FERN’s Back Forty: Another testament to a warming world

The recent United Nations report on climate change concludes that humans have pushed natural systems to the brink. And yet if we act quickly and aggressively, we can hope to reduce some of those impacts. But what about the Arctic, which is warming two to four times faster than the rest of the globe?

In Kotzebue, a mostly Iñupiaq village of about 3,300 residents on the coast of northwest Alaska, an entire way of life is disappearing. Kotzebue is rapidly losing its sea ice. What was once the reliably firm terrain of winter is now slush and open water. Ice Edge, a feature-length documentary directed by Sarah Betcher, of Farthest North Films, and available for viewing on YouTube, tells the story of a collaboration between scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and local Indigenous experts to study the region’s sea ice and marine mammals; it also makes an urgent plea for action on climate change.

“The way of reading the ice is no longer valid,” says Roswell Shaeffer Sr., a lifelong Kotzebue resident who hunts, traps, and fishes in the region. Schaeffer has long held leadership positions in the community and is a member of the Indigenous advisory panel for the research collaboration, dubbed Ikaaġvik Sikukun, Iñupiaq for “ice bridges.

Kotzebue used to be known as Qikiqtaġruk, “the place that is almost an island.” The community sits on a narrow peninsula jutting into Kotzebue Sound, a 100-mile-wide arm of the Chukchi Sea. For as far back as Indigenous storytelling holds, the Sound froze coast to coast every winter, shaping the lives and cultural traditions of residents, many of whom rely on seals, whales, fish, caribou, berries, and other subsistence resources to fill their dinner plates, freezers, and pantries.

But all of this is changing. The Arctic has seen a startling decline in the extent of sea ice over the last three decades. Earlier melt is making winter transport across the Sound dangerous and forcing seal hunters, who travel on and around the ice, to quit nearly a month earlier than they had in the past. Lack of sea ice, coupled with winter rains and flooding, are threatening ringed seals, which pup in snowdrifts on the ice. Seal meat is a primary source of protein for many local residents, and their blubber is rendered into oil, a household staple. Being able to safely and successfully hunt isn’t just about food security, it’s also about continuity of cultural traditions and, as Schaeffer explains in the film, maintaining spiritual health.

John Goodwin, Elder of the Iñupiaq community of Kotzebue, works with an ice core that reveals one winter’s history of ice growth and melt. Photo by Sarah Betcher, Farthest North Films

With these startling changes, the Arctic has become a magnet for researchers, and Alaska’s northern communities have seen hordes of scientists come and go—digging pits into peat, sampling ocean waters, and capturing and tagging wildlife. For years, much of this work was conducted without local input. More recently, researchers have come to understand that cooperating with local communities is not only a more respectful way to proceed, it’s also more productive. And some tribal entities require it. More than 20 years ago, the Native Village of Kotzebue adopted forward-thinking protocols mandating that researchers consult with the tribe to develop and implement projects.

Ice Edge captures the collaboration between scientists from afar and those directly impacted by the changing ice conditions. The researchers meet with community members, talk with kids at their school, and discuss the project on the local radio station. Project leaders stress that they arrived in Kotzebue without preconceived research goals: the film documents brainstorming sessions in which Indigenous advisers develop research questions that focus on their own priorities. For example: what snow and ice conditions are required for ringed seals to pup?

Using narration partly in Iñupiaq with subtitles, the film follows the team over two years as it deploys probes, corers, and drones with 15-foot wingspans to assess sea ice conditions and locate seal dens. During the researchers’ 2018 and 2019 field seasons, sea ice extent in the region was at some of the lowest levels it had been in decades. So low, in fact, that the team couldn’t tackle some of its original questions.

The film includes some mesmerizing images of ice and snow—the dark slice of a lead, underwater images of ice lit from above, and the stark white panorama of snow and sky. But it lacks a certain intimacy. We never see a family crowd around a dinner table to eat subsistence foods. We never meet the children who will be living in a thawed future. And we never really witness the process of, or friction between, disparate cultures coming together—western and Indigenous, science-based and traditional knowledge.

Even so, Ice Edge is an important record of a collaborative approach to studying the impacts of climate change, and a vivid reminder of what’s at stake as the world fails to take meaningful action on decarbonization. Near the film’s conclusion, Schaeffer talks about his children and his grandchildren. “I want them to be Inupiaq,” he says. “And I want them to go out and enjoy everything I see every day when I’m out in the country. The animals that we take to survive, I want them to be there too.”