Thin ice and moderate temperatures disrupt way of life in Arctic

Record low sea ice covers the Chukchi Sea near Kotzebue, AK in April 2018. Photo by Marc Carrel for The Cordova Times

I have returned to Cordova after spending part of my winter in Kotzebue. The fishing season is just about to kick off here, while the Arctic winter is slowly coming to an end.

The Arctic spring begins with the return of the Snow Bunting, a little white bird that passed through Cordova over a month ago on its way north. The sun in the Arctic is high now, and with more than 17 hours of daylight at Kotzebue, the first patches of tundra are starting to melt out from under the snow.

The Western Arctic Caribou herd is beginning its migration from the Seward Peninsula back up to the Brooks Range, and soon the ice on the rivers will break up and make way for returning chum salmon. This is the time that scientists throughout the world begin to evaluate the Arctic winter.

Much of the Bering Sea remained open water this past winter, while weather stations across the Arctic, including Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow) and Prudhoe Bay recorded their warmest winters ever. “At Utqiaġvik, the last four winters are in the top five warmest winters in the century,” said Rick Thoman, climate scientist for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. These exceptionally warm winters are “a very strong trend and really it’s not like its gradually been getting warmer. It’s really a very strong [temperature] increase, starting about 1990,” he said.

“If it was just random variation, the chance of having the last four winters would be astronomically low,” he said.

“The variability keeps going on as the escalator keeps going up.”

Iñupiaq elder Roy Mendenhall grew up in Kotzebue in the 1950s. He remembers hunting seals with his father out on the sea ice and hauling the meat and oil up the frozen Kobuk River by dog team to trade in Kiana, a trip that could take three days. “When that first one cylinder, 12 horse Ski-Doo came, our dogs were gone, because it only took us six hours to get to where we’d normally go,” he said.

Cones and flagging warn drivers of a crack and open spot in the ice off Front Street in Kotzebue, AK on Saturday, April 7, 2018. (Photo by Marc Carrel/for The Cordova Times)

Snowmachine racing has been a popular sport in the Arctic ever since two stroke engines replaced canine power in the early sixties. “This is a lifestyle change, no more dogs, and a need for entertainment up here. They can afford it now,” Mendenhall said.

Snowmachine racers take off during the Archie Ferguson/Willie Goodwin Sr. Memorial crosscountry race in Kotzebue, AK on Saturday, April 7, 2018 after the ice thickened later in the winter. The 220-mile race begins and ends in Kotzebue, continuing to the neighboring villages of Noorvik, Selawik, and Kiana. (Photo by Marc Carrel/for The Cordova Times)

The New Year’s Eve race is one of the biggest annual events in Kotzebue, but this year the city had to cancel the race for the first time since its beginning in 1994. “Every year we always go out there and drill a hole just to make sure we have enough ice,” said Claude Wilson Jr., president of the Arctic Circle Racing Association. “The ice is usually anywhere from 27 to 34 inches thick by the time we go out there in December, every year.”

This year the ice was only four inches thick. “This was the first time in 20 years since I’ve been involved that we’ve had such marginal ice,” Wilson said.

In lieu of racing speed records, there were temperature records.

Kotzebue experienced its warmest December ever recorded, according to the Western Arctic Parklands Winter 2017-2018 weather summary. The average temperature for December in the northwest Arctic is just over 2º F, but instead temperatures hovered in the upper teens and 20s all month, peaking above freezing multiple times. Right before Christmas, as people were trying to travel between villages and remote hunting camps, the temperature reached 35º F. Alongside the Merry Christmas wishes, the local radio station, KOTZ, was broadcasting warnings of open spots and overflow water on the ice. Many families chose to spend the holidays apart for safety.

Mendenhall is deeply concerned about the changing Arctic climate.

“Caribou used to be on schedule,” he said. “End of September, the ice would freeze, we would wait until it got two inches thick, we’d take our dogs to the first river and wait until millions of caribou would come through, nonstop.”

The late freeze-ups of recent years have been forcing the Western Arctic caribou herd to change migration routes and timing, making the subsistence hunt more difficult for the people in the villages. “We used to be able to go five, six hours, get your limit,” Mendenhall said. “Now people have to go days by snow machine at 10 dollars a gallon and they either have a choice of using that money for food for their family, for heating, or use it on a snow machine to go hunting and pray that they have luck.”

Marc Carrel is a commercial fisherman, and local resident of Cordova.