As Kotzebue experiences one of its warmest years on record, subsistence hunters contend with shrinking ice

A Bearded seal rests on ice off coast of Alaska (June 21 2011 John Jansen NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center)
A Bearded seal rests on ice off coast of Alaska (June 21, 2011 photo by John Jansen NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center)

In the winter, Kotzebue Sound used to be rife and bountiful with ice. This past season, though, was a little skinny.

“At a time of year when the ice, historically, was thick and solid, we had open water in parts of the Sound,” said Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The year 2019 has been very hot in Kotzebue. This month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, released numbers showing that summer temperatures were three degrees warmer on average this year. That’s on top of a record spring that was six degrees warmer than the previous record. 

Thoman says water temperatures reached into 60 degrees this past summer. High water temperatures in the region normally peak at about 57 degrees. He says hot springs and summers mean winters could continue to have less sea ice.

“Late freeze-up in the Chukchi Sea is guaranteed at this point because of the warm water temperatures, and the models are forecasting early breakup in the spring of 2020 as well,” Thoman said.

With winter subsistence hunts around the corner, changing sea ice could have major effects on how much hunters are able to harvest this season.

How warmer weather affects access to subsistence is the subject of a doctoral study at Stanford University. Kristen Green is a PhD researcher with the university. Since 2016, she’s been travelling to Kotzebue and Kivalina, speaking with subsistence hunters about how their seasons have changed. 

“People are worried about how their lifestyles are going to change and if they’re going to get enough of these important food sources that are both subsistence and cultural,” Green said.

Green says the availability of subsistence resources may change as hunting seasons adjust to shifting ice. Safely navigating the shrinking ice is becoming more difficult, and Green says hunters have had to adjust their timelines to some harvests already.

“Two important coastal species, bearded seals and belugas, are now being harvested earlier in May,” Green said. “They used to be harvested into July, sometimes the end of July. Because there’s the extent in thickness of sea ice, the stability to harvest those animals for that time period has shifted now.” 

She says there could be smaller harvests of marine mammals that rely on sea ice, and hunters may need to offset that loss. 

“As availability of one species becomes harder to find, if there’s not enough bearded seal, will people need to rely more on caribou for example,” Green said. “So I think being able to anticipate where there’s shortages and thinking about where there might be other species that are going to be impacted can help in the overall planning.”

As decisions are made surrounding access to subsistence resources, Green suggests hunters lobby state and federal subsistence managers to ensure their voices are being heard.

The funding for Green’s research grant runs out at the end of 2019. Her group plans of releasing the findings of the study over the next two years.