Climate change is melting Arctic ice cellars

Qaiyaan Harcharek is the harpooner of his Iñupiaq whaling crew in Utqiaġvik, the northernmost city in Alaska. “I’ve been blessed with nine whales,” he said, which is no small feat. Bowhead whales can grow up to 60 feet long and weigh 75 to 100 tons. To land one requires extensive skill, deep-rooted relationships with whales and the Arctic environment, and cooperation between all crew members.

The Iñupiat have for generations hunted bowhead whales every spring and fall. “We’re whalers. It’s who we are as a people and it’s what has sustained us to thrive in this harsh environment for thousands of years,” Harcharek said. In Alaska’s vast North Slope Borough, most of the 9,700 residents are Iñupiat, and while bowheads are not an endangered whale species, they do face environmental and human-caused threats to their ongoing recovery.

After a successful hunt, whaling crews spend hours towing the whale onto the icy shore and then butchering it into specific portions for families and feasts. “Right after a whale is caught, the very next day, we cook enough to serve the whole community,” Harcharek explained. The rest of the whale—thousands of pounds of meat and maktak, or skin with blubber—is distributed to families involved in the process or cooked during community-wide feasts on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Nalukataq, the spring whaling festival.

No part of the whale goes to waste. Or it didn’t until recently. It’s common for Iñupiat families to store whale meat and other subsistence foods in icy cellars deep underground, but in recent years, many people have reported that their cellars are either becoming too warm and causing food to spoil, or failing completely due to flooding or collapse. For instance, a 2014 inventory of ice cellars in the coastal village of Wainwright conducted by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium found that 19 out of 34 cellars had been abandoned.

Traditional siġluaqs, or ice cellars, are made by digging a tunnel 10 to 20 feet into the earth’s surface and creating a small room deep inside the permafrost. A heavy cellar door, three to four feet wide and made of wood, covers the entrance. To reach the crisp earthen room, which should remain approximately 10 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, one must descend a long ladder—and bring a light.

“Now, we will lose all our siġluaqs very soon because of the ocean and flooding… . They are melting, too. It’s getting warmer inside,” said a Point Hope resident named Macy, as quoted in the 2020 book Whale Snow by Chie Sakakibara. “Now, we have to haul up water by buckets from siġluaqs because the permafrost is thawing out. Otherwise, our whale meat will all go bad… . Will we need a big freezer in the future?”

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world, causing permafrost to degrade “extensively, persistently, and rapidly,” according to new research published in the journal Advances in Climate Change Research. While permafrost thaw is a major issue affecting ice cellars, they can fail for a variety of reasons, including other impacts from climate change, poor maintenance, and ground disturbances from urbanization.

Despite the risks, Harcharek plans to build a new ice cellar on a plot of land that will one day be the site of his family home; he is married with four kids, including twin babies. He said he will establish the cellar in an area with low soil salinity (since saltwater melts quicker than freshwater), dig deeper on higher ground, reinforce the tunnel with sturdy materials, and carefully monitor and maintain the cellar. Harcharek is not ready to give up on the siġluaq, because it’s not just a place for storing and preserving food—it’s considered the terrestrial home for the bowhead whale, an animal at the center of Iñupiat culture.

The Iñupiat take great care to prepare their cellars for a new whale’s arrival—chipping out old blood, oil, and dirt and lining the floor with fresh snow—because they believe whales know which crews have a clean home waiting for them.

“There’s a lot of hard work and pride” in cleaning the ice cellar, Harcharek said. “When you’re doing it, you try not to have negative thoughts. It’s a humbling and kind of cleansing process … and it’s that connection that we have with the whale and how we’re going to take care of it that allows us to be potentially successful [in the hunt].”

When the last ice cellar is no longer usable, a piece of Iñupiat culture will be gone. But the people, Harcharek said, will figure out new ways to live—just like they always have. “You need to adapt to your environment because if you don’t, you die.”

Adapting to a Changing Arctic

Indigenous Alaskans have adapted to cycles of climate change in the past, said Meda DeWitt, a Tlingit traditional healer. “However, when you start looking at how fast it’s coming about, then that’s where [this time is] different. We’re going into a situation that we actually haven’t fully been in before.”

Many Indigenous Alaskans—not just the Iñupiat—are facing food insecurity as rapid environmental collapse is upending natural cycles, including caribou migration patterns, berry season, and salmon runs. This poses a threat to their survival. “In some of our communities, there is an 80 or 90 percent reliance on subsistence foods” that are foraged, fished, hunted, or grown through small-scale agriculture, said Tikaan Galbreath, the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s technical assistant specialist for the state of Alaska and a member of the Mentasta Traditional Tribe.

It’s not feasible for people in rural communities, many of which are only accessible by bush plane or boat, to depend on grocery stores because of the extremely high cost of importing food. “It’s an incredible strain when a gallon of milk is $10 or a loaf of bread is $8,” Galbreath said.

Sudden environmental change also causes immense grief for Indigenous Alaskans because it disrupts their cultural and spiritual relationships with the land and other living beings. DeWitt, who in February spoke at the Democratic National Committee Environment and Climate Crisis Council’s Alaska Listening Session, said “everybody overall is experiencing the grief of not having access to our traditional practices because of the changing climate. This climate grief is also known as solastalgia, and that’s something that Indigenous people have been trying to express for a very long time.”

DeWitt often turns to Tlingit elders for advice on navigating this time on Earth. “They say that we have to go back to the old ways. In Western thinking, when you say ‘tradition,’ people think, ‘Oh, everybody has to go back into a sod house and wear fur clothing and do this thing this way,’ because in the Western sense, culture in large part is physical.”

Instead, she explained that elders are referring to a transition back to a worldview that values balance and reciprocity between humans and the rest of nature. “Climate change [means] we have to change our culture as a human race—not just how much carbon we take out of the air,” DeWitt said. “We have to return to being good stewards of the Earth.”

Being good stewards entails changing our relationship with food, said Dune Lankard, founder and president of the Native Conservancy and an Eyak Athabaskan. He believes industrial food producers and factories will go out of business as the climate crisis worsens, and that “we’re going to be dealing with less and less food products and less and less food sources.” As the current commodity-based food system collapses, Lankard said, local agriculture and mariculture, artisanal products, and subsistence foods will become more valuable than ever. And so will the act of preserving food safely and reliably for longer periods of time.

That’s why the Native Conservancy has been piloting the use of an advanced, portable freezer system that should allow communities to freeze food long-term at a high quality. Initial results are promising, and if the ultimate plan comes to fruition, it could be a boon for Indigenous Alaskans—and beyond.

High-quality Food Preservation for an Uncertain Future

In 2018, Lankard, looking for ways to improve cold storage for Indigenous Alaskans, flew to Japan for a first-hand look at a wave energy freezer system made by DENBA that was advertised to preserve food long-term without freezer burn and with minimal loss of taste, moisture, and texture. At the DENBA facilities, he was offered an oyster that had been frozen for two years. Skeptical, he took a bite.

“The texture was like it was just pulled from the sea. It was bursting with the original flavors—that taste of the ocean,” Lankard said. “As an Indigenous person who has historically had to preserve foods, this was exciting to me.”

Conventional freezers chill food slowly from the outside in, a process that causes water molecules in the cell tissue to form large, spiky ice crystals. These crystals damage the tissue, reducing the food’s shelf life and quality. On the other hand, a freezer using DENBA’s wave energy system freezes food from the inside out. In this process, the water molecules form small, round crystals that cause minimal harm to the cell tissue.

Lankard saw the potential for DENBA technology—which requires little energy to operate—to be installed in community cold storage throughout Alaska, including walk-in freezers (such as in a community kitchen), large chest freezers, or portable units to process fish or game on-site after a hunt (such as those within boats, CONEX boxes, and trucks). “The goal of a community cold storage system is to encourage small rural communities to plan and build for food security by changing their relationship and handling of their traditional food sources,” Lankard said.

The Native Conservancy started a pilot program in 2018 to test-freeze subsistence foods such as fish, vegetables, spotted shrimp, and kelp in a 30-cubic-foot, minus-21-degree Fahrenheit chest freezer equipped with DENBA technology. They found that the addition of the wave energy system extended the “quality, taste, texture, and food nutrients” of frozen foods.

“While nothing is better than fresh, we found consistency in its freshness and texture and that the flavor of the food was excellent even after being frozen over a year,” Lankard said.

The Native Conservancy is planning a second pilot this summer to test the DENBA system in a different kind of freezer: a commercial blast freezer, which is more effective than a regular freezer in cooling food quickly thanks to fans that blow chilled air around the space. They will install three discharge plates in a 1,000-cubic-foot blast freezer at a cannery in Cordova and test-freeze salmon, halibut, shrimp, kelp, and moose for the Native Elders Subsistence Foods program. Lankard is expecting that the blast freezer combined with the DENBA system will achieve the best-possible quality of frozen foods: “I know it’s going to be over the top.”

In addition to using the DENBA technology as-is in existing freezer systems, the Native Conservancy is aiming to find a company that is willing to make a “chest freezer for the future” that combines -21 degrees Fahrenheit blast freezing with the wave energy system. They are interviewing potential partner companies this year. He hopes the price of the new chest freezer will be affordable enough for small community enterprises—$4,000 to $5,000—but it’s yet to be seen whether that will be possible.

“Once done, this chest freezer will serve as its own independent food security system,” Lankard said. It could also create more value for frozen food products sold at market.

When asked whether he thinks this technology could be valuable in his whaling community, Qaiyaan Harcharek said: “It’s fascinating. You want to be optimistic. If [the Native Conservancy] wants to try it on some of the foods up here, sign me up.”

Harcharek said he’d love to have access to one of the new chest freezers, and that the DENBA system would be a great addition to large walk-in freezers if whaling crews are one day forced to use electric freezers instead of ice cellars. The biggest question is, without ice cellars, will bowhead whales still give themselves to the Iñupiat?

“Is it gonna affect our success [with hunts] if we lost all of our ice cellars? I don’t know. It’s out of our control,” Harcharek said. But one thing is certain: “We’re going to continue on hunting and whaling regardless of the environmental changes that are around us. We will adapt because that’s who we are—we’re whaling people.”

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