In Alaska's Thawing Permafrost, Humanity's 'Library Is on Fire'

Rising Arctic temperatures are destroying ancient artifacts once preserved in the frozen ground and taking a toll on native traditions that depend on the sea ice.

This story was co-published with The Weather Channel.

The Internet connection is bad. As Herman Ahsoak speaks into his iPhone, the video chat freezes periodically, his face fixed in strange contortions on the screen.

Ahsoak is in Utqiagvik, Alaska, formerly known as Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States; he is speaking to a class of high school students in Kaktovik, the only community within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more than 300 miles east. A member of the Inupiaq, whose people have lived on the North Slope for thousands of years, Ahsoak is demonstrating how to make an ulu—a knife used to skin and clean animals.

"My father, when I was coming of age, he would make these in our living room," he says, his hands expertly attaching a caribou antler handle to the curved blade. "I just happened to pay attention."

Herman Ahsoak teaches students by video chat how to make an ulu, a knife traditionally used by subsistence hunters to skin and butcher animals. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

Ahsoak is a whaling captain and subsistence hunter, and he has ulus for all occasions: for walrus, for belugas, and for the bowhead whales that he and other members of his community hunt each fall and spring.

But in Kaktovik, which is also an Inupiat community where people live off the food they hunt, the making of ulus has become nearly a lost art; most of the people who knew the craft have died or left. As the video feed stutters, the students take notes diligently while Ahsoak's voice carries through the line.

Things have changed on the North Slope since Ahsoak, 53, was a boy. It's been decades since the dog teams were replaced by all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, and graffiti on the side of one house in Utqiagvik gives a shout-out to the Wu-Tang Clan.

But it's the changes in the environment that are the most profound: With temperatures rising faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, the very ground on which communities are built is slumping as the permafrost thaws, and the sea ice that sustains vital animal populations is melting earlier and re-forming later than ever before. Less sea ice means stronger storms and bigger waves, and villages across the region are at risk of falling into the sea as each year coastal erosion eats away at the shoreline. As Ahsoak works to preserve Inupiaq culture, the physical world that shaped that culture is facing an urgent threat.

That's the context in which the archaeologist Anne Jensen, a native of upstate New York who arrived in Utqiagvik 22 years ago, is at work on another project of cultural preservation. The Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation (UIC), the local native corporation, hired her in the 1990s to help preserve and learn about archaeological sites in the area. Every summer, Jensen and a crew of volunteers venture out to remote areas, sleeping in tents to excavate sites that are hundreds or thousands of years old. It was on one of these digs in the early 2000s that Jensen and Ahsoak first crossed paths—he worked as a logistics coordinator and bear guard as Jensen excavated a historical site on Point Barrow, learning about how Ahsoak's ancestors once lived. While their methods differ, Ahsoak and Jensen's missions in many ways align.

And in climate change, they face a common obstacle.

The homes, weapons, and even bodies that Jensen digs up are extraordinarily well preserved—unlike archaeological sites elsewhere in the world, these pieces of history have been locked in ice. But as the permafrost thaws, so do these sites, and as erosion eats away at the coast, it's washing away the history locked inside it. Once gone, the story that these sites can tell, about food webs, migratory patterns, and traditional ways of life, will disappear too. Just as Ahsoak is working to preserve his community's traditions, Jensen is racing to capture this historical record before it's lost—and, perhaps, to find in the region's past some answers for its future.

Archaeologists who work in the Arctic, Jensen says, have a metaphor for what is happening. The Library of Alexandria was the most famous site for cultural knowledge and history in ancient Egypt, until it burned down, taking with it an irreplaceable record. The decomposition and disappearance of some of the world's best-preserved sites is much the same, she says: "It's like the library is on fire."

'A Different Calculus'

Picture an archaeologist at work: Your mind probably conjures an image of a scientist hunched over a sandy expanse or rocky outcropping, painstakingly sifting for artifacts, perhaps spending months or years on the same patch of earth.

But Jensen's work, in the shifting, daunting conditions of the Arctic, requires "a different calculus," she says. "You're making choices about how to proceed as fast as possible without losing more data than necessary."

Archeologist Anne Jensen has been working on cultural preservation projects in Utqiagvik for 22 years. The job has become more urgent as permafrost thaws. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

The differences start with the permafrost, the layer of frozen ground that lies beneath the surface. In summer months, Jensen and a team of volunteers travel to dig sites, sleeping in tents and combating hordes of mosquitoes. They begin by opening the ground, giving the permafrost beneath a chance to thaw and soften. It's important to open a large enough area at the start. "You can't suddenly decide halfway through the field season, 'Oh, I need to move another meter to the right,' she says. "It's not going to thaw fast enough."

The permafrost that holds artifacts trapped also acts as an extraordinary preservative—the key to the region's archaeological value. A bone that is thousands of years old, Jensen says, can look "like the animal died a few years ago." Because the sites are so well preserved, organic matter, such as animal remains, pelts and ancient plants, retains extractable DNA that can hold insights about the historical food web. Jensen believes this knowledge can be relevant today, as migratory routes and habitats shift in response to climate change and industrial development.

Anne Jensen and her team have preserved a wide range of historic artifacts, including tools, sleds and houses, as well as ancient human and animal remains. Credit: Sabrina Shankman/InsideClimate News

There are also clues, she says, in the human artifacts—tools like the ulus Ahsoak still makes, sleds, even houses—that she and her colleagues find across the Arctic. These artifacts are part of Inupiat cultural legacy, which is one reason the tribe employs Jensen to excavate these sites. They also hold lessons about how earlier inhabitants responded to changes in the environment: In the face of encroaching seas, did they move inland or relocate entirely? As their food sources shifted, did their quality of life change? What sorts of events spelled disaster for a community, and what were they able to survive?

"The course of history has been defined by big changes—not as fast or severe as the ones we're seeing now—but they caused changes," she says. "You can start seeing what kinds of responses were attractive to people, and what actions did they take."

There is urgency in her work to find lessons that may have contemporary relevance—but also because many of the discoveries that remain are literally disappearing. The permafrost that has preserved these sites is thawing, and that process sets in motion bacterial and chemical decay. It's a death sentence for organic artifacts. Thomas McGovern, a professor of archaeology at Hunter College, has spent his career studying ancient Viking sites in Greenland, where the thawing of permafrost is even more advanced than in Alaska. A few years ago, graduate students working with McGovern went back to look at sites that had been well preserved. "They started popping open holes and finding that the bone preservation is gone. It's just mush," he said.

Jensen is starting to see the same sort of degradation near Utqiagvik. "We're losing the organics," she said. "That's the piece we're going to lose, and it's a huge piece."

With less sea ice to protect the shoreline, coastal erosion is accelerating and unearthing historic artifacts. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

Another challenge is even more pressing. Coastal erosion, a perpetual feature of life in the Arctic, is accelerating. Climate change produces stronger storms, less sea ice leads to bigger waves, and thawing permafrost means the ground breaks away more readily. Sometimes, erosion leads to new finds: The main site Jensen is working on now, called Walakpa, was partially excavated in the late 1960s, but in 2013, when part of a bluff fell into the ocean, an ancient house was exposed, opening up new research opportunities. But she has to work quickly. In the years she's been at Walakpa, Jensen says, 39 feet of the site have disappeared. Other sites across the region are simply gone—one storm will expose a site, the next can wash it away.

Last summer, as fieldwork was winding down, Jensen and her team discovered part of a polar bear skull. It was a significant find, because years earlier they had discovered a similar skull that was abnormally large, and possibly indicative of a new subspecies. But the earth around this skull was still frozen, locking it in in place. They resorted to drastic action—boiling water, a portable heater, a tarp—to soften the ground and remove the skull before leaving the site. It wasn't an option to wait until next year, she says. "We won't know until we get back out there if that area will survive the winter."

'This Didn't Used to Happen at All'

To see the changes in Utqiagvik, you don't have to walk any further than Herman Ahsoak's back door. One day in August, his backyard was pocked with gigantic puddles—some more like small ponds—where standing water from the rainiest summer anyone could remember sat atop frozen ground. A few steps out the door, whitefish were hanging out to dry, and a walrus skull soaked in a tub. Out in the yard, amid tall grass, the traditional skin boat he uses for the spring whaling season sat covered in plastic. He's had to start storing it that way in recent years as the weather has become warmer and more humid, Ahsoak explained, so that it doesn't get covered in mold.

The frozen walls of Herman Ahsoak’s ice cellar, where he stores whale meat after hunts, don’t normally melt, but that’s starting to change. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

Wearing tall rubber boots, Ahsoak sloshed through the puddles until he reached his family's siġluaq, or ice cellar. The siġluaq plays a central role in North Slope subsistence hunting communities: After the whaling season, the animals' meat is stored in the ground, where it ferments before it is eaten. But that requires a cold cellar. As permafrost thaws, according to one local official, there are stories of meat going spoiled. When Ahsoak pried open the heavy wooden top, he could see slush around the cellar's base. "That's quite surprising to see so much water in there," he said. "This didn't used to happen at all."

Like many people here, Ahsoak grew up with a deep respect for the traditions of his ancestors. Today, he is a prolific creator in the workshop of the local heritage center, an instructor who teaches classes on how to make ulus and traditional drums, and a de facto cultural ambassador to visitors in Utqiagvik, with a well-practiced explanation of the ins and outs of whaling. It's a way to remind people: This is who we are. This is why we matter.

But in a subsistence culture, passing on skills and knowledge also has direct daily significance. The co-captains of Ahsoak's whaling crew are his 28-year-old niece, Flora, and his nephew, Jonas, who is also his harpooner. His twin boys, now 12, started joining him on the whale hunt when they were 10, first learning how to find the right kind of snow to melt for water, and now learning how to help butcher whales.

Sea ice is changing as temperatures rise, leaving the next generation facing new challenges as they learn the traditions passed down from their ancestors. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

"You try to teach the boys and girls hunting terminology when you're out there with them: the ocean currents, the wind direction, the animals they're catching and the parts of the animal they're cutting up," he says. Jensen says, "Whaling is a very traditional activity, and traditional knowledge transmission—which Herman is keeping up—was about participating: Watch and learn, listen and learn."

The world that was the basis for that knowledge, though, is changing fast. Ahsoak grew up learning that the sea ice, which makes walrus and other animals accessible to hunters, would go through a period of melting and re-forming in the spring, before it disappeared for the summer. "Nowadays, when the ice goes, we don't see it again," he says. Thick sea ice has also provided a surface to butcher bowhead whales, which can weigh 75 to 100 tons. During the last spring season, according to several whaling captains, thin ice broke beneath a whale's weight just as a storm was coming in. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the whaling crew was able to salvage the meat, but it was a lesson about the new reality that won't be forgotten soon.

'We Wonder How You Lived'

When Herman Ahsoak was a boy, there was a long, gently sloped hill that ran down to the beach. It was a favorite sledding spot for local children—"the main attraction," he says with a smile.

The site looks different now. It turns out Ahsoak and his friends—and generations before them, too—had been sledding over the frozen remains of their ancestors. The first discovery came in the early 1980s, when an eroding bluff uncovered a family from the 1800s that was frozen in the ground, apparently killed in a natural disaster.

As the permafrost thawed, the well-preserved body of a young girl who lived in the area hundreds of years ago was discovered in an eroding bluff. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

Then, in the mid-1980s, a powerful fall storm ripped through Utqiagvik, tearing off the face of an adjacent hill. Amid the broken pieces of permafrost was an unmistakable sight: a human foot, with a pale sliver of skin exposed above a still-intact mukluk. Before the site could be excavated, another storm hit Utqiagvik, ripping further into the bluff and taking the body, which had been nicknamed Uncle Foot, with it.

A decade later, Jensen was visiting Utqiagvik before settling there, and she fielded a request to examine a new find at the site. Declining sea ice and an increase in storms had eroded the area further, exposing another mystery. This time, it began with the hood of a bird-skin parka that was sticking out of the ground.

The parka covered the body of a young girl—the best-preserved ever recovered in Alaska—who had lived there sometime in the 1200s. Genetic testing revealed that the girl had suffered from a disease that made her an invalid, but that she was cared for by her community. At the request of the elders in the community, she was treated as a person, not a scientific specimen, so her autopsy and reburial was fast-tracked. She was buried with a letter from local children, who addressed her as "Agnaiyaaq," or "Dear Young Girl."

"You are very special and old," they wrote. "We wonder how you lived."

A few years ago, more human remains were found near the same location. The site has since been protected by sandbags and caution tape, but it's unclear if it will ever be fully excavated. There are fears that further digging could weaken the permafrost that supports a nearby road, and the waves below continue to crash closer.

Anne Jensen and her team excavate an area where historic ruins were discovered in northern Alaska. Credit: Weather Channel

Each year, warming temperatures, rising seas, and increasingly powerful storms take another bite into the history here—and the present. If it's still possible for people in many corners of the world to ignore what scientists say is coming, in Utqiagvik, it's hard not to talk about climate change. It is, quite literally, everywhere you look. In their own ways, both Ahsoak and Jensen are trying to retain essential parts of the past, and help the community adapt to a new reality. Jensen also has another hope—that this work might make climate change more immediate to the rest of the world, while there still might be some time left to do something about it.

"You can stand there and give people all sorts of data about sea level going up and whatnot, but it's really hard for people to envision what that means," Jensen says. "The more you can bring people into the story—actual once-living people—the more people get it and relate to it. And then once they relate to it, they start thinking about, 'Oh that could be me, that could be us'."

Top photo: The Inupiaq have lived on the North Slope for thousands of years, relying on sea ice, whaling and the frozen ground. Credit: Sabrina Shankman