'No strong sea ice layer' and the Arctic is 'unsafe for travel, hunting, our future'

Mellisa Johnson, Moktoyuk, presented the chapter written by Bering Sea Elders to the AGU scientific conference in San Francisco. (Photo by Nanette Deetz.)

Nanette Deetz

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card was drafted by eighty-one scientists from twelve countries, including the voices of elders from the Bering Sea

The Arctic is growing warmer and because of that the region is releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere making the planet warmer. A cycle that accelerates climate change. Scientists have long feared an “accelerating feedback” loop and now that may already be underway.

That spells significant trouble in the Arctic because “ecosystems and communities are increasingly at risk due to continued warming and declining sea ice.”

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card was drafted by eighty-one scientists from twelve countries and for the first time in history included the voices of elders from the Bering Sea. The Bering Sea is home to over 70 Indigenous communities of the Iñupiat, Central Yup'ik, Cup'ik, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Unangan, and Chukchi Peoples.

“Thawing permafrost throughout the Arctic could be releasing an estimated 300-600 million tons of net carbon per year to the atmosphere,” said the report by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA. That’s roughly the equivalent of Japan’s annual emissions.

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Native villages in the Bering Sea region. (Bering Sea Elders)

The report included a focus on the Bering Sea where “fisheries have experienced a northerly shift in the distribution of subarctic and Arctic fish species, linked to the loss of sea ice and changes in bottom water temperature.”

The 2019 report card was presented at the American American Geophysical Union - AGU scientific conference in San Francisco.

Indigenous elders from Bering Sea communities note in the report that in "a warming Arctic, access to our subsistence foods is shrinking and becoming more hazardous to hunt and fish. At the same time, thawing permafrost and more frequent and higher storm surges increasingly threaten our homes, schools, airports, and utilities."

Mellisa Johnson, Moktoyuk, presented the chapter written by Bering Sea Elders.

“In the second week of December there is still no strong sea ice layer, and it has made it unsafe for travel, hunting, our future, and our food sources. Five or even ten years ago we only needed to travel 5 or 10 to 20 miles outside our villages in order to hunt,” she said. “Now at a minimum we must travel 50 miles out. Much of the snow has already blown away.” During the Spring of 2019 the reduction of sea ice extended by more than one third from the previous year.

Johnson is executive director of the Bering Sea Elders Group.

“This snow and ice melt off has made it very difficult for us to hunt seal, walrus, beluga, bole head whale and other fish. The ice and snow allows us to continue our traditional way of life. Now we haven’t had the opportunities because there is less salmon, our berries are not ripening when they should, so we have less nutritious food sources. Our fish and mammals are dying, and their stomachs are full of plastics and other pollutants. We can’t even feed them to our dogs,” Johnson said. The members of her community don’t have the luxury to go to supermarkets and buy food. The animals and sea life provide not only food, but clothing and other necessary tools.

Some examples of the foods they rely on for survival include seal meat, seal oil, greens that grow seasonally, and many berries high in nutritional value. Cod and pollock have been slowly migrating north.

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Jerry Ivanoff, Inupiak and Yupik, and Mellisa Johnson, Moktoyuk, executive director of the Bering Sea Elders.

Jerry Ivanoff, Inupiak and Yupik, and a traditional hunter and fisherman from Shaktoolik said he seal once were found right at the beach. “I must travel over 280 miles from my home in order to hunt for bearded seals, or oogruk. It is very popular. We use the oil, and dry the meat, then store it in the oil. There is now little to no salmon. The numbers are way down from what it was like just 10 or 20 years ago,” he said. “When I do catch salmon, many are already dead or dying and it ruins my nets.”

The elders said they are finding ways to adapt.

“We will continue to reach out to other Indigenous groups here in Alaska, and in the U.S. to help us answer questions about how to do this, how to process these rapid changes. Our Mother Earth is changing fast, but we will continue to hold on to our heritage, and continue our ceremonies and cultural traditions,” Johnson said. “The most important thing for us is to make sure our youth stays involved in this as well. This generation is extremely important for our future. We have had many climate changes in the past, and we will do all we can to survive the coming changes.”

In the report card, the Bering Sea Elders write:

“Our resilience as Indigenous Peoples comes from our close proximity to the food resources that we depend on. In a warming Arctic, access to our subsistence foods is shrinking and becoming more hazardous to hunt and fish. At the same time, thawing permafrost and more frequent and higher storm surges increasingly threaten our homes, schools, airports, and utilities. Our environment has changed, but we remain vigilant. By adapting as we always have, we continue to hunt, fish, and harvest from the ocean and land. But, we fear for our young people; we worry that they will grow without the same foods and places that we have known throughout our lives. Maintaining what we inherited from our elders and thinking about our future generations, we offer this report as a glimpse into what we are observing and experiencing at the locations of our eight communities in the Bering Sea region of Alaska.”

Other highlights from the Arctic report card:

The average annual land surface air temperature north of 60° N for October 2018-August 2019 was the second warmest since 1900. The warming air temperatures are driving changes in the Arctic environment that affect ecosystems and communities on a regional and global scale.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing nearly 267 billion metric tons of ice per year and currently contributing to global average sea-level rise at a rate of about 0.7 mm year.

North American Arctic snow cover in May 2019 was the fifth lowest in 53 years of record. June snow cover was the third lowest.

Tundra greening continues to increase in the Arctic, particularly on the North Slope of Alaska, mainland Canada, and the Russian Far East.

Thawing permafrost throughout the Arctic could be releasing an estimated 300-600 million tons of net carbon per year to the atmosphere.

Arctic sea ice extent at the end of summer 2019 was tied with 2007 and 2016 as the second lowest since satellite observations began in 1979. The thickness of the sea ice has also decreased, resulting in an ice cover that is more vulnerable to warming air and ocean temperatures.

August mean sea surface temperatures in 2019 were 1-7°C warmer than the 1982-2010 August mean in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, the Laptev Sea, and Baffin Bay.

Satellite estimates showed ocean primary productivity in the Arctic was higher than the long-term average for seven of nine regions, with the Barents Sea and North Atlantic the only regions showing lower than average values.

Wildlife populations are showing signs of stress. For example, the breeding population of the ivory gull in the Canadian Arctic has declined by 70 percent since the 1980s.

The winter sea ice extent in 2019 narrowly missed surpassing the record low set in 2018, leading to record-breaking warm ocean temperatures in 2019 on the southern shelf. Bottom temperatures on the northern Bering shelf exceeded 4°C for the first time in November 2018.

Bering and Barents Seas fisheries have experienced a northerly shift in the distribution of subarctic and Arctic fish species, linked to the loss of sea ice and changes in bottom water temperature.

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Nanette Deetz is Dakota/ Cherokee/German. Follow her on Facebook at Nanette Deetz and nanettedeetz75@gmail.com

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