I didn’t think it would take long to get untangled. But after a few minutes — as we struggled with the sled and the dogs strained, yipping with impatience, at their harnesses — I realized the shrubs were far taller than normal. Mushing on the same trail five years prior, the willows had only been a foot high, covered over by packed drifts. But here were thick branches rearing out of the snow.
In headlines around the world, the melting of the polar regions is often seen in terms of geopolitics and a scramble for resources. Greenland is filled with rare-earth minerals essential for cell phones and solar technology. Huge pools of natural gas and oil sit under the Arctic Ocean. There’s a rush to claim this rich territory, as with the Russian Federation’s symbolic planting of a flag on the sea floor at the North Pole in 2007. The thawing of lands once frozen shut by the extreme climate is prompting Russia, the United States, Canada, and Norway to deploy more military to their northernmost posts to declare and defend borders. “A Melting Arctic Could Spell a New Cold War,” Time tells us. National Geographic runs “Scenes from the new Cold War unfolding at the top of the world.”
But climate change, unlike territorial battles, cannot be neatly drawn and settled. It does not wear a uniform or plant flags. It is something far eerier: a worldwide transformation very much visible at the local level up here, felt by every living thing.
In Old Crow, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm says it’s “like watching a nuclear explosion in slow motion.”
Take Gambell. Situated on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska, this Yupik village has long depended on walrus. This is nearly as true in the 21st century as it was 300 years ago. Eating in this remote community, like many fly-in villages in Alaska, is prohibitively expensive without subsistence hunting; when I visited Gambell in 2017, a day’s worth of food could easily run over $50. And, as with the caribou in Old Crow, the walrus herds support practices that go beyond food security; hunting sustains people in a raw caloric sense, but also a deep cultural one.
Gambell hunters perfected methods of finding walrus on the sea ice that, historically, has surrounded St. Lawrence Island from October until May or June. But in recent years, the ice has drifted far from the island, meaning hunters have to travel a hundred miles or more across dangerous seas in small open boats to find the animals.3
In 2013, storms prevented hunters from going out at all. The village faced a crisis. The governor of Alaska declared an economic disaster on the island to release emergency aid.