NOAA researchers visit Nome and Shishmaref
As the National Weather Service warned of an impending fall storm to pummel western Alaska including Nome and Norton Sound communities on Wednesday, two high-level NOAA researchers made landfall here to hear the public’s first hand experience of climate change in a roundtable meeting held at the Mini Convention Center on Tuesday morning.
Town was bursting at its seams with visitors from the luxury cruise ships The World and the Roald Amundsen touring Nome, a delegation of the Inuit Circumpolar Council holding a closed Food Security Workshop at the Covenant Church and the ABC board meeting at the Aurora Hotel.
The officials from NOAA were Ko Barrett, one of the three vice chairs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC for short, and Renee Crain, acting director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program.
The IPCC gathers and assesses scientific, technical and socio-economic information from around the world to better understand climate change. It regularly produces reports to provide governments at all levels with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies. Barrett said in her introduction that the IPCC plans to release a special report in two weeks that focuses on the oceans and cryosphere in a changing climate. Barrett said she cannot reveal the findings of the report, but those in the room knew from first hand experience that the loss of sea ice has caused dramatic changes in the Bering Sea that impact people’s lives here. And that is what Barrett and Crain wanted to hear: What are the ramifications of climate change in your life?
Ukallaysaaq Okleasik took to the microphone and spoke of the casualties of climate change. His father Frank Okleasik, a lifelong subsistence hunter and fisher, died when he came upon unstable ice while trout fishing at a spot he had used for years. And he is not the only casualty to unpredictable ice. Earlier this year, a whole family from Kiana perished when they went through the ice by snowmachine, also ice fishing. In November last year, Lincoln Simon fell through the ice near White Mountain when he attempted to ice fish. Okleasik made the connection that the practice to subsist off the land while navigating unpredictable ice conditions is becoming dangerous. “Our people going out to get food are now risking their lives,” he said. He pointed to Dave Evans sitting next to him. Evans, as a side job, commercially harvests crabs in the wintertime and has lost at least 30 crab pots to unseasonal early ice loss. Okleasik added that when the winter crab season used to be three months long, it now seems to be reduced to three weeks. He said that he just came from the ICC meeting that focused on food security in the Arctic and climate change induced food insecurity is very real for the people of the Arctic. He also spoke in support of an expanded port of Nome with the argument that he’d like to see facilities in place that allow for a safe Arctic. “We want to be part of the solution to having a safe Arctic,” he said.
Where do people here get the information on the sea ice, Crain wanted to know. Word of mouth and through Facebook friends, answered Evans. Roy Ashenfelter added that Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game put trackers on the ice and when they move, one could monitor the movement. “It’s time to up our game in terms of sea ice information,” observed Crain. Ashenfelter commented that NOAA’s National Weather Service’s ice desk does provide sea ice forecasts but indicates location of the sea ice in longitude and latitude numbers. “ Tell us where the ice is in more practical ways,” he said. “It would really be helpful to have satellite photos showing the location of the sea ice,” he added, speaking from a marine mammal hunter perspective. He explained that normally, hunters would go out boating in May when the ice breaks off the shoreline. “This year, we hunted in March and early April,” he said. Hunters are looking for splintered sea ice that offers a platform for seals and walruses from where the animals hunt. Satellite images that show where the ice is would provide hunters with good data that would save them a lot of boating around and looking for ice.
Brandon Ahmasuk added that the loss of sea ice now forces hunters to sometimes have to boat 80 to 90 miles from their homes to find their prey. This is not only very dangerous as swells can be up to 20-feet high, tossing around the small 18-foot long Lund boats, but it also is an economic hardship because of expensive gas required. “The loss of ice impacts every aspect of our lives here,” said Ahmasuk.
Charlene Saclamana, emergency planning specialist, spoke from the viewpoint of preparing for emergencies and the assistance available for far-flung villages that are experiencing the brunt of the climate crisis. She recounted the most recent disasters that affected this area: In 2018, due to an unprecedented lack of sea ice, Little Diomede experienced 20-foot waves the crashed on the beach of the island, hurling ice chunks onto the helipad and buildings, causing damage to the village’s infrastructure. Last winter, in Gambell, again due to unprecedented lack of ice in the winter, waves crashed over the village’s runway and damaging it significantly. And although Kawerak has been diligent and helped its tribes to formulate emergency plans, planning and preparing for major disasters in the Bering Strait or northern Bering Sea is a challenge. “Our communities are not prepared for major oil spills or hazardous chemical spills. The federal government does not provide Alaska the same services as the Lower 48 in terms of emergency preparedness and training opportunities,” Saclamana said.
Sixteen people attended the meeting.
Barrett and Crain left in the afternoon for Shishmaref to hear from people there how the climate crisis affects them. They were scheduled to return to Nome on Thursday.