale from their aluminum boat far to the north. The prayer came through the little radio with a tone as thin as wrinkled paper. It concluded, “In Jesus’ name.” Then a cheer came up from their boat, so many miles away across the water.

In accordance with tradition, the prayer not only announced the kill, it alerted everyone in town to come help pull the animal up with block and tackle and butcher it. All the whaling crews and the entire community would converge on the ice for a task that would take eighteen hours of continuous labor. Everyone helping would receive a share of the whale, as would elders and the infirm in town, and anyone who attended a public banquet at the captain’s house or at the summertime Nalukataq festival, as well as relatives far away, who would get theirs in packages through the mail. A captain and crew win honor and respect for a successful hunt, but no one can own a whale.

Clouds blanketed the sky as night fell. It began to rain. The crew put a tarp over Oliver’s seating area on the sled. Oliver was disgusted. He recalled as a young man wearing two pairs of snow pants for spring whaling, standing night watch in temperatures twenty degrees below zero.

“Here’s your global warming,” he said. “It never rains this time of year. It melts the snow real fast.”

On May 10, not long after the rain, the Barrow meteorologist announced in disbelief, “There is officially no snow on the ground.” A foot-deep snow pack had disappeared in three days. Since 1940, Barrow’s snowmelt had come ever earlier on an accelerating line. Adjusting for the human-caused changes around the weather station (road dust in town enhances snowmelt) and using conservative statistical analysis, scientists estimated that the snowmelt had gotten eight days earlier, moving from about June 18 to June 10. Snowmelt on May 10 was off the charts. Normally whaling goes on into June and the ice doesn’t go out until July. The season’s total catch of only three whales was far too little to sate the community’s appetite; some years, they brought in twenty or more.

“If we start losing the spring season we have to totally rethink ice safety. The rules change…. Things that were true for fathers won’t be true for sons, and so it will always be experiencing something new,” Richard Glenn told me.

“That’s kind of been the case for the last 150 years anyway,” I said.

“Oh yes, the culture has changed, always. But there have always been some things: the ice on the lake will get five to six feet thick every year. Or ice that’s accreted to the shoreline with enough pressure ridges is probably going to stick around. Those kinds of things, those little rules of thumb, are going to change. And that will change how you travel, how you hunt, how you stay alive.”

Climate change that happens gradually is difficult for people to perceive. Even in Barrow, where the Iñupiat depend on wildlife, ice, and the timing of the seasons for their livelihood, some hunters fought the realization until faced with the terrible spring whaling season of 2002. By then, the ice, the Earth, and the elders were all telling the same story.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

CHARLES WOHLFORTH, who lives in Anchorage, began his writing career at a weekly newspaper in an Alaskan fishing village and developed it by freelancing Frommer's travel guidebooks and articles for The New Republic, Outside and other magazines. His work in this issue of Orion is adapted from The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change, published in April 2004.

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