How A Shorter Sea Ice Season Is Changing Life In The Arctic Climate change is so dramatic in northern Alaska that the effects on hunting and erosion are very real to people who've lived their whole lives there.

How A Shorter Sea Ice Season Is Changing Life In The Arctic

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People who grew up in the Arctic have seen dramatic effects - the dramatic effects of climate change during their lifetimes. One example - the northernmost town in the United States used to have a coastline that was edged with sea ice for nearly the whole year. But that period is getting shorter and shorter. From Alaska's Energy Desk, Ravenna Koenig has the story.

RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: The town of Utqiagvik sits right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean at the very top of Alaska. It's home to about 4,400 people, including Billy Adams, an Inupiaq hunter who's lived there his whole life.

BILLY ADAMS: We've seen big changes.

KOENIG: Adams is in his 50s. And he says that when he was growing up, by now, he'd probably be a mile or two out on the ice that had attached to the coastline, hunting ringed seals. Inupiaq hunters eat ringed seal meat, use the skin for clothing and the oil to build handmade boats. In order to hunt the ringed seals out on the ice, it has to be thick and stable enough to support a hunter's weight.

When you were growing up, when did you usually have that ice by?

ADAMS: We would have it by, you know, October - mid-October.

KOENIG: This year in October, instead of ice, there were waves crashing onshore. Now it's December. And for the past month or so, ice has been forming in fits and starts. Rick Thoman is a climatologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He says Utqiagvik is warming, along with the rest of the Arctic, about twice as fast as the rest of the globe. And if you want to see some of the most dramatic change on the ground, the Utqiagvik coastline in the fall is a good place to look.

RICK THOMAN: If you get in your time machine and you go back to 1965 or 1940 or 1900 and you're on the beach at Utqiagvik, in the autumn, you're looking out at a white sea.

KOENIG: Back then, pieces from the big mass of ice that was able to remain frozen all summer on the Arctic Ocean would start getting blown to shore in the fall. That would cool things down and help to form even more ice along the coastline.

THOMAN: That's all changed now.

KOENIG: That massive ice has shrunk so that now it's hundreds of miles offshore in the fall, too far to be blown in.

THOMAN: And so we've moved into a situation now where we have to make our own ice, so to speak.

KOENIG: In other words, the ice has to form in place along the coast without the help of that other ice. And that takes more time. One big problem that Utqiagvik is facing as a result is increased coastal erosion. Declining sea ice allows for higher waves during storms and leaves the shoreline unprotected for more of the year. Local officials are concerned about future storm damage to roads, the town's drinking water and a decommissioned military landfill site near the beach.

Billy Adams says that, for him, the ice is also personal. It serves as a place to pray, gather his thoughts and heal.

Do you ever worry that future generations won't get that?

ADAMS: You know, I'm not going to worry about it right now. You know, that's not in my thoughts right now. I'm not going to worry, you know? They're going to do fine, you know? We have to be positive.

KOENIG: Adams says that hunters are adapting to the change, like waiting for ringed seals to come close to shore and hunting them from the beach. Researchers expect the Arctic to keep warming and the ice season here to get shorter and shorter in the years to come. For NPR News, I'm Ravenna Koenig in Utqiagvik, Alaska.


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