On a blindingly bright, frigid April morning, the first whale hunt of the year gets underway in the village of Gambell, Alaska, on the westernmost edge of St. Lawrence Island. Between boulder-sized chunks of ice piled well over eight feet high along the shoreline, crews of three or four men, wearing boots, heavy jackets and insulated pants, launch small metal skiffs. A half-dozen snow machines and cargo sleds are parked above the frozen, snow-covered beach. Others arrive with boat crews and families, bringing supplies – fuel cans, rope, floats, cargo boxes and other gear. The small motorboats, loaded with harpoons and rifles, slip into the calm indigo water of the Bering Sea, their motors thudding softly, and thread their way through floating ice that has just begun its spring break-up. A few dogs scamper between the water and high ground, barking with excitement.
The 2014 hunting season is being anticipated with particular eagerness on St. Lawrence Island. The residents, almost all St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik, rely on the annual bowhead whale hunt and the walrus hunt that follows – along with fishing – for the mainstay of their food supply. But last year, unusual weather patterns brought powerful winds that pushed offshore ice into huge pressure ridges that reached all the way to the sea floor along the coast, blocking access to the water. By the time the ice receded enough for boats to launch, most of the walrus had moved on, and only about one-third of the typical number were captured. The hardship prompted Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to declare the island's two villages, Gambell and Savoonga, each with a population of about 700, economic disaster areas.
Successful hunting and fishing in the Bering Sea have always depended on weather and ice conditions. Island hunters have honed their ability to manage these variables through generations of experience. But climate change is now disrupting the seasonal patterns and threatening the food sources – and cultural traditions – St. Lawrence Islanders and other Native Alaskans have relied on for millennia. Over the past 50 years, average air temperatures have increased by 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Sea ice has been shrinking, sometimes by as much as 30 percent by the end of summer, and only gets about half as thick as it used to. Permafrost is thawing, and conifers have spread north into what was once tundra. In the Arctic, where climate change is progressing faster and more dramatically than almost anywhere else on earth, the resulting uncertainties are playing out not only in coastal communities but in inland Native villages as well.