Alaska Relies on Ice. What Happens When It Can’t Be Trusted?
ANCHORAGE — It’s not springtime now in Alaska, it’s “break-up” — the end of safe travel on ice.
And in an era of climate change, break-up has been coming too soon, especially this year. The ice has become unpredictable, creating new, sometimes deadly hazards and a host of practical problems that disrupt the rhythms of everyday life.
The ice roads that carry freight in winter and spring have been going soft prematurely. Hunters cannot ride safely to their spring camps. Sled-dog races have been canceled. People traveling on frozen rivers by A.T.V. or snowmobile are falling through; some have died. Rescuers trying to reach them have been stymied by thin ice.
Alaskans are not just accustomed to hard-frozen winters, they depend on them — for essential transportation, subsistence hunting, industry and recreation. Frozen rivers connect rural villages the way highways connect the rest of the country.
Vehicle tracks along the shore of the Bering Sea near Nome. Essential transportation routes in Alaska are disrupted when winter ice on the state’s rivers and coasts softens earlier than expected.
“I don’t know anyone in Alaska who questions whether things have changed,” said Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Everyone sees it. Everyone feels it.”
Mark Leary is part of a team that builds an ice road each winter along 200 miles of the Kuskokwim River, connecting 13,000 people in small communities in a region of Southwest Alaska that lacks ordinary roads.
When the ice road is open, trucks can haul supplies to the villages, and people can drive to Bethel, the biggest town in the area, for shopping and medical appointments. School basketball teams can travel to away games without having to fly in small planes.
“The river is our highway,” Mr. Leary said. “It’s everything to us.”
Later freeze-ups and earlier thaws over the last decade have kept the ice on the river from getting as thick as it once did, so his team has switched to using a lightweight plow that can safely clear thinner ice.
“The river is always teaching us,” he said. “The more respectful and observant you are, the more you learn.”
Mr. Leary, who is also a volunteer team leader with Bethel Search and Rescue, said poor ice quality was a persistent public safety concern. People drive snowmobiles or A.T.V.s over routes they have used for many years without thinking about the changing ice conditions, he said, and when people are drinking, they take more risks.
Five people have died falling through ice this spring in Mr. Leary’s region alone, including two on March 31.
The effects of climate change are amplified in Alaska because the warming ocean holds less sea ice, according to Rick Thoman, a climate researcher at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Ice reflects sunlight, he said, while open water absorbs it, warming the air above. Decreasing snow cover is having a similar effect on land, he added.
Many people in rural Alaska supplement their food supply by hunting and fishing. Charles Wright, who lives in Tanana, a village on the Yukon River about 100 miles west of Fairbanks, has hunted geese and trapped beaver with his family since he was a boy.
The family aims to make the annual 30-mile journey to their spring hunting camp by snowmobile in mid-April, Mr. Wright said, but this year the ice is too thin. So they now must wait for the rivers to clear, and then hunt by boat.
“We used to be able to predict the weather and know what time to go out and do certain things,” Mr. Wright said.
He said he has had so many close calls snowmobiling on river ice that he wears a life jacket when he rides.
Vanishing sea ice is the issue for people in Kivalina, a finger-thin barrier island in the Chukchi Sea. Janet Mitchell, a former city administrator in Kivalina, said that when she was growing up, hunters would walk out on the sea ice to find bearded seals sunning themselves.
These days, though, stable sea ice rarely freezes all the way to the shore, Ms. Mitchell said, so “now we have to hunt in the open water.” She said her nephews have learned to scan the sea from a boat for animals popping up in the waves.
Without sea ice to calm the water, Ms. Mitchell said, winter storms do more damage, eroding an island that is also shrinking because of rising sea levels. There has been talk of relocating her village to the mainland.
In Utqiagvik, the northernmost community in the United States, churches held services in late March to bless the crews who hunt bowhead whales, a vital food source for the community. Then the whalers began building a trail on the coastal sea ice between the village and the open water of the Arctic Ocean.
The ice looks decent this year, according to Frederick Brower, a fourth-generation whaling captain. But he said it was hard to find old ice left over from the previous winter, which used to be common. The migrating whales come north sooner when there is less sea ice, he said, so the villagers now hunt them two weeks earlier than they used to.
When they get a whale, the hunters haul it onto the ice, and scores of townspeople go out to the water’s edge to help break the carcass down. That’s when Mr. Brower worries.
“Not only are you concerned about ice thickness holding the bowhead,” which can weigh 30 tons, he said. “It’s when you get an influx of 300 people,” plus their snowmobiles.
The streets of Anchorage are clear for biking and the crocuses are blooming weeks sooner than usual this spring. A few weeks ago, Paxson Woelber, who runs an outdoor recreation website, was helping his girlfriend, Cori Graves, a photographer, with a bridalwear shoot out on the smooth, skater-friendly ice of Portage Lake south of the city when they had a serious scare.
A huge chunk of the Portage Glacier, seven stories high and 100 feet wide, broke off and fell into the lake, causing waves that rolled and heaved the ice where they were standing.
“We could see the swells coming,” Mr. Woelber said. “As they push up the ice, it kind of sprays water between the plates. The model was faced with the absurd prospect of fleeing the glacial calving event in a wedding dress.”
Philip Rode’s ice adventure was much dicier.
When the Bering Sea is frozen, he and other miners from Nome set up camp on the sea ice and dive beneath it to collect gold-bearing sediments. The ice usually stays solid until May, but in early March, while he was at a basketball game, he got the alarming news that it was breaking up.
He said that he and some colleagues dug their boat out of the snow, motored out to the ice raft where their camp was now adrift, and walked onto the ice to recover their equipment, only to see more slushy breaks open up between them and their boat. They couldn’t get back.
The miners had to be rescued by helicopter; by then the current had pushed their ice raft five miles from shore. “Had no one called it in,” Mr. Rode said, “we would have been at the mercy of the sea.”