Photo: USAF

The frozen soils on the North Slope have served Alaska Natives as a natural freezer for centuries. Beneath the monotonous surface of the tundra, they’ve dug out chambers known as ice cellars that stay cold enough to keep whale and caribou meat frozen year round.

“Its a cultural way of life for time immemorial,” Arnold Brower, head of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, told Earther. “We want to protect our harvested resources. That’s our lifeline.”

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But climate change is untethering that lifeline and a cultural connection that spans eons. Temperatures in the region are rising twice as fast as the rest of the world and it’s really screwing up life in Alaska. That includes ice cellars. While the great thaw won’t stop anytime soon, one young community member is working on a solution that will give people living across the North Slope a tool to make it more manageable.

Climate change is turning permafrost into a soggy mess and causing sea ice to disappear earlier than usual. That in turn is causing ice cellars to flood out as the ice in the soil melts or erode away from the suddenly unprotected coast. This is pushing subsistence villages on the North Slope toward food insecurity. That’s to say nothing of the fact that whale hunting is becoming harder with unstable ice, or the reality that thawing permafrost releases carbon dioxide, speeding up climate change in a dangerous feedback loop.

Ianjon Brower—no relation to Arnold—has lived through the changes growing up in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), one of 11 whaling villages overseen by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. A few summers ago, his father’s ice cellar buried 12 feet below the surface melted out after a ground squirrel dug holes through the permafrost, allowing warm air to seep in. Water rose to the surface, and all the meat in it was lost.

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The entrance to an ice cellar that flooded in Point Hope. Photo: Ianjon Brower

Even a minor flood can spoil meat, as can rising temperatures. Ianjon Brower said one community member he spoke to in the North Slope village of Point Hope saw his cellar be consumed by the sea this summer after sea ice disappeared sooner than usual.

“The ice not operating like it used to,” Ianjohn Brower told Earther.

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Now as a senior at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Ianjon Brower is working on a solution to help his and other northern communities cope with the loss of their natural freezers. Using simple, inexpensive computers known Raspberry Pi, and instruments to measure temperature and humidity, he’s creating what’s essentially an ice cellar collapse early warning system.

“We wanted to use all these advances in micro-computing to give people some insight into their ice cellars so they can make choices about food because it affects everyone they’re related to,” Vanessa Raymond, the project manager at the university working with Brower, told Earther.

The computer keeps a live running monthly graph of conditions in the ice cellar. Ianjon Brower is working on seven different prototypes, each designed with the different set of realities remote communities face. For communities with internet, that graph is linked to a wireless touchscreen. In more remote communities, Ianjohn Brower has a prototype that can be charged by solar cells, feeding data to the touchscreen through an ethernet cable.

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“They’ll also be outfitted with a ground probing sensor to know the temperature of the permafrost,” Ianjon Brower told Earther. “It’s a 2-in-1 for permafrost scientists and the local communities.”

IanjonBrower, Raymond and others spent the past summer testing out the different prototypes in the field. Now they’re back in the lab working out the kinks that inevitably arise for technology deployed in areas where the temperature can drop to minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter. Raymond said they’re expecting to install sensors in seven ice cellars by next spring, and continue refining the instruments.

The deepest cellar Brower has seen is 40 feet below the surface. But even that’s not safe from the creep of global warming. Scientists have seen permafrost temperatures rise up to 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit as far down as 65 feet over the past few decades.

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The warning system won’t stop ice cellars from breaking down as the drumbeat of climate change continues. But if the monitors are installed in cellars throughout a community, they could give residents a heads up about whether collapse is imminent in one of their cellars. That will allow residents to move the meat to a cellar in better shape.

The whale and caribou Alaska Natives store in their ice cellars are crucial to ensuring people don’t face malnutrition in a region where grocery stores are few and far between and a gallon of milk costs $10. Hunting is also a cultural tie that binds families and communities together.

Ianjon Brower testing running a prototype on solar power, which is readily available during Arctic summers. Photo: Vanessa Raymon
Brower doing olcd weather testing on a Raspberry Pi Zero prototype that he and Raymond are trying to run on a battery and solar power combination. Photo: Vanessa Raymond

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“If you see a herd of caribou, and you know a family member has to provide for their family out on the slope (working away from home), a relative will go shoot a caribou for two and will share slabs or blueberries and then put it into their freezer,” Ianjon Brower said.

Subsistence whaling is an even bigger deal. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission works with villages to setup quotas and manage the bowhead whale harvest sustainably.

One whale can feed a village in lean months, but the process of the hunt, from tracking whales in the spring to preparing and storing them, is also a way to pass on traditions. This is how George Noongwook, one of the commission’s chairmen, described what bowhead whales mean to communities:

To our people, the bowhead is more than food. It keeps our families together. It keeps our children in school. It allows our elders to pass generational knowledge to our youth. It teaches us patience and perseverance. It teaches us generosity. It strengthens our community. It provides wisdom and insight. It gives us hope. It is our way of life. The spirit of the whale lives within each of us.

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Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that ice cellars are more than just a hole in the frozen ground. They’re a connection to something much deeper, and losing them means losing a way of life, unraveling of community and family ties and basic human rights.

Nothing is going to stop the permafrost from melting short of cutting carbon emissions. But this new early warning system could help communities adapt to the changes until the rest of us get our act together.