SET FOR FRIDAY – Dancers, from left, Alli Christner, Allison Winger, Delaney Jayne McAdams, Grace Gjertsen, Zia Allen, Tayler Clifton, Fiona Ferguson, Autumn Dinsmore and Audrey Saiz take the stage in full costume at the Performing Arts Center Tuesday. The dancers will present a Sitka-themed version of the popular ballet "The Nutcracker." The show opens 7 p.m. Friday at the PAC. (Sentinel Photo)

Whaling Villages Lose Ice Cellars to Climate

Associated Press
    ANCHORAGE (AP) — For generations, people in Alaska’s far-north villages have relied on hand-built ice cellars dug deep into the permafrost to age their whale and walrus meat to perfection and keep it cold throughout the year.
    Scores of the naturally refrigerated food caches lie beneath these largely Inupiat communities, where many rely on hunting and fishing to feed their families. The ice cellars range from small arctic root cellars to spacious, wood-lined chambers, some topped with sheds.
    Now, a growing number of these underground cellars are being rendered unreliable as global warming and other modern factors force changes to an ancient way of life. Some whaling villages are working to adapt as more cellars — some stocked with tons of subsistence food — turn up with pooling water and mold.
    “I’m worried,” said Gordon Brower, a whaling captain who lives in Utqiagvik, the nation’s northernmost community, which logged its warmest May through September on record this year.
    His family has two ice cellars: One is more than 100 years old and used to store at least 2 tons (1.8 metric tons) of frozen bowhead whale meat set aside for community feasts; the other was built in 1955, and is used as the family’s private subsistence-food cache.
    Brower recently asked his son to retrieve some whale meat from one of the cellars, and discovered liquids had collected in both.
    “He came back and said, ‘Dad, there’s a pool of blood and water at the bottom,’” recalled Brower, the North Slope Borough’s planning and development director. He pulled the community meat outside and has kept it under a tarp because the weather is cold enough now to keep it from spoiling.
    “It seems like slight temporary variations in the permafrost — that active layer — is affecting the temperature of our cellar,” Brower said.

This Sept. 23 photo in Point Hope shows an abandoned, eroded ice cellar, a type of underground food cache dug into the permafrost to provide natural refrigeration used for generations in far-north communities. Naturally cooled underground ice cellars, used in Alaska Native communities for generations, are becoming increasingly unreliable as a warming climate and other factors touch multiple facets of life in the far north. (Anne Jensen via AP)


    Residents and researchers say the problem has been building for decades as a warming climate touches multiple facets of life in the far north — thawing permafrost, disruptions in hunting patterns and shorter periods of coastal ice that historically protected coastal communities from powerful storms. Other factors include development and soil conditions.
    The changes have increased vulnerability to foodborne illnesses and raised concerns about food security, according to studies by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The group and state health officials say they have so far not heard of anyone getting sick.
    There were once at least 50 ice cellars in Point Hope, an Inupiat whaling village built on a triangular spit surrounded by a large inlet and the Chukchi and Arctic oceans. Now, fewer than 20 remain, according to village services supervisor Russell Lane, a whaling captain who has lived his 52 years in the community of 750. The problems with cellars have become more pronounced in the past two decades, he said.
    To compensate, Point Hope whaling captains have use of three walk-in freezers that were donated for use by the whaling community. But the much colder freezers do not impart the taste of aged whale meat so favored throughout the region. Lane himself initially stores meat in the traditional ice cellar his wife’s family owns, frequently checking it until it reaches the right maturity before he transfers it to a freezer.
    “It’s definitely a challenge at this time to be able to feed our people that acquired taste,” Lane said.
    Despite the unprecedented rate of climate change today, however, ice cellars failed in the past, including one account of a cellar developing mold in the early 1900s, according to a study published in 2017 that looked at traditional cellars in Utqiagvik, formerly named Barrow, following reports of flooded and collapsed cellars. The study, funded by the National Science Foundation and George Washington University, found ice cellars don’t meet federally recommended temperature standards, but allow the culturally preferred aging to occur.
    The study was inconclusive about the cause of ice cellar failures, citing an absence of extensive scientific analysis. Researchers mapped 71 ice cellar locations around town and monitored five functioning cellars from 2005 to 2015, finding little thermal change over that relatively short timeframe. One of those cellars has since failed, however, and another is starting to collapse, according to one of the study’s authors, George Washington University research scientist Kelsey Nyland.
    The study concluded that while a changing climate has great potential to affect ice cellars, there are other factors, including soil conditions and urban development. For example, some Utqiagvik residents might inadvertently warm the soil beneath their cellars by putting sheds on top of the entrances to keep them free of snow, Nyland said.
    “Climate change, air temperatures, all these physical changes are affecting them,” she said. “But also, a lot of it has to do with development and modern life in an arctic setting.”
    To adapt to the new environment, the village of Kaktovik, on the Beaufort Sea coast, took ambitious steps after it lost all but one family’s cellar to flooding.
    In 2013, the village launched a project to build a community ice cellar incorporating traditional designs with contemporary technology used in Alaska’s North Slope oil fields — thermosyphons, off-grid tubelike refrigeration devices that cool the ground by transferring heat outside.
    The hand-excavated cellar was ready for use in 2017, but it has yet to be filled. Whaling captains want to expand it first, according to whaling captain George Kaleak Sr., who represents Kaktovik on the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
    Temperature sensors inside the cellar show it’s working as intended, Kaleak said. He expects the expansion to begin as early as next spring.
    In the meantime, subsistence foods are stored in three 40-foot (12-meter) village freezer vans. But that equipment is no substitute for imparting that aged taste so prized in the region, Kaleak noted. He hopes the new cellar mimics that process.
    “There’s nothing that tastes better than ice cellar food,” he said.


Ferry Service Cut Back, Angoon Eyes Charter

    JUNEAU (AP) — A small Alaska city struggling with reduced state ferry service is considering using a private vessel, but the cost is problematic, officials said.
    Angoon held a community meeting Nov. 15 to discuss chartering a private vessel for transport north to Juneau, The Juneau Empire reported Wednesday.
    Angoon officials proposed chartering a catamaran owned by Goldbelt Inc., but large numbers of tickets need to be purchased to keep prices affordable.
    Supplies arrived in the city on Admiralty Island each week using the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry before service was cut back due to state budget cuts, officials said.
    The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced Nov. 4 that due to high vessel repair costs it planned to cancel ferry service to Angoon, Tenakee, Pelican, and Gustavus and cut back service to Haines, Skagway and Hoonah.
    Only 18 passengers were registered for a Nov. 24 Goldbelt catamaran trip from Angoon to Juneau, making the cost of a single ticket more than $300, Angoon Mayor Joshua Bowen said in a Nov. 16 social media post.
    “We need more people to bring the price down,” Bowen wrote. “The City and the (Angoon Community Association) have expressed a willingness to subsidize part of the catamaran charter cost, but we can’t decide on that if we don’t have enough people interested in going.”
    Bowen could not immediately be reached for comment.
    The city is willing to schedule the catamaran if there are enough ticket sales by Friday, he wrote. Otherwise, the November trips may be canceled.
    “Please understand that there is the potential that we may not have enough passengers for a November run and might not be able to pull it off,” Bowen wrote. “Please spread the word.”   

Tlingit Name ‘Skarax’ Returned to Bay in SE

    JUNEAU (AP) — A federal board has approved changing the name of a Southeast Alaska bay following a petition from tribal leaders over its association with military aggression, officials said.
    The U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved changing the name of Saginaw Bay to Skanax Bay last week, CoastAlaska reported.
    The Alaska House of Representatives and Alaska Historical Commission endorsed the name change earlier this year. The change was requested by the Organized Village of Kake, the area’s tribal government.
    “As a clan we never relinquished to the rights to this bay,” Dawn Jackson, executive director of the Organized Village of Kake, told a House committee considering a name change resolution in May.
    “It’s been a contentious history of how Saginaw (Bay) got named,” Jackson said. “And in 2018, our tribe passed a resolution unanimously to move forward, introducing and putting back on the land, our traditional name of Skanax.”
    Three Tlingit villages east of Sitka destroyed by the U.S.S. Saginaw in 1869 were deserted in advance of the gunboat’s bombardment in the bay located off Kuiu Island. Soldiers landed and burned winter food stores and provisions, leading to starvation, according to tribal oral accounts.
    An unexploded artillery shell from the bombardment weighing 60 pounds (27 kilograms) was defused in 2011 after being discovered in a house where it was kept as an heirloom.
    The period known as the Kake War is linked to other Southeast Alaska names including Murder Cove, Surprise Harbor and Retaliation Point, officials said.
    The name Saginaw “is an affront to the local Tlingit community and a source of discomfort for many residents of the Kake,” said Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, who sponsored the resolution.

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