With the holidays upon us again, I think back with both pleasure and distress to the feast I was welcomed to a few seasons ago at the top of Alaska.
The effects of climate change in polar regions are now starkly obvious–and they have consequences. Not so long ago, the part of the Arctic Ocean adjacent to Katkovik was known in the Inupiaq language by a name that meant “the sea where there is always ice.” In summers now, there’s no ice in sight from Kaktovik, an island village of 300 Inupiaq Eskimos.
On Thanksgiving morning in 2008, I walked along the frozen coast with two friends. Without protective ice for much of the year, the coast was badly battered. Huge slabs of earth undercut by waves, some the size of houses, had broken from the land and exposed ancient wedges of ice. The old Air Force dump site was eroding into the sea.
My friends and I talked of the polar bears stranded on land–thirteen they’d seen one day in September, eating at the “bone pile” left by whalers–and of the need to relocate the flooding airstrip.
But it was later that day, in the community center, when I really felt what was at stake. The people who shook my hand also introduced me to their mothers and fathers, cousins and neighbors. Devilish little boys wore white dress shirts and helped elders to their seats. The minister led us in prayer, offering our thankfulness for all the food provided by the land and sea. We filled ourselves with sheep and duck soups, caribou meat, crowberries, fried fish, turkey and ham, stuffing, coleslaw, and Jell-O salads.
Finally, the young people brought around the whaling captains’ gifts–for every household, a share of whale meat and muktuk, prized whale tongue and flipper. The frozen hunks of whale meat looked like marble–deep red with streaks of black. Women set muktuk, pinkish fat covered with black skin, on top of their coolers and sliced it with curved knives known as ulus. I watched a very small boy, with his own small ulu, cut and salt the matchstick-size pieces he offered to his mother.
This is a part of America as valuable as any other–and more American than most others, if you consider the thousands of years that Inupiat have resided on this continental edge.
In Kaktovik, locals shared with me stories of weather and ice different from anything the elders or their elders had known. A woman cried for a father and son, swept to their deaths when a strange summer storm cut through a barrier island. Students told me about permafrost thawing and ice cellars filling with water. They explained the web of their ice-dependent lives–the algae on the ice feeding the zooplankton, feeding in turn the fish and invertebrates, who feed the seals that feed the polar bears–everything feeding the whales that feed the people.
One young girl said she guessed everyone would have to move to Fairbanks. The fire chief showed me a photo of a skinny polar bear with its head in a dumpster.
Kaktovik is only one of 184 Alaska villages facing erosion and flooding related to climate change. It’s far from the most imperiled.
Lower-48 Americans may not be ready to think of their towns and cities under water; it’s sometime in a future they can presently ignore. The worst won’t happen right away. Maybe they count on someone engineering a fix or at least buying more time. Perhaps, restless Americans that they are, they don’t see moving to a mountaintop as such a bad thing.
But in this holiday season, it might be a kind and moral act to think of others for whom “home” means something more essential and who are–right now–truly endangered. We might also pause to acknowledge, as the people of Kaktovik do, the folly of disrespecting the land and the sea. They’re the life systems that provide everything.