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Opik Ahkinga

Brendan Smith/North Pacific Research Board

Q&A: On a Bering Sea island, disappearing ice threatens a way of life

Over the past two winters, ice cover in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia has fallen to the lowest levels seen in at least 4 decades. Now, scientists are trying to figure out whether this is a statistical fluke, or another sign of climate change. A lasting shift could dramatically transform a region that is home to indigenous communities whose way of life relies on ice. Some communities cut holes in the sea ice for crabbing, for example, or use the ice to travel to fishing and hunting areas.

One native community that has had a close-up view of the recent changes in the Bering Sea is the village of Diomede, which sits on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait. Opik Ahkinga is the village’s environmental coordinator. ScienceInsider recently interviewed her about how the changing winter ice has affected life on Little Diomede Island and nearby Big Diomede Island.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What changes in sea ice have you seen?

A: We haven’t seen a good freeze up since 2012. When I say “freeze up,” I mean there was no open water to be seen around both islands for 2-plus miles. [Instead,] we saw areas of open water on both the north and south sides of Big Diomede.

We used to crab a mile south off our island; in 2013, our crabbing area was about half a mile out due to open water. In 2016, we set crabbing areas even closer to the village. That was a warm year for us. Nearing the second week of November, there was no snow coverage and still some green grass near walkways. That was the first time any of us had seen a fall season like that.

[In 2017], on December 24th, on my helicopter flight to Nome, I saw only slush ice and small scattered new ice around the Diomede Islands. I flew back home on January 18, 2018, and there was still … much open water. It was a pretty sight to see, but not what the hunters and ice crabbers wanted.

On February 20, 2018, fierce southerly winds and monster waves hit Diomede. Even my chimney pipe blew over. My dad is 82 years old and told me that is not something he has seen or heard of by his elders before him. On March 25th, I made my first crabholes on the south side, but on April 10 the ice broke away. By the 16th, we were surrounded by ocean again. Hearts were broken. I caught only one Alaska blue king crab in 2018.

Q: How are people on Little Diomede reacting to the low sea ice?

A: None of us like this climatic change. We know our ocean water is warmer and that we’ll never see that old ice pass through the Bering Strait. We know if the ice freezes it won’t begin in December and stay until May. We know hunting and crabbing could last a month or less. Low ice conditions will continue to take away our Inupiaq cultural lifestyle.

I know many of us miss our traditional foods. I hear people talking about how they miss eating fermented walrus flipper. Even that makes my mouth water, because I want that, too.

There are family-owned meat caches that are never used anymore, since 2012. After a spring walrus hunt, the men stored walrus flippers in those meat holes. Bad ice movements kept the hunters from boating out to catch walrus. Diomede has seen bad walrus hunting in the past 6 years.

Our main food source today comes from the stores, processed and packaged in plastics and cans. This wasn’t the daily life we had in the past. Everyone preferred to eat Eskimo foods instead. It doesn’t cost money, is healthier for us, and tastes way better to us, too.

Q: Has the loss of sea ice had a direct impact on you?

A: The last Bering Air flight landed [here] in May of 2013. Diomede is a tiny little island without an airplane runway. We had to wait for the winter ice to freeze to a thickness of 4.5 feet, and no open water to the north. When the ice was frozen enough, a front loader could scrape a 2000-foot runway. Bering Air Service could land and bring us mail and freight daily. 

I miss those airplane days. We saw fresh produce and frozen meat products in our local store, in the winter and spring. Before climate change took our good ice seasons, helicopter service happened only in the summer and fall. Today, we see [helicopter service] throughout the entire year, once a week, weather permitting. Traveling out of Diomede via helicopter is extremely expensive, making it harder for people to travel in and out.