Project 37

On Ice

Sea ice represents more than a state of water. In the Arctic and beyond, the state of sea ice means home, food, and opportunity. As sea ice changes, lifeways are affected. The potential for open waterways means changes to subsistence, impacts to marine life, and the possibilities of new shipping routes, including new possibilities for business, industry and global politics.

Sea ice is not static. It is moving, changing, seasonal, and dynamic. The issues and perspectives it represents are equally complex, diverse and numerous. Sea ice is not remote to many. Rather, it represents life for humans and animals, and questions for the future for people everywhere.

Alaska: America’s Arctic

The elders have been coming to me and saying a lot of the old ways — their many years of observations of how ice was forming and moved, which made them extremely accurate local forecasters — all of a sudden, those old traditional knowledge ways weren't working, and aren't working.

—Gary Hufford, regional scientist for the National Weather Service's Alaska region.


The Arctic is a highly sensitive region, and is being profoundly affected by a changing climate. Most scientists’ view the changes occurring in the Arctic as a harbinger of things to come for places far beyond.

The United States is an Arctic nation because of Alaska. Alaska is the only state with Arctic territory, giving Alaska a key role in US policy and the country’s economic policy and environmental future. Higher temperatures are already affecting people, wildlife and landscapes across Alaska.

Climate change threatens Native Peoples’ access to traditional foods and adequate water. Alaskan Native communities are increasingly exposed to health and livelihood hazards related to rising temperatures and declining sea ice. Climate change impacts are forcing the relocation of some Native communities. All eyes have been on the Arctic lately. A visit to Kivalina by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in 2015 drew newfound attention to its plight as the coast of Western Alaska is eroding. Meanwhile, the United States will assume chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council in 2015, with Secretary of State John Kerry serving as chair.

Multi-national Ice

The recent changes in polar sea ice are of great concern to the local people; but they also keep human scientists on edge, as we rush to document endangered and cultural knowledge about “vanishing” ice.

—Igor Krupnik, curator of Arctic and Northern Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History

Eight nations border the Arctic Ocean, representing the lives and livelihood of more than four million people.

The word “Arctic” originates from the Greek word for bear (árktos)—literally meaning ‘of the region of the bears,’ in reference to the constellations Ursus Major and Ursus Minor, the constellations prominent in the night skies of the north.

The definition of “Arctic” varies. For some scientists and researchers, the Arctic encompasses the region above 66° 32’ latitude—the area bounded by the Arctic Circle, surrounding the North Pole. For others, “Arctic” means any place north of tree line (a line that varies dramatically with local conditions). For others, the Arctic is defined purely by regions with temperature averages below 50℉ (10℃) in July. “Arctic” also refers to the ocean that surrounds the North Pole and on which sea ice forms, grows, and melts.

Regardless of the definition, sea ice is an Arctic fixture. It is not a feature of just one nation, but a shared reality at the top of the world. Arctic sea ice is important globally—it keeps polar regions cool and helps moderate global climate.

Culture, Tradition, & Resilience

I refer to the sea ice as a beautiful garden. Much or our life depends on what our garden provides. I grew up hunting the marine mammals and this time of year (December) I especially enjoyed hunting for seals by setting nets under the ice. I used to go out with my dog team early in the working and whatever I caught fed my family and the dogs…

—Wesley Aiken, 2008, retired whaling captain from Barrow, Alaska

Indigenous peoples, such as the Inupiat of the Alaskan Arctic and the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, were the first to notice, decades ago, that sea ice conditions were changing, becoming less predictable, and less capable of supporting life in the Arctic. Sea ice is an integral part of life for many indigenous people of the Arctic—life depends on it. It is a workplace and a playground, each day. It is not exotic, but intimately familiar. Indigenous people of the Arctic who depend upon sea ice have a great depth of knowledge—they live with it and from it.

Food is at the center of what sea ice means to Arctic people. They and their ancestors have travelled the sea ice to hunt for food. The food harvested provides nourishment, as well as community and tradition. The hunting, gathering, storing, sharing, preparation and enjoyment of eating food from the ice is embedded in the stories, knowledge, skills and memories of these cultures. Traditional foods are still very much at the heart of family life and at the core of a life with sea ice.

Changes in sea ice—such as thinning, unusual cracks, and changes in the timing of breakup and freeze—are impacting travel safety. Hunters often test the stability of the ice with a harpoon before hunting in the autumn and spring. Accidents on the sea ice are increasing due to unusual conditions, resulting in injuries and death, loss of valuable equipment, and expensive rescues. There are no clear statistics on the number of ice-related accidents, yet more are being reported. In addition, unexpected storms have left hunting parties stranded.

Abundant Life On Ice

Marine mammals use sound to communicate and navigate. When the water is covered with ice it’s pretty quiet down there. During spring breakup it gets noisy. If the ice becomes thinner in winters or goes away, it may become more difficult for animals to communicate.

—Kate Stafford, oceanographer at the University of Washington

Ice makes the abundant life of the Arctic possible. From large mammals to the microscopic species that live on and under sea ice, Arctic oceans are teeming with life. However, threats to species’ survival come from disturbances and changes in the ice and its extent. The ice is a habitat for many, including:


Small cods spawning in winter under ice (Arctic cod, polar cod, navaga, saffron cod)

Demersal spawners (capelin, Atlantic and Pacific herring, Pacific cod)

Pelagic spawners (Atlantic cod, walleye Pollock, Greenland halibut)

Pacific salmons, eulachon, coregonid whitefishes

Arctic char


Sea birds (thick-billed and common murres, little auk, black gullermot, glaucous gull, ivory gull, crested and parakeet auklets, black-legged kittiwake, northern fulmar, short-tailed shearwater)

Seaducks (common, king, spectacled, Steller’s eiders, long-tailed duck, scoters)

Shorebirds (red-necked and red phalaropes, spoon-billed sandpiper)

Divers or loons Geese (brent, barnacle, emperor, cackling, white-fronted, pink-footed, snow)


Bowhead whales Beluga whales Baleen whales (blue, fin, humpback)

Right whales (Atlantic and Pacific)

Walrus Narwhal Polar bear Seals (spotted, ribbon, harp, hooded, harbor, gray)


Erosion, Adaptation & Relocation

Indigenous knowledge demonstrates that culture—in technologies, ideas, observations, beliefs, ethics and specific choices is the key human toll to the effective and long-term response to climate change.

—Igor Krupnik, curator of Arctic and Northern Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History

Alaska Natives have noticed an increasing rate at which large storms develop, which they believe is a result of diminishing sea ice.

When sea ice is present, less moisture moves from the ocean to the atmosphere, which limits the development of strong storms. With less sea ice, stronger storms are possible. Sea ice also prevents large ocean waves from forming—without sea ice, these waves can cause significant coastal erosion. In fact, with the recent decline in summer sea ice extent, these storms and waves are more common, and coastal erosion is threatening some communities.

One example is in the village of Shishmaref, on the western coast of Alaska, where years of retreating sea ice in the Chukchi Sea have led to large waves that erode the shoreline and are now threatening to destroy the village's large fuel stores near the shore. The town's permafrost base has been thawing, and the ocean has already claimed the town's drinking water supply.

Coastal communities of the Arctic are adapted to the presence of sea ice. As sea ice becomes thinner, weaker, and sometimes absent, the future of these communities is uncertain.

Industry: Challenges & Opportunities

They (indicators) all point in the same direction. The decline of ice will continue to affect life in the Arctic. It will also open up shipping lanes and the possibility of oil drilling. You don’t have to go to zero for these to become a big deal.

—Martin Jeffries of the Office of Naval Research

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Retreating ice is offering new access to precious minerals and new sea lanes—but also carries dangers. With every dramatic change there are challenges and opportunities. The melting sea ice means economic opportunity for some. As frozen tundra retreats, large areas of the Arctic will become suitable for agriculture. An early spring could increase plant growth by up to 25%. And much more valuable materials will become increasingly accessible. The Arctic is a significant source of minerals, including zinc in Alaska, gold in Canada, iron in Sweden and nickel in Russia. The Arctic also has oil and gas, and exploration licenses are being issued throughout the region, in the Unites States, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Waterways, now open part of the year due to melting and thinning ice, mean new access to shores once locked by sea ice.

Asia’s big exporters—China, Japan and South Korea—are investing in ice-capable vessels. Many nations are contemplating how to develop new sea lanes with shipping hubs and other infrastructure. With these new opportunities also comes caution for potential impacts to the environment (such as spills, pollution, extraction). Many efforts are underway to seek Arctic cooperation on scientific research, mapping and resource development.

The Arctic, no longer distant or inviolable, has emerged as a power symbol of our age and ambitions.

Conservation: Unprecedented Change

I am thankful for all the marine mammals our sea ice provides.

—Warren Matumeak, Iñupiaq whaling captain and former reindeer herder from Barrow, Alaska

As sea ice decreases, the variety and extent of critical changes in the Arctic environment make long-term survival uncertain for many species.

Extinction rates are now estimated at 1000 times greater than they were before humans. Such a rate of loss surpasses the massive extinction that marked the end of the age of  dinosaurs. As extinctions continue, one of the greatest challenges is determining the number of species that currently exist on Earth. Without an accurate number, it is difficult to precisely describe, understand and evaluate biodiversity.

Many organisms live in sea ice, on the sea floor, in ocean waters, and on arctic coasts, comprising a complex and dynamic ecosystem. However, we are far from knowing the full extent of its biodiversity, and the effects of diminishing Arctic sea ice on it and connected global systems.

Northwest Passage: No Longer a Myth

We can’t expect records every year. It need not be spectacular for the Arctic to continue to be changing.

—Martin Jeffries of the Office of Naval Research

Cargo shipping volume through the Northern Sea Route is rising as Arctic ice melts. The opening up of the Arctic for commercial cargo offers a faster route for some shipments between Europe and Asia, and holds the promise of increased trade for once icebound ports in the High North of Arctic countries such as Russia, Norway and Canada.

Much of the new traffic through the Northern Sea Route is a result of one-way shipments of fossil fuels from Northern Europe to Asia, or between Russian ports. The Arctic Institute, a Washington think tank, reports that in 2013 only 41 vessels traveled the full length of the Arctic shipping lane; of those ships, 30 carried cargo.

While melting sea ice prompts speculation about a new and active marine highway from Europe to Asia, the true possibilities are unknown and often debated.  Developing Arctic sea ports has become an important objective of some Arctic and non-Arctic nations. New opportunities for trade and development carry risk, requiring coordination between Arctic nations and the many others that look to traverse the Arctic Ocean.

Tourism: Ice on View

Following in the footsteps of intrepid explorers and rugged expedition vessels…the very first luxury ship to ever traverse the Northwest Passage, a mystical Pacific-Atlantic sea route far beyond the Arctic Circle that for centuries captured the imaginations of kings, explorers and adventurers

—Promotion by Crystal Serenity, cruise ship company

Today the Arctic region is home to almost 4 million people, a majority of which are non- indigenous settlers. They live in cities, work as hunters or animal herders in rural areas, or are involved in the exploitation of other natural resources. Indigenous people make up roughly 10% of the population of the Arctic, and they continue to carry out traditional activities while adapting to new ways of living.

The economy of the region is based largely on natural resources—from oil, gas, and metal ores to fish, reindeer, caribou, whales, seals, and birds. In recent decades, tourism has added a growing sector to the economies of many communities and regions of the Arctic.

The Arctic has seen increased tourism due to a growing interest around the world in seeing the last “frontiers” of Earth, particularly those that are experiencing accelerated biological, climatic and oceanographic conditions. Rising temperatures and melting sea ice are expanding the number of accessible destinations, lengthening tourism seasons, and opening previously remote environments to the cruise ship industry.