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Climate Change Comes for the Freezers, a Key Tool for Alaska Natives

HOOPER BAY, Alaska — As the remnants of Typhoon Merbok lashed the plywood walls of the house she shared with her children and grandchildren, Frieda Stone wrote a Bible verse on a small card.

The severe weather, which hit Alaska’s western coast on Sept. 16, was the most powerful early-season storm scientists had ever measured there. The jet stream steered it north from abnormally warm waters east of Japan. As it approached, meteorologists recorded hurricane-force winds and 50-foot swells in the Bering Sea. In this remote Yup’ik village, the ocean came closer as each breaking wave of the storm surge roared in.

Ms. Stone, 68, slipped the card in a sandwich bag and shuffled outside. Using a red string, she tied the bag to one of the posts that held her house 4 feet above ground, asking God for a specific mercy.

“I asked him to watch over the freezers,” she said.

In rural Alaska, the stand-alone freezer is everything. With most traditional cold storage methods wiped out by warmer temperatures, Indigenous Alaskans are totally dependent on freezers just as climate change also threatens the power systems, which run those appliances, more with every passing season.

“All these communities that are coastal communities, much of the infrastructure is vulnerable to flooding, especially in these extreme events,” said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “If your power’s out for four days and your freezer completely thaws, at this time of year there’s no realistic or likely mechanism to replace that with food from the land.”

No rural home is without a freezer and most have several. Dented Kenmore chests piled with hunting clothes, vintage standing units in avocado green, new Frigidaire frost-frees. By fall, they hold a winter’s supply of wild food to offset the high cost of groceries flown in by plane. Freezers preserve generations-old harvest practices and underpin delicate village economies.

In Hooper Bay, some freezers have hummed on for 20 years in enclosed entryways, holding what’s gathered through the long-held rituals of wild harvest Alaskans call “subsistence.” A typical freezer might contain moose ribs, white fish, herring eggs, chinook salmon, bearded seal, beluga and gallons of berries, alongside bulk convenience foods like Cool Whip, pizza rolls and Popsicles.

The village sits on the ocean edge of a low-lying delta between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, made up of treeless tundra and countless lakes. About 1,400 people live there. Half are children. Most speak at least some Yup’ik. Many of the houses are crowded and decades old, built by the government with materials and designs unfit for the harsh climate. About half have indoor plumbing.

As in most villages in Alaska, the cash economy is weak. The main employers are the state and federal governments and the tribe. The last census put Hooper Bay’s unemployment rate at 25 percent, and 40 percent of people were living below the poverty line. No one can live on store-bought food alone. Milk, for example, is $16 a gallon, twice as much as fuel.

“We’d rather pay for gas than pay for food,” said Jan Olson, tribal administrator with the Native Village of Hooper Bay. “We can pay for food at the store, but if we pay the same amount in gas we can get fish and birds and moose and sometimes we get seals on the way home.”

There’s every indication that there will be more storms like the one that came last month, Mr. Thoman said. The region is easily warming three times faster than the lower 48 states. Even smaller storms cause more damage than they used to because there is less sea ice to calm the ocean and shore ice to absorb the waves, he said. On top of that, permafrost is melting, making the ground unstable, said Bill Stamm, chief executive of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, which operates power plants in 58 small communities.

“It’s just going to be a continual battle at this point,” he said.

Before electricity came to the western villages in the 1960s, people kept food cold by digging a hole into the permafrost. Over the last 50 years, however, the average annual temperature in the area has climbed 4 degrees, and it is no longer consistently below freezing year round, Mr. Thoman said. The day after the storm, the village store sold out of generators to keep freezers running, Mr. Olson said.

“If freezers didn’t work, we’d have to dry and ferment and salt,” Mr. Olson said. “The younger generation, they are starting to lose how that’s supposed to be done. Even I’m starting to forget.”

It’s not realistic to imagine a life without freezers, he said. “We have to have it, you know?”

As Merbok bore down last month, an 8-foot surge of seawater rolled ashore, spilling over a wall of sandbags at Hooper Bay’s power plant. It tipped an empty tank and fouled the pipes that bring fuel to the town’s main generator. The next morning, when plant workers Leemon Andrew and Leemon Bunyan arrived, the generator tank was getting low. A number of homes were already without power, but if the tank ran out, the whole village would go dark — and the freezers would die.

The pair, who are cousins, formed a bucket brigade, slogging through floodwaters carrying 5 gallons of diesel at a time to fill the tank. Eventually they rigged up a garden hose. Everyone in the village can tell the story.

“People, they tell me, ‘I got a year’s supply of food that’s going to possibly go to waste, what do I do?’” Mr. Andrew said.

Bernetta Rivers’ freezer went out for only a few days, but it wasn’t until a week after the storm that she ventured to open it. It was so old, the door was nearly rusted through, but it still worked. Inside, a fully feathered duck nestled into a freezer bag with gray whale meat near a baggie of “mouse food,” starchy tubers collected out of vole dens. Ms. Rivers, 52, didn’t gather everything herself. Some things she traded. Others were gifts. She inspected an inky bag of berries that had thawed and refrozen.

“See, they got compact now,” she said, deciding to use them anyway.

She planned to make akutaq, a Native soul food that in her village means combining berries with sugar, whipped Crisco, mashed potatoes and water. The oldest people in the village, including her parents, had never seen anything like the storm, she said.

“I have seen floods before all right,” she said. “But this was one of the windiest, fastest flowing.”

Nastasia Ulroan, 62, wasn’t as lucky as Ms. Rivers. Flying debris sheared off her meter box and her freezers had been without power for a week, ruining everything. In some places, a house is the most valuable possession a person might lose in a storm, but in the village a freezer is just as precious. Ms. Ulroan couldn’t sleep, grieving 10 gallons of berries she’d lost, which could have been traded for cash to fill an A.T.V. or protein like seal or moose.

“Every day I have been going to my house and cry really hard,” she said.

The storm damaged other essential tools for subsistence. In Hooper Bay, about 75 open-topped skiffs, used for fishing, hunting marine mammals and getting to moose hunting sites, were carried a mile inland and deposited on muddy marshland. Longtime hunting and fishing camps — usually consisting of small cabins, drying racks and equipment like nets — were obliterated.

Similar accounts were still coming in last week from villages along 1,000 miles of Alaska’s coastline. No one was killed or injured, but so far 35 villages have reported moderate to heavy damage, according to Vivian Korthuis, chief executive of the Association of Village Council Presidents. Electricity was restored, but some freezers were made unusable, hurting a family for years to come, she said. People also lost snowmobiles for winter hunting, fishing nets, smokehouses and many boats.

“They are not recreational boats,” she said. “They are boats to provide food for the families.”

Representative Mary Peltola, who is Yup’ik, grew up filling her freezer with salmon in nearby Bethel. This year the salmon run was so low, people got few fish. Being a provider is the most important job in rural communities and wealth is measured first in freezer stores, she said. Her sister has a recurring nightmare about returning from a trip to the smell of rotting food. Her son interpreted the dream.

“He said, ‘Well there’s two parts to that nightmare. The first part is cleaning out the freezer and that’s terrible. But the worst part, the heartbreaking part, is having to throw away all that work and all of those animals that gave themselves to you,’” she said.

What a freezer holds is more than calories or dollars, she explained, but also Alaska Native history and culture. That’s why babies teethe on dry fish, Ms. Peltola said. “It’s their first food” she said. “So they learn to love that burst of oil and the savoriness of salmon.”

Ms. Stone and her family made it to higher ground but water twisted their house off its foundation. The freezers, however, survived this time. After the storm, villagers cut them out of the house, moved them across town and attached them to a generator.

A few days after the water receded, Ms. Stone busied herself kneading fry bread dough at a relative’s house. Her home is likely a loss, but she considers her prayers answered. It’s customary for hunters to bring elders food. Her freezer is full of gifts from land and community, she said.

“It’s a way of life since I can remember, a way of life for survival,” she said. “My grandmother, I saw her with my eyes working on all kinds of animals.”

Over at Hooper Bay’s tribal administration building, Mr. Olson fielded calls about damaged houses and missing boats. His own family moved to a shelter because flooding pushed his house off its foundation. His wife evacuated through rising water with a grandchild on her back and a child clinging to her leg.

President Biden recently approved emergency aid for the communities, including grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses. But village leaders think more drastic, permanent measures will be needed.

The power plant isn’t safe where it is, Mr. Olson said. The storm convinced him and other village leaders the entire community needs to be moved to higher ground. It’s an unimaginably costly proposal that a neighboring village, Newtok, has already undertaken. The storm caused major damage to Newtok’s original site.

“One more storm, it’s just gonna be wiped away and that’s it,” Mr. Olson said.

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