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September 19, 2013

Melting Arctic Ice Changing Inupiat Eskimo Way of Life

Inupiat Eskimos, native to northern Alaska, have built a way of life around subsistence hunting and fishing, a way of life that is now threatened by Arctic ice melt and rising sea temperatures.

“This is the front line of global climate change,” says Ignatius Rigor of the University of Washington’s Polar Ice Center. “Before the planet can heat up, you have to — just like your glass of water, before it can get warm, you have to get rid of the ice. And so we are seeing the ice disappear and we are seeing the Arctic Ocean start to warm up.”


The dramatic ice melt is already impacting Inupiat traditions, like hunting the bowhead whale to feed the community. In order to hunt the whale, which Inupiats have special permission to do, crews must be able to stand on thick ice. Now that the ice is thinning and shrinking, conditions are becoming increasingly dangerous for hunters, and the community has suffered.

“Last spring was very poor,” says whaling captain Harry Brower. “We didn’t even harvest one [whale] for Barrow throughout the whole migratory season…That becomes a food shortage in a sense, if you think about, you know, one whale providing for a whole community.”

The warmer waters are also bringing economic opportunity in the form of offshore oil development and newly passable shipping lanes that have opened up where ice has melted.

However, Rigor says, “The local populations are torn because they realize that there is a bounty off their coast that could really improve their lifestyle, but those bounties also could be catastrophic for their way of life. And if an accident happens, you know, there goes subsistence hunting and whaling.”

Warm up questions
  1. Describe the scientific theory of climate change. What changes are happening to the earth? What do we believe is causing it?
  2. How would these changes specifically effect populations near the Artic Sea like the native Inupiat people?
  3. Drilling for oil in the sea has become relatively common and typically is without incident. However, there have been a few disasters that have destroyed local ocean ecosystems. Describe the risks and benefits to this process of drilling?
Disucussion questions
  1. Explain how the effects of global warming are like a glass of ice water.
  2. What are the risks and benefits of having more offshore oil developments and more maritime traffic to the local population?
  3. Why would global warming effect the Inupiat’s ability to hunt for whales? Hint: It has to do with the thickness of ice and the changing water temperature’s effect on whale migration.
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