Usha Lee McFarling of the Los Angeles Times reports that Eskimos are trying to cope with the fact that the ice in Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland has started to thaw. Thunder and lightning, which were once rare, have become common. A strange warm wind now blows in from the south. Hunters who prided themselves on their ability to read the sky say they no longer can predict the sudden blizzards. ?The Earth,? one hunter decided, ?is turning faster.? In recent years, thousands of seabirds have washed up dead and deformed seal pups have become a common sight. Whales appear sick and undernourished. The walrus is becoming scarce, as are tundra rabbits.
Zoya Telpina, a schoolteacher in an outpost of 350 Chukchi reindeer herders and marine mammal hunters, says that a winter sea without ice once seemed like ?a fairy tale.? But last winter, when Telpina looked from her kitchen window toward the Bering Sea, she saw something she?d never seen in 38 years: The open ocean?water where there had always been ice.
Telpina?s husband Mikhail, a dog-sled musher, has seen mushrooms on the tundra shrivel and whole herds of reindeer starve. He has cut open the bellies of salmon to find strange insects inside. He has seen willows growing in places where there have never been trees before.
The changes are so widespread that they have caused changes in the Eskimo languages. In Chukotka, where the natives speak Siberian Yupik, they use new words such as misullijuq, which means rainy snow, and are less likely to use words like umughagek, which means ice that is safe to walk on. In Nunavet, Canada, the Inuit people say the weather is uggianaqtuq?like a familiar friend acting strangely.
In the last century, parts of the Arctic have warmed by 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 10 times the global average. Sea ice covers 15% less of the Arctic Ocean than it did 20 years ago, and that ice has thinned from an average of 10 feet to less than 6. A group of scientists who spent a year aboard an icebreaker concluded that the year-round sea ice that sustains marine mammals and those who hunt them could vanish completely in 50 years. The U.S. Navy is already planning ahead for an ice-free Arctic by exploring ways to defend the previously ice-clogged Northwest Passage from an attack by sea.
In the Arctic, a few degrees of warmth can mean the difference between ice and water, permafrost or mud, hunger or even starvation. There have been few long-term climate studies of the Arctic; weather stations in the Far North are just 50 years old. There is almost no data from places like Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula, which is only 55 miles from Alaska.
Western scientists are turning to the memories of native elders, counting animal pelts collected by hunters and documenting the collective knowledge of entire villages. This may be the only way to trace the past 50 years of change in the Arctic and to figure out its cause. ?We have all these people paying very close attention to the animals they hunt and the sea ice they travel on,? says Henry Huntington, a scientific consultant in Alaska. ?It?s often extremely accurate and far better than anything science has come up with.?
Some native observations at first don?t seem consistent with global warming, such as snowier winters and colder summers, but they also fit the scientists? models. Warmer air is expected to create more storms and rain in the Arctic. Melting sea ice in summer can lower the water temperature and lead to cooler temperatures on nearby land.
Some native elders resent scientists who come ashore thinking they know more about the place than those who live there. Others mistrust Western scientists who come to gather data and never send back their findings. A group of toxicologists came to remote villages several years ago to collect women?s breast milk to measure pollution levels. The scientists detected organic pollutants such as dioxin and PCBs in the breast milk, but never told the women about these results.
The hunters of Chukotka live in small villages without pickup trucks or snowmobiles, without supply ships or supermarkets. They have 19th century harpoons, small boats and limited fuel for their hunts. These villagers are almost entirely dependent on the icy sea for their food and may be living in the time when their ancient way of life finally ends.
Food is not as easy to come by now that the weather has changed. Gennady Inankeuyas has hunted for seals and walrus for many years, dragging heavy sleds and animal carcasses over the ice. While he was butchering a seal for meat last November, the thin ice cracked open beneath him. He was eventually pulled out of the frigid water, cut from his frozen sealskin pants and revived. He was lucky that he didn?t lose any limbs to frostbite. This year, Inankeuyas returned to the uncertain ice. ?Of course it?s dangerous,? he says. ?But the village needs the food.? Data shows that the number of walrus is declining, because they also have to work harder to find food. Walrus mothers nurse their babies on sea-ice floes. The mothers must now dive longer and deeper from the ice to the sea floor to find clams.
In recent years, the Eskimo hunters have noticed that gray whales have become extremely skinny. The meat of some freshly killed whales smells rancid, ?like medicine,? according to Maxim Agnagisyak. Even the sled dogs won?t eat it. Hunters think the flesh is rotting because the whales aren?t getting enough to eat.
Scientists are beginning to analyze samples of whale blubber from the region to find an explanation. For several years, record numbers of gray whales have washed up dead and emaciated as they migrate to their winter calving grounds in Baja California.
The number of reindeer herds fell sharply after the Soviet Union collapsed and the government subsidies that helped sustain the herds were cut off. The animals began starving, and their numbers continue to decline, because they cannot find food beneath the strange, brittle new snow that the natives call misullijuq.
The grazing animals normally survive the winter by nosing through soft, dry snow to feed on the tundra vegetation insulated below. In recent warm years, winter rains have alternated with snow, leaving an icy crust that is difficult to penetrate and lacerates the animals? legs.
Arctic people have survived for many centuries alongside polar bears, seals and whales in conditions too harsh for most human settlements. Archeological evidence suggests that today?s Siberian Eskimos arrived in Chukotka from central Asia about 2,500 years ago.
The early Eskimos followed their prey. They lived in underground houses insulated from the cold and moved among seasonal hunting camps. They collected eggs from seabirds and salmon and plucked greens, berries and mushrooms from the tundra. They hunted walrus, seal and whale.
The flesh of marine mammals, such as the blubbery skin of the whale, is still preferred by many to European foods. Although Ludmilla Ainana, a 66-year-old Eskimo, can now buy chicken and noodles and exotic ingredients like soy sauce at a grocery, she still prefers the food of her childhood. ?Walrus flippers with sea cabbage,? she says. ?It?s delicious food.? Eskimo leaders ask foreign visitors, ?Are you a Greenpeace?? because they are wary of Western environmentalists, who often oppose their whaling.
The fate of the Siberian Eskimo remains as uncertain as the Arctic ice in late spring.Hunters with tiny boats and little fuel must now go much farther out to sea for food. Sometimes they return empty-handed. Sometimes they return with unusual prey, such as fish native to warmer waters. Sometimes, when the seas are rough, they do not return at all. Eskimos may learn to adapt to new food species that could move north with the shifting temperatures.
Nearby is an island called Yttygran. On its beach lie 60 massive bowhead whale skulls arranged geometrically. Huge whale jawbones stand upright among them. This is an abandoned shrine to the whale that was built in the 13th or 14th century. It was built by a large and organized civilization, that left behind 120 stone meat lockers that still contain mummified whale meat.
Today?s Eskimos know nothing about the people who built this, says Igor Krupnik, a Smithsonian anthropologist who helped excavate the site in the 1970s. That society simply vanished, much like the Viking settlements in Greenland that flourished for several hundred years only to disappear when the Arctic climate cooled in the 15th century. Says Krupnik, ?It?s an example of how precarious life is in the Arctic.? Last winter, a melted block of ice, caused by an early thaw, pushed down some of the whale bones that had remained undisturbed for over 700 years.
Caleb Pungowiyi, an Eskimo who works with scientists to record the observations of his elders, says, ?When this Earth starts to be destroyed, we feel it.?
To learn how other indigenous peoples have coped with changes?in this case UFOs?read ?Star Ancestors? by Nancy Red Star, click here.
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