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The End of Ice

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as any place on the planet. Can native villages in northernmost Alaska survive climate change?

An Iñupiat harpooner in a sealskin canoe surveys the horizon for bowhead whales, miles from the Alaskan town of Barrow. The snow wall was built by the whaling crew to conceal the camp from their prey. Shifting sea ice has made whaling increasingly dangerous, and many native villages have begun to experience food shortages.

The peculiar physics of climate change have played a particularly nasty trick on those who live farthest to the north. The steady, relentless stream of data from satellites, weather buoys, and remote weather stations makes it clear that the Arctic—which has supported human life for millennia—is warming twice as fast as any place on the planet. But you don’t need data to understand what’s happening: Pictures will do.

Some show, as it were, the big picture. Look at those revelatory photographs of Earth from outer space, the ones that streamed back down from the Apollo missions. Today, that beautiful blue-white marble is ... nowhere near as white. Half the summer sea ice in the Arctic has vanished. In only half a lifetime.

Robert Brower Jr., a member of a whaling crew, shows off a flayed polar bear skull. The bear was shot the day before, when it tried to eat the crew’s sealskin canoe.

But Katie Orlinsky’s pictures provide the close-up. For the past two years, Orlinsky has documented the toll that climate change is taking on the indigenous residents of six villages in northernmost Alaska. Her photographs from the front lines of global warming demonstrate what it means to live in a place where life is still tied to geography. Life in these villages has always involved cold. Cold meant ice, and ice meant seals and whales and polar bears, and the animals meant enough meat to fill a village’s ice cellars, buried deep in the permafrost. Now these givens are givens no more. The seals are disappearing, and the ice is too thin to support whale hunting, and the polar bears are eating what’s left of the whales. The ice cellars are melting, and the food is rotting. The entire village of Shishmaref is disappearing into the sea, and soon all 600 residents will have to relocate.

Unable to hunt seals on the melting ice, hungry polar bears have been coming into villages to feed off scraps and bones during the annual whale hunt. Natives have been forced to kill young, aggressive males to protect themselves and the village’s whale meat.

Other places, of course, are experiencing the cultural and economic and personal dislocation of climate change. But a warmer Westchester or a balmier L.A. doesn’t pose a crisis of identity. In the Arctic, life remains tied to the land and sea; subsistence hunting has formed the basis of the people’s culture for centuries. Now that indigenous way of life is being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. In the Arctic, unfortunately, the pace of change is no longer glacial.

Vebjørn Aishana Reitan prepares to hunt caribou. Climate change has made migrations unpredictable, making it harder to teach the younger generation traditional hunting skills and preservation techniques. “We want them to understand they have a rich identity as a people,” says one elder.
Encroaching polar bears have drawn scientists and tourists to the region. Three high school students in Kaktovik serve as local “polar bear ambassadors,” warning outsiders about safety and etiquette around the bears.
A 50-foot bowhead is hauled ashore during the spring hunt. A single whale will feed the entire village for a year. It took 36 hours to butcher this catch, and nearly every part is used as food, including the skin, blubber, meat, kidneys, heart, stomach, and tongue.
For centuries, traditional ice cellars carved from the frozen earth have provided year-round storage for thousands of pounds of whale meat. Now, the permafrost is melting, causing the cellars to flood and the meat to spoil.
Villagers enjoy a feast of muktuk— whale skin and blubber—two days after a successful hunt. “When we eat it, it fills your mind, body, and spirit, and it’s really good for you,” explains a whaling captain. “There’s no other food like it in this cold, harsh environment.”
A family hunting bearded seals instead encounters hundreds of walruses, a rare sight so early in the year. The rapid loss of Arctic sea ice has caused dense aggregations of walruses to congregate on land, triggering stampedes that can kill the young.
A polar bear ventures into Barrow, Alaska to feed off the scraps and bones of whales, which are protected by locals.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.