DANGEROUS ICE, Barrow Alaska

As part of my research into the use of ICT for adaptation to climate change in the Arctic, I had set about to interview the hunters and residents of Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska about the recent shorefast ice break-off  event which nearly took the lives of a whaling crew that drifted away on an ice floe: “There were days in which everybody held each other down. We hadn’t seen them in a while. Yesterday was a very concerning day…all day yesterday,” stated Fannie Akpik, the Coordinator of the Inupiaq Education at the North Slope Borough School District. She continued, “We even have a name for it: Uisau, which means to get drifted with ice that comes and goes after the ice opens.” There is perhaps no place in which the consequences of global climate change can be felt more acutely than the Artic; and if the break-off event of April 29th is any indication, the key for survival—as it has always been—is adaptation. Luckily, the specialist knowledge of the Inupiat is helping us better understand just what is happening in one of the northernmost points on earth, and their experience illustrates how important local, indigenous knowledge is to human survival on our rapidly changing planet.


2014-04-24 20.32.28“Shorefast” ice is the type that is adjacent to the coast and characterized by a lack of motion. It forms in the autumn, and melts away in the summer. In coastal, Arctic communities, whalers have—and still are—dependent on this ephemeral landscape for sustenance, in the form of marine mammals. In Barrow each spring, local Inupiat whaling crews create trails on the shorefast ice to travel safely all the way to the edge of the ice, where camps are set up for the traditional hunt. Hunters have drifted away on ice before; a particularly memorable incident happened in 1997, when more than 140 hunters were left floating precariously on ice sheets that had broken away. Michael Donovan, one of those hunters, remembers: “It was definitely a life changing experience. [Knowing] just how fast the ice conditions can change on you. One day you are out there on a whale and then you are being blown off 10 miles offshore.” Nagruk Harcharek, another local hunter, further explained that, “…normally what we would do is place a compass on the ice and if that starts to turn, then you are obviously moving” but his crew didn’t realize that they were drifting until the helicopter landed on their camp as the cracks were not within sight. It is extremely dangerous to be caught off-guard as: “the high winds up here can crush up the ice into little pieces“, explained hunter Brian Thomas.


The whaling crew who drifted away two months ago were lucky; the ice break occurred on a flat sheet, and they were able to stay safe until they could be rescued: “If you know the behavior of the ice, then you can make a plan, and lives can be saved,” stated Johnny Adams, a local hunter at the Barrow Volunteer Search and Rescue. Knowing the behaviour of the ice, though, is no simple matter. It’s complex knowledge, which is passed on from generation to generation, and it’s also what has enabled whalers to sustain their livelihoods in this highly volatile and dangerous landscape. As Donovan pointed out, “…it’s hard to teach somebody; we just grow up learning it. You just follow your elders. Every day, you learn something new.

And it is not just a matter of tradition; it is a matter of survival: “There is always that thought: ‘Yeah, we can break off!’ But then there is the other side of it, the subsistence side, that you know this is necessary. So you kind of weigh the risks and try to pick spots that you believe are solid enough to be on that you wont go adrift,” said Harcharek. Adaptation interrelated with technology and tradition is what has made human subsistence possible and viable in such a highly unpredictable environment (Sakakibara 2010). Information such as radar and satellite images can assist search and rescue operations to prepare for a mission in case of emergency. As hunters from the Barrow Volunteer Search and Rescue believe, this will continue to happen, and likely at an increased rate, so they always have to be ready for catastrophe. But the Inupiat will continue to hunt, “…the weather has changed a lot but just like anything else you know, if the food moves somewhere else then I’m sure we will move with it. But we will never disappear,” Brower Frantz, a local hunter, stated. The overall success of the adaptation of Arctic Indigenous Peoples will depend on the degree to which they are able to conceive, design, develop, and carry out their own response measures (Henry et al. 2013). Frantz’s statement, and those of the many hunters and residents I spoke with, give strong testimony to the adaptation of the Inupiat mind, which is what has allowed them to survive in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth.


I would like to thank all the UMIAQ staff and all the hunters and residents of Barrow for their amazing hospitality and for taking the time to answer my questions, the SIZONET team at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the CARVE science team at JPL, the ExCiteS group and the members of the Citizen Cyberlab for their support and suggestions.


  • Henry, C. et al., 2013. Indigenous perceptions of reseilience. In Arctic Council (eds.). Arctic Resilience Interim Report 2013. Stockholm Environment Insitute and Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm.
  • Sakakibara, C. 2010. Kiavallakkikput Agvik (Into the Whaling Cycle): Cetaceousnes and Climate Change among the Inupiat of Arctic Alaska. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100(4):1003-1012.

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