“The ice was bad that year,” wrote Charles Wohlforth in the March/April 2004 issue of Orion. “It had been bad for a decade and seemed to grow steadily worse.” Wohlforth’s report from the Arctic Circle was one of the first to document the effects of climate change on far northern indigenous communities—communities that depend on regular movements of ice for their survival. We recently received an update from the author, a life-long Alaskan, on how change continues to visit the top of the world.
In 2002, whalers hunted on the melting sea ice as warming weather brought risk, uncertainty, and a fearful recognition that climate change was here and a threat. A decade later, the whalers’ courage and ingenuity have helped them to adapt to the shifting ice, but the process of change itself has overtaken them.
The cyclic round of arctic life has flattened into a linear path. The landmarks of the rounding seasons have not been replaced; instead, each year passes through a different Earth.
“There might be a new normal,” said whaler and scientist Richard Glenn. “It’s all about change, and monitoring the change. The bar has been raised for us, as far as vigilance and staying in touch with the changes that are going on around us.”
Change is coming too fast to understand. On the beach they’ve been finding sick seals and walruses, losing their hair, with skin lesions, becoming lethargic and unresponsive, wheezing and dying. Officials don’t know what is causing the epidemic, but suspect pathogens are spreading farther in newly ice-free waters.
Polar bears feasted on the dying seals last year, and now bears are showing up with patches of hair loss. Did they get sick from the seal?
This universe fed its people with food so healthy and pure that meat was eaten raw and fish cured by sunlight. Advice to handle meat with rubber gloves and wash knives with bleach—to cook the meat—this imposes on a deep and intimate tradition.
In many villages, traditional fish drying racks don’t work anymore because the sun is too warm and there are too many insects. Favorite berry patches have been abandoned because the hot air dries out the berries. The northward movement of shrubs has brought beavers north; consequently, rivers that were pure enough to drink without treatment now cause diarrhea.
People are getting heat exhaustion above the Arctic Circle. Their houses were made for cold weather. Michael Brubaker of the Alaska Tribal Health Consortium has found villagers gathering in a local clinic by 10 a.m. With the only fans in town, the health facility became a shelter from the heat.
Such change is disorienting, but bigger change is on the horizon. Offshore oil exploration will begin soon in waters made accessible for exploration by the loss of ice in the warmer climate. Shell seems to have defeated the last of the local lawsuits aiming to stop it.
There is talk of building a port for industrial ships. Locals expect large numbers of oil workers to descend on their communities. And if the oil spills, people here are deeply skeptical anything can prevent vast pollution of these waters and damage to the ecosystem that supports their way of life.
Or perhaps the oil won’t spill and the money it brings will help these villages. Maybe, as new species arrive in these waters to replace the old, they may contribute to life and be good to eat. There are no firm predictions in this land of constant change.
Charles Wohlforth is a life-long resident of Alaska. He is the author of The Whale and the Supercomputer and, most recently, The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth, out now from St. Martin’s Press. Photograph by Michael Sewell.