Farewell, Sweet Ice

Farewell, Sweet Ice

Melting ice is threatening the centuries-old society of the Gwich’in tribes.


Gwich’in elders long ago predicted that a day would come when the world would warm, and things would not be the same with the animals. That time is now.

My tribe, the Gwich’in of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada, are the northernmost Indian nation on the American continent. Our 8,000 tribal members live in fifteen small villages dotted across a huge area of subarctic tundra and forest scattered with thousands of lakes and scores of rivers. Our home is also home to the Porcupine River Caribou Herd. For as long as anyone can remember, we have survived by hunting caribou. Despite the introduction of rifles, Christianity, a few snowmobiles and some electricity, we still make our living from subsistence hunting.

ow climate change has put our lives and livelihoods in immediate danger: The lakes, the rivers, the waterfowl and, most of all, the caribou that we depend on are under threat.

Because nature is the fabric of our lives, we cannot really separate “the climate” from our human selves. So when we talk about the environment and especially about the decline of caribou, we are talking about who we are and who we want to continue to be. It is a question of our very survival as a people.

ot far from Gwich’in land is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain. Potential oil and gas development there would further stress the caribou and fuel more greenhouse gas emissions, which would cause even more, very bad changes down the line. That is why we oppose plans to drill for oil there.

The biggest impact from climate change that we have seen recently has been two immense forest fires that laid waste millions of acres–more than 6 million acres in 2004 and 4 million acres in 2005. When the giant fires of the Yukon Flats started in the summer of 2004, the marten were driven up to Arctic Village, north of their natural territories. Gwich’in, who trap the marten, are finding them scarce, and that means loss of fur for clothing and cash income from the sale of marten pelts.

We are even seeing a decline in snowfall to the point that it is making travel by sled and snowmobile difficult. Warmer weather means that creeks are taking longer to freeze, and when they do the ice is often too thin to hold heavy loads. This means that getting firewood in the early winter is becoming very difficult and dangerous.

Worst of all are the problems faced by the massive Porcupine River Caribou Herd. We rely on these animals for much of our food; their numbers used to be 178,000, but they have dropped to 129,000 in a mere decade. Calf mortality has risen because of unstable environmental conditions. In 2000 and 2001 the Porcupine River thawed early. This was extremely serious, because it forced the pregnant cows to give birth south of the river rather than in their normal birthing grounds and summer pastures.

But the caribou’s instinct to go north to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is so strong that the cows then persisted in crossing the rushing water. Thousands of calves drowned as a result. A tragedy in itself, this also threatens our lives and culture.

The caribou’s migration route has also been changing over the past thirty years. We have noticed how the herd is not as plentiful around Arctic Village as it was thirty years ago. My grandfather remembers vast numbers of caribou moving in waves near the village during the spring and summer. The herd was seeking shelter on glaciers and pockets of snow in the mountains. Those places are critical to the survival of newborn caribou: Mothers and calves rest on these cold spots to avoid voracious predatory insects that can kill the little calves. But now those spots have all disappeared. Since the ice and snow are gone in these pockets, the herd has had to move north of their usual area. Now they try to stay near the Brooks Range for its more plentiful snow, ice and water.

With the herd shifting north, it’s getting harder and harder for the hunters to locate them, and we find it much more difficult to provide for our families. Instead of being able to complete provisioning before the harshness of winter arrives, we have had to wait until winter so we can cross rivers and find hard snow surfaces. And not only is the herd smaller but the caribou are generally not as healthy.

The permafrost is melting everywhere and this is having a devastating effect on the Chandalar, Porcupine and Yukon rivers: All three are getting very low.

It sounds contradictory to say that melting permafrost diminishes rivers, but the underground ice, the permafrost, held the water and regulated its flow. Only small amounts would melt gradually into the rivers. Now that the permafrost is melting, the water runs off quickly, washing away instead of trickling slowly through the filter of partially frozen ground. That leaves the rivers lower much sooner in the summer.

Water levels in the Chandalar River are so low that local moose hunters, who used to go upriver some twenty miles past Grandfather Mountain to hunt, now cannot. Gwich’in from the Yukon Flats travel to Old Crow, Canada, by river, but now they have to drag their boats in a lot of places because the water is so low.

Lakes are especially important to the Gwich’in diet because they have abundant wildlife. But these lakes are drying out. We have noticed that there is a definite decline in numbers of whitefish, for example. Whitefish used to be the most common kind of fish, but they’re getting scarce and we hardly make the winter harvest anymore. Because the fish feed on water plants all year long, they provide good nutrition from the waters to help us during a long winter without fresh produce.

Global warming is affecting every facet of Gwich’in life. The Gwich’in elders saw it coming, a time when the weather would warm and change. The elders even foretold the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion. They had a name for what scientists call the ozone layer. In Gwich’in we call the shield against the sun’s harsh rays “Zhee vee Luu.” The elders knew something was happening to it. And just as the old stories were telling us: The climate is changing and the animals are changing their movements.

In 1988, at our first Gwich’in Gathering in 100 years, Gwich’in elders directed us to educate the world about the threats posed by oil and gas development in the calving and nursery grounds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now our whole way of life is threatened by global warming.

As Sarah James, Gwich’in Steering Committee spokesperson, has stated: “Protection of the refuge should not be treated as a separate issue from climate change. Let us connect Arctic Refuge with global warming. Drilling for more oil and burning it will contribute to climate change.” We need solutions in our local communities, nationally and internationally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that threaten not just us, here in the far North, but all cultures everywhere.

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