|Los Angeles Times : March 31, 2002
By: Usha Lee McFarling
Ice and Way of Life Melting Away for Eskimos
Nature goes awry, bringing vast climatic
and cultural changes, and baffling residents and researchers alike.
The native elders have no explanation.
Scientists are perplexed as well. The icy realm of the Eskimo--the
tundra and ice of Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland--has started
Strange portents are everywhere.
Thunder and lightning, once rare, have become commonplace.
An eerie warm wind now blows in from the south. Hunters who prided
themselves on their ability to read the sky say they no longer can
predict the sudden blizzards. "The Earth," one hunter
concluded, "is turning faster."
In recent years, seabirds have washed up dead by
the thousands and deformed seal pups have become a common sight.
Whales appear sick and undernourished. The walrus, a mainstay of
the local diet, is becoming scarce, as are tundra rabbits.
The elders, who keep thousands of years of history
and legend without ever writing it down, have long told children
this story: If the ice that freezes thick over the sea each winter
breaks up before summer, the entire village could perish.
The children always laugh. Here in the Russian Arctic,
the ground is frozen nearly year-round. The ice blanketing the winter
seas around the Bering Strait is thick enough to support men dragging
sleds loaded with whale carcasses.
Even Zoya Telpina, the schoolteacher in this outpost
of 350 Chukchi reindeer herders and marine mammal hunters, said
that a winter sea without ice seemed like "a fairy tale."
But last winter, when Telpina looked from her kitchen
window toward the Bering Sea, she saw something she'd never seen
in her 38 years: The dark swell of the open ocean. Water where there
had always been ice.
Telpina's husband Mikhail, a 38-year-old dog-sled
musher, has seen mushrooms on the tundra shrivel and whole herds
of reindeer starve. He has cut open the bellies of salmon to find
strange insects inside. He has seen willows rise where he has never
seen trees before.
The changes are so widespread that they have spawned
changes in the Eskimo languages that so precisely describe ice and
snow. In Chukotka, where the natives speak Siberian Yupik, they
use new words such as misullijuq--rainy snow--and are less likely
to use words like umughagek--ice that is safe to walk on. In Nunavet,
Canada, the Inuit people say the weather is uggianaqtuq--like a
familiar friend acting strangely.
What the residents of the Arctic are reporting fits
convincingly with powerful computer models, satellite images and
recently declassified ice measurements taken by Russian submarines.
In the last century, parts of the Arctic have warmed
by 10 degrees Fahrenheit--10 times the global average. Sea ice covers
15% less of the Arctic Ocean than it did 20 years ago, and that
ice has thinned from an average of 10 feet to less than 6.
A group of scientists who spent a year aboard an
icebreaker concluded that the year-round sea ice that sustains marine
mammals and those who hunt them could vanish altogether in 50 years.
The U.S. Navy, already planning for an ice-free Arctic,
is exploring ways to defend the previously ice-clogged Northwest
Passage from attack by sea.
Without the stabilizing effect of great land masses,
the Earth's watery north is exquisitely sensitive to warming. A
few degrees of warmth can mean the difference between ice and water,
permafrost or mud, hunger or even starvation for the inhabitants
of these remote lands.
Yet, explaining the quick thaw and determining its
cause-- whether human or natural--has so far eluded the experts.
There are few long-term climate observations from
the Arctic: Weather stations in the Far North are just 50 years
old. And there is almost no data from places like Russia's Chukotka
Peninsula, only 55 miles from Alaska.
In their search for information, Western scientists
are turning to sources they once disparaged. In a rare convergence
of science and folklore, a group of scientists is mining the memories
of native elders, counting animal pelts collected by hunters and
documenting the collective knowledge of entire villages.
These threads, which stretch back generations, may
be the only way to trace the outlines of the half-century of change
that has resculpted the Arctic and to figure out its cause.
"We have all these people paying very
close attention to the animals they hunt and the sea ice they travel
on," said Henry Huntington, a scientific consultant in Alaska.
"It's often extremely accurate and far better than anything
science has come up with."
Native observations that at first don't seem consistent
with the warming--such as snowier winters and colder summers--also
fit the scientists' models. Warmer air is expected to usher more
storms and precipitation into the Arctic. Melting sea ice in summer
can lower the water temperature and lead to cooler temperatures
on adjacent land.
Despite parallel observations, Western researchers
and Arctic dwellers still look at each other suspiciously across
a cultural divide. Many scientists remain uncomfortable with any
information that is not backed by numbers and measurements. Many
native elders resent scientists who come ashore with their strange
machines thinking they know more about the place than those who
Others mistrust Western scientists who come to gather
data and never send back word of their findings. They still recall
a group of toxicologists who came to remote villages here several
years ago to collect women's breast milk to measure pollution levels.
The scientists detected organic pollutants such as dioxin and PCBs
in the breast milk. But the women say they were never contacted
about the results.
For scientists, the facts are mostly a matter of
academic, and sometimes political, interest. But for the natives,
they may be a matter of life and death.
The subsistence hunters of Chukotka live in small
villages without pickup trucks or snowmobiles, without supply ships
or supermarkets. They have 19th century harpoons, small boats and
limited fuel for their hunts.
These villagers, almost entirely dependent on the
icy sea for their food, may be witnessing the demise of their ancient
way of life.
Caleb Pungowiyi, an Eskimo who works with scientists
to record the observations of his elders and peers, put it this
way: "When this Earth starts to be destroyed, we feel it."
Ice is a second home for Gennady Inankeuyas, a 42-year-old
hunter considered the best harpooner on the Chukotka Peninsula.
For years, Inankeuyas has prowled the ice for seals and walrus,
dragging heavy sleds and animal carcasses over the frozen ocean.
While he was butchering a bearded seal last November, the thin ice
cracked open beneath him. Inankeuyas was pulled out of the frigid
water, cut from his frozen sealskin pants and revived. He was lucky:
He did not lose any limbs to frostbite.
This year, Inankeuyas returned to the uncertain ice.
He had to. "Of course it's dangerous," he said. "But
the village needs the food."
That food is not as easy to come by now that the
weather has changed. "The south wind is a bad wind. It moves
the walrus to another place," said a 42-year-old Eskimo hunter
named Igor Macotrik. "The walrus is hard to find."
Scientists understand such observations. Their data
show that the walrus are declining, possibly because they also have
to work harder to find food. Walrus mothers nurse their babies on
sea-ice floes. As melting ice recedes, the walrus do too. Far from
the coast, the mothers must dive longer and deeper from the ice
to the sea floor to find clams.
In recent years, the Eskimo hunters have also noticed
that gray whales have become extremely skinny. The meat of some
freshly killed whales smells rancid, "like medicine,"
said 28-year-old hunter Maxim Agnagisyak. The sled dogs won't eat
it. Some hunters fear the flesh is rotting because the leviathans
aren't getting enough to eat.
Scientists are beginning to analyze samples of whale
blubber from the region to seek an explanation. For several years,
record numbers of gray whales have washed up dead and emaciated
as they migrate to their winter calving grounds in Baja California.
This year's whale count is still underway.
Land animals are also under stress. Reindeer herds
plummeted after the Soviet Union collapsed and the government subsidies
that helped sustain the herds were cut off. The animals began starving,
and their numbers continue to decline, perhaps because they cannot
forage beneath the strange, brittle snow that the natives call misullijuq.
Scientists have not studied the reindeer herds of
Chukotka, but they have seen similar starvation in Canadian caribou.
The grazing animals normally survive the winter by nosing through
soft, dry snow to feed on the tundra vegetation insulated below.
In recent warm years, winter rains have alternated with snow, leaving
an icy crust that is difficult to penetrate and lacerates the animals'
Scientists are only beginning to catch up with native
observations on many other aspects of the Arctic environment, such
as tundra vegetation. They are monitoring a tree line that is advancing
north as the Arctic warms. And scientists from Russia, Delaware
and Ohio have just started a large-scale project to study the ground
under the Eskimos' feet--the permafrost--as it thaws.
The stalwart Arctic people have survived for many
centuries alongside polar bears, seals and whales in conditions
too harsh for other human settlement. Their hold on the land is
so tenuous and so subject to disruption from the outside that anthropologists
have predicted their demise for two centuries.
Until now, the Eskimos have defied the doomsayers.
Nature has always provided. But now nature itself has gone awry.
Archeological evidence is scant, but it suggests
that today's Siberian Eskimos arrived in Chukotka from central Asia
about 2,500 years ago. That settlement would not have been possible
without the massive global warming that took place more than 10,000
years ago at the end of the last great Ice Age.
Melting ice submerged the Bering land bridge that
the first Americans had walked across some 13,000 years earlier.
The waters that surround the Chukotka Peninsula today
are among the richest in the world. They teem with 25 species of
marine mammals; 450 species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans; vast
numbers of summering seabirds; and innumerable krill and plankton
that provide food for many whales.
The early Eskimos followed their prey. They lived
in underground houses insulated from the cold and moved among seasonal
hunting camps. They collected eggs from seabirds and salmon and
plucked greens, berries and mushrooms from the tundra. They hunted
walrus, seal and whale. The flesh of marine mammals, particularly
maktak, the blubbery skin of the whale, is still preferred by many
to "European" macaroni and canned fruit.
Ludmilla Ainana, a 66-year-old Eskimo, was educated
by the Soviets in St. Petersburg and now lives in an apartment in
Chukotka's biggest town, Providenya. Though she can now buy chicken
and noodles and exotic ingredients like soy sauce at a grocery,
she still prefers the food of a childhood spent at a coastal camp
in a single yaranga, or reindeer hide tent. "Walrus flippers
with sea cabbage," she said. "It's delicious food."
When American whalers began arriving in the 1840s,
they praised the natives for their ingenuity and hired the men to
kill whales. The whalers left behind a taste for imported trade
goods, decimated whale stocks and a native population ravaged by
measles, smallpox and flu.
At the time, anthropologists warned that the native
way of life was doomed. But the Eskimos took to the whalers' improved
harpoons and became even better hunters. Still, the hunger for manufactured
goods marked the beginning of a long, slow shift from the old ways.
In the 1920s, the Soviets accelerated the process,
introducing the Eskimo hunters and Chukchi herders to jobs, wages
and a steady diet of imported food. They provided houses, schools,
clinics and coal for heat.
Families like Ainana's who had lived in scattered
settlements were relocated by the hundreds into villages such as
Yanrakynnot. In a village that once recorded 26 inhabitants in five
households, the population would swell to nearly 500, even though
the land could not support so many.
"These were convenient for supply ships,"
Ainana said, "but the hunting was very poor."
For the Eskimo, food, livelihood and an animistic
religion had always been intertwined. They not only hunted the whale,
they worshiped it.
But the Soviets jailed the shamans and outlawed native
whaling. Instead, big Russian whaling ships caught the beasts and
towed them to shore. The job of the natives was to slice up the
carcasses and feed the meat to caged foxes being raised for their
fur on the outskirts of Yanrakynnot. There were no more ceremonies,
no chanting by the elders, no heroes returning from the hunt.
"People stopped hunting and they became
butchers," said Igor Krupnik, a Smithsonian Institution ethnologist
and expert on the native people of Chukotka. "This was a tremendous
blow to their culture and their self-esteem."
The young began to embrace Soviet imports, including
vodka and cigarettes. Many began marrying ethnic Russians. Their
children received Russian lessons and Russian names. They forgot
how to hunt.
That modernization came to an abrupt end along with
the Soviet Union in 1991. Almost overnight, there were no supply
ships. No food. No coal. No heat.
Ainana spent years struggling to preserve the Eskimo
culture, but now watches from an upper-story gray concrete-block
apartment as it evaporates.
The warming of the Arctic, coupled with years of
intense social stress, she said, has had "a terrible effect
on lifestyle and health."
Villages shrank as families moved to the cities to
find work and food. Infant mortality, suicide, disease and alcoholism
all took a toll.
In some parts of the Russian Arctic, life expectancy
dropped to about 37 years. A 1989 census found 1,400 Eskimos in
Chukotka. The population is now estimated to be 700. Yanrakynnot's
population in 1989 was 448; today it has 100 fewer residents.
Those who remained tried to resurrect subsistence
hunting--even though no one really knew how.
Macotrik, the hunter from the relocated Eskimo settlement
of Novoye Chaplino, filled two small boats with young men and bravely
headed out to chase 50,000-pound whales. There were accidents and
deaths. Some were the fault of storms and rough seas; others were
caused by inexperience.
"Unfortunately, the old generation passed
away--the ones that knew how to approach the whale, how to use the
darting gun," said Macotrik as he sat in a dank hunting cabin
cleaning the Kalishnikov rifle he would use in the next day's whale
hunt. "We started from zero."
With the help of Alaskan cousins who provided boats,
gear and even hunting lessons, the Russian Eskimo once again surprised
"We watched with amazement as these people
restored their whaling," said anthropologist Krupnik. "We
were wrong to say the Soviet Union had dealt them a mortal blow."
Macotrik and his young crew have been bringing in
whales since 1997, helping feed their impoverished village and salvaging
some of their ancient pride.
"Walrus, seal and whale," Macotrik
said. "It's not just our food. It's our history and tradition."
It is unclear if the changing climate will let them.
With scientists still debating the trajectory of change in the Arctic,
the fate of the Siberian Eskimo remains as uncertain as the Arctic
ice in late spring.
Hunters with tiny boats and little fuel must now
go much farther out to sea for food. Sometimes they return empty-handed.
Sometimes they return with prey unusual for the season, or fish
native to warmer waters. Sometimes, when the seas are rough, they
do not return at all.
Much has been made of the plight of the Arctic people
by environmental activists hoping to draw attention to the issue
of global warming.
But Eskimo leaders, who repeatedly ask foreign visitors
"Are you a Greenpeace?" are wary of that attention and
of Western environmentalists, who often oppose their whaling.
The hunters willingly talk about the many changes
they see around them. But they don't spend much time worrying about
For the moment, they have more pressing concerns:
gathering enough ammo for the spring hunt and stretching their limited
supply of stored whale meat.
It is possible that the Eskimo will once again adapt--to
new food species that could move north with the shifting temperatures,
and to a new economy that could bring tourism, jobs, and enough
money for faster boats and better weapons.
The Eskimos have a haunting reminder of the instability
of Arctic life--one that still spooks hunters from Yanrakynnot as
they pass it on their way to the open sea. It is an island called
Yttygran. On the beach lie 60 massive bowhead whale skulls arranged
geometrically. Huge whale jawbones stand upright among them like
This is "Whalebone Allee," a shrine to
the whale, built in the 13th or 14th century. It is the abandoned
construction of a relatively large and organized civilization, with
an amphitheater and 120 stone meat lockers that still contain mummified
Today's Eskimos have no connection with the people
who built this, said Krupnik, the Smithsonian anthropologist who
helped excavate the site in the 1970s.
That society simply vanished, much like the Viking
settlements in Greenland that flourished for several hundred years
only to disappear when the Arctic climate cooled in the 15th century.
Why did the builders depart? Where did they go? "We
don't have a clue," Krupnik said. "It's an example of
how precarious life is in the Arctic."
It is also an example of what climate change can
do. For hundreds of years, the skulls of Whalebone Allee stood undisturbed
in precise rows.
But last winter, a massive ridge of ice, warmed and
weakened by an early thaw, pushed ashore and rammed the line of
whale bones. After more than 700 years of perfect alignment, the
relics now lie askew.