Arctic Ice and Way of Life Melting Away for Eskimos


The native elders have no explanation. Scientists are perplexed as well. The icy realm of the Eskimo--the tundra and ice of Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland--has started to thaw.

Strange portents are everywhere.

Thunder and lightning, once rare, have become commonplace. An eerie warm wind now blows in from the south. Hunters who prided themselves on their ability to read the sky say they no longer can predict the sudden blizzards. “The Earth,” one hunter concluded, “is turning faster.”

In recent years, seabirds have washed up dead by the thousands and deformed seal pups have become a common sight. Whales appear sick and undernourished. The walrus, a mainstay of the local diet, is becoming scarce, as are tundra rabbits.


The elders, who keep thousands of years of history and legend without ever writing it down, have long told children this story: If the ice that freezes thick over the sea each winter breaks up before summer, the entire village could perish.

The children always laugh. Here in the Russian Arctic, the ground is frozen nearly year-round. The ice blanketing the winter seas around the Bering Strait is thick enough to support men dragging sleds loaded with whale carcasses.

Even Zoya Telpina, the schoolteacher in this outpost of 350 Chukchi reindeer herders and marine mammal hunters, said that a winter sea without ice seemed like “a fairy tale.”

But last winter, when Telpina looked from her kitchen window toward the Bering Sea, she saw something she’d never seen in her 38 years: The dark swell of the open ocean. Water where there had always been ice.

Telpina’s husband Mikhail, a 38-year-old dog-sled musher, has seen mushrooms on the tundra shrivel and whole herds of reindeer starve. He has cut open the bellies of salmon to find strange insects inside. He has seen willows rise where he has never seen trees before.

The changes are so widespread that they have spawned changes in the Eskimo languages that so precisely describe ice and snow. In Chukotka, where the natives speak Siberian Yupik, they use new words such as misullijuq--rainy snow--and are less likely to use words like umughagek--ice that is safe to walk on. In Nunavet, Canada, the Inuit people say the weather is uggianaqtuq--like a familiar friend acting strangely.


What the residents of the Arctic are reporting fits convincingly with powerful computer models, satellite images and recently declassified ice measurements taken by Russian submarines.

In the last century, parts of the Arctic have warmed by 10 degrees Fahrenheit--10 times the global average. Sea ice covers 15% less of the Arctic Ocean than it did 20 years ago, and that ice has thinned from an average of 10 feet to less than 6.

A group of scientists who spent a year aboard an icebreaker concluded that the year-round sea ice that sustains marine mammals and those who hunt them could vanish altogether in 50 years.

The U.S. Navy, already planning for an ice-free Arctic, is exploring ways to defend the previously ice-clogged Northwest Passage from attack by sea.

Without the stabilizing effect of great land masses, the Earth’s watery north is exquisitely sensitive to warming. A few degrees of warmth can mean the difference between ice and water, permafrost or mud, hunger or even starvation for the inhabitants of these remote lands.

Yet, explaining the quick thaw and determining its cause--whether human or natural--has so far eluded the experts.


There are few long-term climate observations from the Arctic: Weather stations in the Far North are just 50 years old. And there is almost no data from places like Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula, only 55 miles from Alaska.

In their search for information, Western scientists are turning to sources they once disparaged. In a rare convergence of science and folklore, a group of scientists is mining the memories of native elders, counting animal pelts collected by hunters and documenting the collective knowledge of entire villages.

These threads, which stretch back generations, may be the only way to trace the outlines of the half-century of change that has resculpted the Arctic and to figure out its cause.

“We have all these people paying very close attention to the animals they hunt and the sea ice they travel on,” said Henry Huntington, a scientific consultant in Alaska. “It’s often extremely accurate and far better than anything science has come up with.”

Native observations that at first don’t seem consistent with the warming--such as snowier winters and colder summers--also fit the scientists’ models. Warmer air is expected to usher more storms and precipitation into the Arctic. Melting sea ice in summer can lower the water temperature and lead to cooler temperatures on adjacent land.

Despite parallel observations, Western researchers and Arctic dwellers still look at each other suspiciously across a cultural divide. Many scientists remain uncomfortable with any information that is not backed by numbers and measurements. Many native elders resent scientists who come ashore with their strange machines thinking they know more about the place than those who live there.


Others mistrust Western scientists who come to gather data and never send back word of their findings. They still recall a group of toxicologists who came to remote villages here several years ago to collect women’s breast milk to measure pollution levels. The scientists detected organic pollutants such as dioxin and PCBs in the breast milk. But the women say they were never contacted about the results.

For scientists, the facts are mostly a matter of academic, and sometimes political, interest. But for the natives, they may be a matter of life and death.

The subsistence hunters of Chukotka live in small villages without pickup trucks or snowmobiles, without supply ships or supermarkets. They have 19th century harpoons, small boats and limited fuel for their hunts.

These villagers, almost entirely dependent on the icy sea for their food, may be witnessing the demise of their ancient way of life.

Caleb Pungowiyi, an Eskimo who works with scientists to record the observations of his elders and peers, put it this way: “When this Earth starts to be destroyed, we feel it.”

Ice is a second home for Gennady Inankeuyas, a 42-year-old hunter considered the best harpooner on the Chukotka Peninsula. For years, Inankeuyas has prowled the ice for seals and walrus, dragging heavy sleds and animal carcasses over the frozen ocean. While he was butchering a bearded seal last November, the thin ice cracked open beneath him. Inankeuyas was pulled out of the frigid water, cut from his frozen sealskin pants and revived. He was lucky: He did not lose any limbs to frostbite.


This year, Inankeuyas returned to the uncertain ice. He had to. “Of course it’s dangerous,” he said. “But the village needs the food.”

That food is not as easy to come by now that the weather has changed. “The south wind is a bad wind. It moves the walrus to another place,” said a 42-year-old Eskimo hunter named Igor Macotrik. “The walrus is hard to find.”

Scientists understand such observations. Their data show that the walrus are declining, possibly because they also have to work harder to find food. Walrus mothers nurse their babies on sea-ice floes. As melting ice recedes, the walrus do too. Far from the coast, the mothers must dive longer and deeper from the ice to the sea floor to find clams.

In recent years, the Eskimo hunters have also noticed that gray whales have become extremely skinny. The meat of some freshly killed whales smells rancid, “like medicine,” said 28-year-old hunter Maxim Agnagisyak. The sled dogs won’t eat it. Some hunters fear the flesh is rotting because the leviathans aren’t getting enough to eat.

Scientists are beginning to analyze samples of whale blubber from the region to seek an explanation. For several years, record numbers of gray whales have washed up dead and emaciated as they migrate to their winter calving grounds in Baja California. This year’s whale count is still underway.

Land animals are also under stress. Reindeer herds plummeted after the Soviet Union collapsed and the government subsidies that helped sustain the herds were cut off. The animals began starving, and their numbers continue to decline, perhaps because they cannot forage beneath the strange, brittle snow that the natives call misullijuq.


Scientists have not studied the reindeer herds of Chukotka, but they have seen similar starvation in Canadian caribou. The grazing animals normally survive the winter by nosing through soft, dry snow to feed on the tundra vegetation insulated below. In recent warm years, winter rains have alternated with snow, leaving an icy crust that is difficult to penetrate and lacerates the animals’ legs.

Scientists are only beginning to catch up with native observations on many other aspects of the Arctic environment, such as tundra vegetation. They are monitoring a tree line that is advancing north as the Arctic warms. And scientists from Russia, Delaware and Ohio have just started a large-scale project to study the ground under the Eskimos’ feet--the permafrost--as it thaws.

The stalwart Arctic people have survived for many centuries alongside polar bears, seals and whales in conditions too harsh for other human settlement. Their hold on the land is so tenuous and so subject to disruption from the outside that anthropologists have predicted their demise for two centuries.

Until now, the Eskimos have defied the doomsayers. Nature has always provided. But now nature itself has gone awry.

Archeological evidence is scant, but it suggests that today’s Siberian Eskimos arrived in Chukotka from central Asia about 2,500 years ago. That settlement would not have been possible without the massive global warming that took place more than 10,000 years ago at the end of the last great Ice Age.

Melting ice submerged the Bering land bridge that the first Americans had walked across some 13,000 years earlier.


The waters that surround the Chukotka Peninsula today are among the richest in the world. They teem with 25 species of marine mammals; 450 species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans; vast numbers of summering seabirds; and innumerable krill and plankton that provide food for many whales.

The early Eskimos followed their prey. They lived in underground houses insulated from the cold and moved among seasonal hunting camps. They collected eggs from seabirds and salmon and plucked greens, berries and mushrooms from the tundra. They hunted walrus, seal and whale. The flesh of marine mammals, particularly maktak, the blubbery skin of the whale, is still preferred by many to “European” macaroni and canned fruit.

Ludmilla Ainana, a 66-year-old Eskimo, was educated by the Soviets in St. Petersburg and now lives in an apartment in Chukotka’s biggest town, Providenya. Though she can now buy chicken and noodles and exotic ingredients like soy sauce at a grocery, she still prefers the food of a childhood spent at a coastal camp in a single yaranga, or reindeer hide tent. “Walrus flippers with sea cabbage,” she said. “It’s delicious food.”

When American whalers began arriving in the 1840s, they praised the natives for their ingenuity and hired the men to kill whales. The whalers left behind a taste for imported trade goods, decimated whale stocks and a native population ravaged by measles, smallpox and flu.

At the time, anthropologists warned that the native way of life was doomed. But the Eskimos took to the whalers’ improved harpoons and became even better hunters. Still, the hunger for manufactured goods marked the beginning of a long, slow shift from the old ways.

In the 1920s, the Soviets accelerated the process, introducing the Eskimo hunters and Chukchi herders to jobs, wages and a steady diet of imported food. They provided houses, schools, clinics and coal for heat.


Families like Ainana’s who had lived in scattered settlements were relocated by the hundreds into villages such as Yanrakynnot. In a village that once recorded 26 inhabitants in five households, the population would swell to nearly 500, even though the land could not support so many.

“These were convenient for supply ships,” Ainana said, “but the hunting was very poor.”

For the Eskimo, food, livelihood and an animistic religion had always been intertwined. They not only hunted the whale, they worshiped it.

But the Soviets jailed the shamans and outlawed native whaling. Instead, big Russian whaling ships caught the beasts and towed them to shore. The job of the natives was to slice up the carcasses and feed the meat to caged foxes being raised for their fur on the outskirts of Yanrakynnot. There were no more ceremonies, no chanting by the elders, no heroes returning from the hunt.

“People stopped hunting and they became butchers,” said Igor Krupnik, a Smithsonian Institution ethnologist and expert on the native people of Chukotka. “This was a tremendous blow to their culture and their self-esteem.”

The young began to embrace Soviet imports, including vodka and cigarettes. Many began marrying ethnic Russians. Their children received Russian lessons and Russian names. They forgot how to hunt.

That modernization came to an abrupt end along with the Soviet Union in 1991. Almost overnight, there were no supply ships. No food. No coal. No heat.


Ainana spent years struggling to preserve the Eskimo culture, but now watches from an upper-story gray concrete-block apartment as it evaporates.

The warming of the Arctic, coupled with years of intense social stress, she said, has had “a terrible effect on lifestyle and health.”

Villages shrank as families moved to the cities to find work and food. Infant mortality, suicide, disease and alcoholism all took a toll.

In some parts of the Russian Arctic, life expectancy dropped to about 37 years. A 1989 census found 1,400 Eskimos in Chukotka. The population is now estimated to be 700. Yanrakynnot’s population in 1989 was 448; today it has 100 fewer residents.

Those who remained tried to resurrect subsistence hunting--even though no one really knew how.

Macotrik, the hunter from the relocated Eskimo settlement of Novoye Chaplino, filled two small boats with young men and bravely headed out to chase 50,000-pound whales. There were accidents and deaths. Some were the fault of storms and rough seas; others were caused by inexperience.


“Unfortunately, the old generation passed away--the ones that knew how to approach the whale, how to use the darting gun,” said Macotrik as he sat in a dank hunting cabin cleaning the Kalishnikov rifle he would use in the next day’s whale hunt. “We started from zero.”

With the help of Alaskan cousins who provided boats, gear and even hunting lessons, the Russian Eskimo once again surprised the doomsayers.

“We watched with amazement as these people restored their whaling,” said anthropologist Krupnik. “We were wrong to say the Soviet Union had dealt them a mortal blow.”

Macotrik and his young crew have been bringing in whales since 1997, helping feed their impoverished village and salvaging some of their ancient pride.

“Walrus, seal and whale,” Macotrik said. “It’s not just our food. It’s our history and tradition.”

It is unclear if the changing climate will let them. With scientists still debating the trajectory of change in the Arctic, the fate of the Siberian Eskimo remains as uncertain as the Arctic ice in late spring.


Hunters with tiny boats and little fuel must now go much farther out to sea for food. Sometimes they return empty-handed. Sometimes they return with prey unusual for the season, or fish native to warmer waters. Sometimes, when the seas are rough, they do not return at all.

Much has been made of the plight of the Arctic people by environmental activists hoping to draw attention to the issue of global warming.

But Eskimo leaders, who repeatedly ask foreign visitors “Are you a Greenpeace?” are wary of that attention and of Western environmentalists, who often oppose their whaling.

The hunters willingly talk about the many changes they see around them. But they don’t spend much time worrying about climate change.

For the moment, they have more pressing concerns: gathering enough ammo for the spring hunt and stretching their limited supply of stored whale meat.

It is possible that the Eskimo will once again adapt--to new food species that could move north with the shifting temperatures, and to a new economy that could bring tourism, jobs, and enough money for faster boats and better weapons.


The Eskimos have a haunting reminder of the instability of Arctic life--one that still spooks hunters from Yanrakynnot as they pass it on their way to the open sea. It is an island called Yttygran. On the beach lie 60 massive bowhead whale skulls arranged geometrically. Huge whale jawbones stand upright among them like sentries.

This is “Whalebone Allee,” a shrine to the whale, built in the 13th or 14th century. It is the abandoned construction of a relatively large and organized civilization, with an amphitheater and 120 stone meat lockers that still contain mummified whale meat.

Today’s Eskimos have no connection with the people who built this, said Krupnik, the Smithsonian anthropologist who helped excavate the site in the 1970s.

That society simply vanished, much like the Viking settlements in Greenland that flourished for several hundred years only to disappear when the Arctic climate cooled in the 15th century.

Why did the builders depart? Where did they go? “We don’t have a clue,” Krupnik said. “It’s an example of how precarious life is in the Arctic.”

It is also an example of what climate change can do. For hundreds of years, the skulls of Whalebone Allee stood undisturbed in precise rows.


But last winter, a massive ridge of ice, warmed and weakened by an early thaw, pushed ashore and rammed the line of whale bones. After more than 700 years of perfect alignment, the relics now lie askew.