Wild Life

Climate Change and the Arctic

By Sanjayan

The shot was inescapably loud — ringing in my ears, which had become attuned over two weeks to the stillness of the Arctic tundra.

Through my binoculars, I saw a puff of fur fly off the flank of the caribou, which shuddered, trotted a few steps and collapsed. We ran towards it — Archie, Lazarus and I — still out of breath from a chase which had begun a kilometer back and ended in this shallow draw.

The fallen caribou was unimaginably beautiful — the color of fine liquid chocolate. From its flanks, bright blood bubbled through a small hole scarcely the width of a pencil, as air from the lungs was pushed to the surface with each labored breath.

Lazarus drew a short knife and, wrestling the caribou by the antlers into submission, slotted the blade deep into the crevice between its skull and first vertebrae — a killing plunge. The caribou was now meat.

A Shopping Trip for Caribou

Archie Ahkiviana is an Eskimo; an Inupiat elder and a whaling captain who on occasion throws 9-foot harpoons into 50-ton bowhead whales…by hand.

His son, Lazarus, was training to crew on a whale boat — the most esteemed position in Inupiat society. (While whales cannot be killed for commercial purposes, they can be harvested by indigenous people for food in carefully controlled hunts).

I had come this summer to Alaska to see first-hand how its animals, plants and people are dealing with climate change. Upon hearing that caribou were nearby, Archie invited me to his hunting cabin — a small shack, perched on stilts to keep from melting the frozen solid ground or permafrost beneath.

The cabin looked from afar like a dwarf lighthouse on a featureless tundra of lichen, moss, and ankle-high grass. Inside were two mattresses, a table and a perpetually lit propane stove that kept the tight interior uncomfortably warm.

A green plastic fly-swatter adorned one wall, and the other was patched up with plywood where a grizzly bear had once punched through. “Just ate the coffee beans,” Archie had said, as I suspiciously eyed the splintered 2x4s.

I'd brought freeze-dried grub and the lightest and best gear money could buy. Archie just shook his head at it and brought out glazed donuts, a boom-box for country gospel music, and cases of orange soda pop.

For the father and son, this expedition wasn't about camping in the biggest wilderness area in North America. They were at home on the tundra, and the hunt would be a shopping trip.

Selling Freezers to Eskimos

Everyone in Nuiqsut — Archie’s village, population 400 — is aware of climate change.

Scientists have been coming to the area for a long time voicing their suspicions. And the Inupiat have known for decades before that the natural patterns they had relied on for untold generations — patterns of snow and ice and animal behavior — were no longer valid guides to life on the Arctic.

For instance, Archie now only hunts whales in the fall season from boats instead of in spring from sea ice platforms. The spring hunt has become too risky, with prematurely melting ice threatening to break and drown the hunters.

Even his ice cellar, a 16-foot pit excavated deep into the frozen ground that used to be an all-year meat locker (everything from walrus to ducks), had begun to thaw in the warm months.

Archie gave up and bought himself a freezer. It is no longer an oxymoron to sell freezers to Eskimos. The unfrozen future of Arctic life was here.

Moose, Mosquitos and Expensive Steak

Archie seems to have taken these changes in stride — neither complaining nor afraid, simply resigned to adapt. But the animals are a different matter.

He told me that caribou were now fleeing prime hunting ground — pursued by armies of heat-enthused mosquitoes. Their movements had become unpredictable, hampered by changing weather.

Polar bears were increasingly stranded on the beaches, unable to get to the ice floes in spring. And animals strange to the Arctic — such as beaver and moose — had recently appeared, he said.

Six hours after the hunt, the choicest cuts of the caribou are simmering in a pot atop a small stove. The aroma is mouthwatering. Archie stirs the pot occasionally, but he is focused on realigning the scope on his rifle. He thinks it's shooting high, and he bore sights the weapon.

I have never seen this done before. I watch as he makes small adjustments to the scope and then peers down the barrel, aligning the two perfectly. (He does not test fire the rifle. Bullets here cost $30 a box.) Satisfied, Archie spits on the adjustment screws of the scope, and the cold air instantly freezes them into place…just so.

It’s all done with such singular efficiency that I am in awe — not just of his skill, but of the resourcefulness of the Inupiat, who are continually adapting to a rapidly changing world. I think they will survive the climate catastrophe.

But I still don’t like to think that some of my actions and aspects of my lifestyle — for instance, the inefficient light bulbs in my home, the tea I drink that is transported from far away, and my necessary-but-frequent air travel — are what’s creating the need for them to change.

I ask if he was worried that the caribou will stop coming all together. “What will you do then?” I say.

Archie deems the stew ready and scoops steaming brown broth — a golden layer of fat shimmering on the surface — into metal bowls.

“I love beef,” he replies, considering. “But steak will be expensive.”

Originally posted in September 2007. At that time, Sanjayan was the Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He is now executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.

The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy or any of its other employees.


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