-Mike, our ice guide takes us to the edge of the shorefast ice in Wales, Alaska -
You will find few places left on earth where people remain so intimately dependent on their environment. The native communities along Bering Strait do not hunt for sport, but they hunt for meat to supplement their diets particularly when the small bush planes stop bringing in outside food as winter weather sets in. You eat what you can hunt and what you have left in storage. No last minute trips to the grocery store here.
In case you were wondering, Bering Strait is a fairly narrow channel that connects the Bering Sea to the Arctic, and Wales, Alaska is so close to the Russian coast that you can see it across the strait on a fair day.
It has been an amazing experience to visit with villages of Wales and Shishmaref in Alaska where my boss, colleague and I went to talk to students in the schools and conduct some research on the sea ice. The smaller community in Wales has a runway accessible by snow machine, and strong winds frequently change the availability of open leads in the ice. People have noticed changes in snowfall patterns and thickness of the ice, as confirmed by our most recent ice core measurements. The ice is thinner in Wales this year. Whalers are readying their crews in hopes of catching another bowhead whale this year – hopes buoyed by seeing a few beluga whales a few days ago. We also saw some bearded, ringed and ribbon seals out on the ice and our ice guides referred to them half-jokingly as juicy steaks.
The changing Arctic affects these communities in a very real way that is hard to imagine as an outsider. Shishmaref is facing erosion problems as waves batter their coast, no longer protected by ice. Changing sea ice affects animal migrations and can sometimes shorten hunting seasons, as described by some hunters we talked to. However, in a world where elementary school students continue with their ski meets in 30 to 40 mph winds in freezing temperatures with bear guards on the lookout for polar bears during the event – it struck me that people here are tough, and they live with an interesting dichotomy of resources. For example, most people do not have running water, but almost everyone has a cell phone and are internet-savvy. Despite the strong relationship to their environment here, I get the feeling that not too many students have ambitions to study this fascinating ecosystem that they live in. Doubtless, the resilient spirit of the communities will continue to adapt to changes from natural and human-based impacts, but as a biologist I feel that I’m no longer just interested in what the walrus are doing – but also in how the people adapt.