A sea ice monitoring project is a climate adaptation tool for Utqiaġvik whalers

A man in winter clothes stands over a sled filled with scientific instrumentation.
Josh Jones, researcher with UAF’s Geophysical Institute and International Arctic Research Center prepares the instrumentation to measure sea ice thickness along the coast of Utqiaġvik on April 22, 2024. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

On a foggy afternoon in April, scientists Matt Druckenmiller and Josh Jones revved a pair of snowmachines to the edge of the shorefast sea ice, the wide sheet of ice connected to the coastline off Utqiaġvik. 

As they neared the end of the trail, the sun broke through the fog, illuminating miles of chunky, translucent blue ice blocks. 

“Turned out to be quite an afternoon. It’s nice out here,” Druckenmiller observed. He and Jones parked at the end of a whaling trail, one of the paths that local whalers carve every year to reach the open water of the Chukchi Sea. 

For Druckenmiller, who has been studying this ice since he was a graduate student in 2007, the landscape of jagged ice shards and boulders seemed flatter than usual. 

“This year, there’s a lot fewer grounded ridges than you would maybe normally see. But there are some out here,” he said.

Grounded ridges are tall, thick formations anchored deep in the water below. Ice formations vary from year to year but as climate change progresses, whalers say the big ridges are harder to find.

Pack ice in front of dark clouds
Dark clouds show where open ocean water meets the pack ice in Utqiaġvik on April 22, 2024. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)
A man in a winter coat and sunglasses carries a shotgun in an arctic landscape.
Matt Druckenmiller, Research Scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, carries a weapon for polar bear protection while studying sea ice along the coast of Utqiaġvik on April 22, 2024. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

This ice landscape supports Utqiaġvik’s annual spring bowhead whale hunt, a vital part of the community’s subsistence hunting calendar. And it’s changing fast. Sea ice extent in the Arctic last year was the sixth lowest on record since 1979.

Utqiaġvik’s shorefast ice formed within the last six months, and in another few months, it’s likely to completely disappear. 

Multi-year ice, sea ice that sticks around through the summer and into the next winter is also becoming rare.

“Last I remember was maybe 2021,” said Jones. “There was a small piece of multi-year ice off town.”

Every spring, Druckenmiller and Jones spend a few weeks in Utqiaġvik monitoring ice thickness along the sprawling network of whaling trails the community builds and relies on. The data they collect becomes a helpful tool to understand each year’s ice conditions — and how climate change is shaping the ice long-term.

Druckenmiller, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, and Jones, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, are with a UAF initiative called the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub. AAOKH compiles data and observations from local Indigenous knowledge holders and scientists to provide coastal Arctic communities an ongoing record of how the environment is changing. 

AAOKH’s research is meant to center Indigenous knowledge and support the priorities of local communities, like subsistence hunting and fishing.

“Before, research was not necessarily trying to meet community needs. It was more science for the sake of science,” said Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade, AAOKH project coordinator. Glenn-Borade, who grew up in Utqiaġvik, spoke to Alaska Public Media in December, after AAOKH’s research was included in NOAA’s 2023 Arctic Report Card

“I think that’s one thing that AAOKH has made a difference in, to really listen and understand what we can do today to start meeting those needs,” she said.

Druckenmiller and Jones’ project monitoring the ice along whaling trails began in the early 2000’s, when longtime North Slope Borough wildlife biologist Craig George partnered with local whaling captain Warren Matumeak to map trails and record ice conditions. 

More than two decades later, whaling trail data collection is still going strong. That afternoon on the ice, Jones opened a plastic tote tied to a sled behind one of the snow machines and pressed a few buttons. Inside, an electromagnetic conduction device began to chime. 

Scientific equipment inside a plastic tote.
Electrical equipment used to measure ice thickness sits inside a plastic tote on a sled on the sea ice of Utqiaġvik on April 22, 2024. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)
A snowmachine pulls a sled in front of another snow machine.
Josh Jones, researcher with UAF’s Geophysical Institute and International Arctic Research Center, tows a sled of equipment that measures sea ice thickness along the coast of Utqiaġvik on April 22, 2024. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

“You can think of it as kind of similar to a metal detector in a way,” Druckenmiller said. 

As it’s dragged down the trail in the sled, the device emits electromagnetic waves to calculate how thick the ice is. Later, Druckenmiller and Jones download the data and compile it into a map of the community’s whaling trails, color coded for ice depth – blue lines indicate the thickest ice, red lines show the thinnest, at just two feet or less. 

They send the maps out on social media, email them to whaling captains and drop printed copies around town. 

Druckenmiller says there’s value in maintaining a long term record of the ice to track climate change. But this science has a more immediate impact too.

“We also really appreciate being able to provide something to the whaling community that’s helpful,” he said. “It facilitates a relationship, it facilitates sharing knowledge, and that enables us all I think, to better understand the ice.” 

Billy Adams, a longtime whaler and sea ice expert in Utqiaġvik, agrees. 

“People are excited when the maps are out,” he said. Adams also serves as an observer for AAOKH.

Whaling crews spend a lot of time scouting the ice each spring, but Adams said the maps are a helpful tool for determining where the thickest ice is. They also serve as a resource in emergencies, to make it easier to locate crews on the ice.

Adams and other whalers have helped support the mapping efforts for nearly two decades by sharing sea ice knowledge and identifying trails. Adams said it’s a good example of science and traditional knowledge partnering to protect subsistence resources.

“When you bridge science with local experts, using Indigenous people, I think it’s a way to find the truth,” he said. “That can be fairly done – equitable research involving Indigenous communities around the Arctic.”

Two maps on computer screens.
Josh Jones, researcher with UAF’s Geophysical Institute and International Arctic Research Center, reviews a radar map of the sea ice around Utqiaġvik on April 24, 2024. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

Druckenmiller and Jones’ maps are just one tool to provide whalers with information. A radar station and webcam set up on top of an Utqiaġvik office building in 2008 provide snapshots of the ice that crews can check to monitor how conditions are changing.

Jones said they know these tools are helpful because they get a flood of texts and emails whenever the site crashes.

“We don’t know how many people are using it until it goes down,” Jones said. “And then we hear from a bunch of people.”

Arctic sea ice is rapidly disappearing due to climate change. In the last 10 years Adams said he’s seen dramatic changes, from thinner ice to ice-free seas well into the fall and early winter. 

A woman in glasses and hand tattoos sits in an office chair.
Asisaun “Asi” Toovak, City Mayor for Utqiaġvik, in her office on April 23, 2024. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

Asisaun Toovak, mayor of the city of Utqiaġvik and a whaler herself, remembers the shorefast ice stretching eight miles wide. 

“Now, it’s maybe half of that,” she said.

Toovak and other whalers say it’s harder to find the thick, flat ice crews rely on to support the 40 or 50 ton bowhead whales they pull in. She said tools like the whaling trail maps and radar images are part of a process of adaptation that help make whaling “more efficient and more safe.”

“We’re not sitting here, hoping the ice doesn’t start to melt. We’re sitting here, first thinking about how are we going to adapt to that environment?” she said. “How are we going to continue food sovereignty and our cultural practices by adapting to that change?”

Toovak said she doesn’t worry her community will lose the ability to hunt bowheads, even as the sea ice declines. She said they’ll find a way to adapt. They’ve been whaling for 10,000 years, and she expects they’ll be whaling for another 10,000.

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Kavitha here.

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