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Northwest Passage update: Wales, Alaska

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Cameron Dueck

As the Silent Sound approached the Bering Strait we had to make a
choice. Little Diomede or Wales, Alaska? A little research showed that the
community in Diomede would charge us $100 per crew to come ashore.

Meanwhile in Wales, the western most community on the North American continent, we had a contact that could introduce us to local community leaders, so we opted for Wales.

And in Wales, where weather beaten homes cling to the sand dunes at the foot
of the Brooks Mountains, we heard stories of how climate change looks from
the ground. The 150 people living there are largely subsistence hunters, and
their oral history of the place goes back generations, so they know a change
in nature when they see one.

Frank Oxereok Jr was one of the hunters that picked us up from the beach
after we made a harrowing landing in the surf on our small rowboat. Baseball
cap pulled low and sitting astride a quad bike, he was the picture of the
modern Inupiat hunter. He’s not a climate change expert or scientist, but he
had a long list of changes he’s seen in the land and weather in recent

“There is much more southerly wind now than five years ago. We get more
southerlies in the winter, and this causes all the ice to bank up on the
shores and we can’t go out and hunt,” he said. “Something is happening. We
hear a lot about global warming. All I know is that when you get cold and
warm weather together you get wind like that.”

Little Diomede, which lies in the shadow of Russia’s Big Diomede in the
middle of the Bering Strait, did not have an airfield last year because the
ice was too thin. In normal years they smooth out the sea ice and planes
land on the ice right in front of the village.

“The shore ice is getting thinner and thinner every year,” said Ruben
Ozenna, a longhaired hunter nicknamed Soup by his friends and family. “When
we were young we’d go chip a hole in the ice for ice fishing and it would
take us a whole day to get down to the water. Used to be deeper than I’m
tall, now it’s no problem to dig through.”

Here, all the stories centre on hunting, and woven into the stories are
signs of the changing times as well as bits of family history. And now, they
also contain nuggets of information about climate change.

“The thin ice makes it a lot more dangerous for hunting. You have to work a
lot faster now, because the weather can change so fast. You can end up
adrift on a floe. My uncle when out hunting and he ended up floating to
Point Hope. Then he went there a few more times after that because he found
a wife there.”

But most worrying to them both are the changes in the wildlife they rely on
for food. Warmer temperatures mean southern species are moving north, they

“We saw sea otters on the ice this spring. That’s unheard of. It’s the first
year we’ve seen that. Next thing you know we’ll have sharks up here,” Soup
says, shaking his head in disbelief.

Find out more about the expeditions

Official site: Northeast Passage 2009

Official site: Open Passage Expedition

« Tom Arnbom, Northeast Passage day 1: Leaving Longyearbyen | Tom Arnbom, Northeast passage day 2, 3 & 4: Sighting polar bears and walrus »

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