At the edge of an imperiled Alaska town, Dennis Davis sent a drone over a patchwork of ice covering the Chukchi Sea.
“Some people think it’s a toy, but a lot of people know that it’s an actual tool,” he said of the $5,000, microwave-sized machine with a camera mounted to a carbon fiber frame. As snowmachines zoomed past, Davis, 39, a resident and former police officer, looked at the pictures that were beamed back.
Davis doesn’t use the drone to spot prey, which he believes would give him an unfair advantage. Instead, he uses it to analyze ice conditions – blue ice is considered stronger than white ice. Because the climate, and ice formation, is ever more variable, Davis hoped the drone would help “set a course for everybody” when they went out seal-hunting in the springtime.
With a population of about 600 on a barrier island at the state’s extreme western tip, Shishmaref’s days are numbered. Rapid erosion is eating away at its beaches, and for years the community has appealed for federal funds to move to a new location. But in the meantime, residents still need to eat and pay bills. So hunters like Davis, contending with unstable environmental conditions, are having to find new ways to survive.
Climatic shifts are ever more apparent to Alaskans who depend on the land and sea for nourishment, from indigenous subsistence hunters to weekend warriors. Moose are extending their range. But they also face a looming threat from ticks encroaching on warming northern latitudes.
The timing of migrations among everything from bowhead whales to caribou are shifting, becoming less dependable. More ominously, unusual mortality events among birds and marine mammals are becoming more common in the region. Last year, 39 dead walruses washed ashore in the Bering Strait region. Four tested positive for biotoxins from algae blooms, a new presence in Arctic waters.
Such issues come into sharp focus in Shishmaref, which embodies the extreme dichotomies in rural Alaska. It lacks basic infrastructure, such as plumbing for sewage and potable water, and is reachable only by small planes flown out of nearby hub communities. But there’s also an abundance of natural resources and the traditional knowledge of how to harvest them.
Balmier weather has meant ice doesn’t get as thick and will disappear much faster in the spring. The conditions create a problem for hunting ice seals, walruses and bearded seals, which everyone in Shishmaref calls by their Inupiaq name, oogruk.