Barrow Whaling

May 23, 2010


A traditional umiaq boat awaits the action on the sea ice near a red buoy. The latter is attached to the harpoon. It keeps the animal afloat after the kill. Photos: Faustine Mercer

Our PFS colleague Faustine Mercer was invited along on a whale hunt a few weeks ago. Along with Steve Hastings, Faustine manages CPS science support for National Science Foundation-funded researchers at Barrow, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea coast.  She spends a long stretch of the spring and summer in Barrow, and was on hand when a friend, Josh Bacon, invited her along to witness the hunt. 

“Josh works as a biologist for the Wildlife Department,” Faustine explained. “When a whale is killed, someone from the Department samples tissues and makes measurements of the whale. Because of the whale census also going on and the limited number of staff, he asked me if I wanted to help him.”

Barrow’s traditional culture is based on subsistence principals, which means that the Inuit who live there rely on the land and the ocean primarily for the food they eat. It is one of nine Alaskan communities permitted to harvest the cetaceans by the International Whaling Committee.  Around 50 bowhead whales are caught each year in Alaska.

In Barrow, the whale harvest is a very big deal, an event governed by tradition and the whaling captains who lead the hunt (and the community).  When they arrived at the whaling camp, Josh and Faustine “talked to the whaling captain to make sure he was OK with us being there,” Faustine recalled.  “We got formally invited by him to do whatever we needed to.” 

While preparing to sample and measure the whale, Faustine witnessed the hunters pursuing another whale.

A Barrow, Alaska, whaling crew in a traditional animal-skin-covered boat goes after a humpback whale. Photos: Faustine Mercer

“I was on the sea ice the whole time, right next to the lead. It was a wide flat area after the pressure ridge, perfect for setting camp and hunting.

“We were checking on our whale that was still in the water, attached by the tail when the other whalers jumped in their umiaq (animal skin boat) to follow a whale that had just passed them. That happened right in front of me, less than 100m away.”

Later, the activity returned to the whale Faustine wanted to examine. “It took almost three hours to pull it up a ramp that the crew (20 people and five snowmachines) made on the ice. People from other crews helped also, but it was a fairly small number. Once the whale was on the ramp, they put some blocking tackles together, hooked it up to the tail, and people and snowmobiles started to pull.”

About 20 people helped to pull the whale out of the water.

As soon as the whale was landed, “butchering started right away, so we had only a few minutes to take our measurements. They cut a piece of blubber right away and gave it to the women so they could start making unalik (boiled skin and blubber) to give to everyone who was helping.”

The butchering portion was an efficient operation orchestrated by the whaling captain, Faustine said. When it was over, “the captain got to choose which part he wanted. Then, everyone who helped with butchering got a share.  A woman took people’s names and the blubber and meat was divided up on the ice according to the list. They used everything except for the guts and eyes (we actually took the eye balls to know the exact age). Someone cut the liver skin off too, as they use it to make drums. In less than three hours, the whale had totally disappeared.”

Later, when it was ready, Faustine tried her share of unalik—the boiled skin and blubber of the fresh whale that is a tradition of the harvest. “The unalik tasted kind of like fish, not bad at all, though fat as expected. The texture of the skin after being boiled is totally different than expected, as fresh it feels rubbery and looks chewy.

“People were laughing and happy, so I can say it was a celebration!”

For more on traditional hunting, visit


Burning Questions

May 17, 2010

Scientists Seek Information from the Anaktuvuk River Fire

By Emily Stone

Journalists visited the site of the Anaktuvuk River Fire last summer. The charred tussocks were still visible beneath the blooming cottongrass. Photo: Lisa Jarvis

Gaius Shaver has been traveling to Toolik Field Station for 34 summers to study how tundra ecosystems react to small environmental changes. One of his experiments involves building greenhouses over 8-by-16 foot plots of land to gauge how plants react to warmer soil.

His research has yielded interesting results over the years, but there’s always been a question of how well that data would translate over large tracks of land.

Suddenly, Mother Nature gave Shaver and many other Toolik scientists a way to find out.

A massive fire burned about 400 square miles of tundra along the Anaktuvuk River from July to October 2007. It was the largest tundra fire ever recorded on Alaska’s North Slope. Now the scientists are studying how the area, which is roughly the size of Cape Cod, responds. In addition to examining the warming soil and plant changes, the group is looking at how much carbon was lost in the fire, the ongoing exchange of carbon between the land and air, and how melting permafrost is affecting rivers and streams. They’re finding that the fire has had a significant impact in all these areas. And given that continued warming in the Arctic will likely lead to more lightning which will lead to more fires, these are important questions to answer.

The 2007 Anaktuvuk River Fire burned a Cape Cod-sized section of the North Slope. Scientists are interested in how long it will take the area's plants and soil to recover. Photo: Adrian Rocha

“There’s a lot going on,” said Shaver, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory who is leading the National Science Foundation-funded, three-year study that includes nine senior collaborators and a couple dozen other researchers. “It’s very exciting.”

The group calculated that the fire burned more than two million tons of carbon that had been stored in the soil, or roughly 25 years worth. This equals about 10 percent of the annual carbon emissions for the city of Boston. The fire also burned between 300 and 1,000 years worth of nitrogen.

The group is also interested in the continued changes in carbon exchange between the soil and atmosphere. Using instruments set up on three towers in the burn site, they’re measuring the exchange of carbon during the summers. If plants photosynthesize more than they and the soils in which they grow respire, then the net result is carbon being removed from the atmosphere. If there’s more respiration than photosynthesis, then the opposite is true.

Overall, the burned areas have a net carbon loss from the soil, meaning more carbon is being released into the atmosphere than at unburned spots. The researchers calculated that in 2008, the fire accounted for a minimum 2.8 percent reduction in the amount of carbon being taken out of the atmosphere across the North Slope even though the Anaktuvuk River Burn accounts for only 0.55 percent of the North Slope’s area.

The researchers know from older fires and erosion scars that shrubs tend to dominate the landscape after a disturbance at the expense of mounds of tussock grasses, which cover much of the North Slope. This seems to be playing out at the Anaktuvuk River Burn. Although shrubs were knocked back dramatically by the fire — even more than the tussocks — they are recovering rapidly even in severely burned areas and may soon exceed the grasses in the amount of ground they cover. 

Undisturbed tundra tends to keep its plants in pretty consistent ratios as they compete for limited resources in the soil. “A disturbance shakes up those relationships among species,” Shaver said. This is important because shrubs tend to insulate the soil in the winter, keeping it warmer, and also hold less carbon below ground than tussocks do, both of which can further change the landscape.

Another striking discovery is the change in albedo, meaning the percent of the sun’s radiation that is reflected away from the ground. In the first summer after the fire unburned portions of the burn site had a 17 percent albedo while severely burned sections had a 3.5 to 4 percent albedo. That means an additional 13 percent of the sun’s radiation was being absorbed in those areas. And that heat has to go somewhere, often warming the soil to higher temperatures and permeating deeper than normal. This difference was less in 2009 than in 2008, and Shaver said it will eventually return to the level of unburned tundra. 

Data show that burn scars absorb more of the sun's radiation than unburned tundra, increasing soil temperatures. Photo: Adrian Rocha

In the meantime, increased heat flux into the ground can cause thermokarst failures, which occur when the ice that’s normally frozen solid in permafrost melts and the land above it collapses like a soufflé. Last summer the group noticed more and more of these depressions as the season continued. When thermokarst erosion happens near streams and lakes, it dumps extra nutrients into the water, giving microbes, plants and fish access to more food and thus changing the aquatic ecosystems. 

“We can’t make a treaty to stop thermokarst and fires,” said Syndonia Bret-Harte, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who is heading up the plant studies at the burn.

Bret-Harte, who is also Toolik’s associate science director, was at the station in 2007 while the fire was burning about 25 miles away and at times could see a wall of smoke in the distance.

“It was awesome and beautiful, but disturbing at the same time,” she said.

Once the scientists realized how big the fire was, Shaver applied for an NSF grant for the following summer, knowing how valuable the natural experiment would be for the scientists at Toolik, many of whom are part of an ongoing Long Term Ecological Research Project, one of 26 in the U.S. LTER network.

The group is adding a component to this summer’s research by visiting the sites of two large fires from 1993 to see how they’re recovering in hopes of predicting how the Anaktuvuk River Burn will fare in the coming years. They’ll take measurements to see, for example, how much soil has accumulated above the char level and what the diversity of plant species is like.

All of this is crucial information to have as more and more disturbances like lightning-driven fires and thermokarst occur across the Arctic.

“Overall climate change is gradual and the overall response to this change is gradual,” Shaver said. “But then we have these patches of intense change and the patches may be changing so intensely that from the perspective of the whole North Slope, they actually dominate the overall changes.”

To Inuit, Sea Ice Means “Freedom”

May 13, 2010


At the edge of the sea ice, a Barrow resident awaits the return of a seal-skin whaling boat. Photo: Faustine Mercer

Here’s a really interesting story on Shari Gearheard’s NSF-funded people and sea-ice study. Gearheard, a glaciologist from U Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, combined scientific sea-ice studies with the traditional knowledge of Inuit collaboraters who’ve spent their lives on or near the ice.  The aim: to gain a better understanding of how sea ice is changing in the Arctic–and how community lifeways around the Arctic may be changing in response.  

Gearheard and her collaborators speak extensively in the piece, and what they have to say about the changes they’ve seen in sea-ice conditions is compelling.   

“‘I’m a scientist so when I look at sea ice I see what its properties are. How dense it is. But I remember sitting with the hunters when we were all in Qaanaaq. They looked at the sea ice and the first thing they said they saw was ‘freedom’.  

‘(Sea ice) meant they could hunt for food. It meant they could travel to see relatives on the other side of the water, that they hadn’t seen all year.  

‘That was a very powerful thing for me as a person, not just as a scientist.'”–Shari Gearheard  

* * *

“‘When I was a boy, the ice used to hover around Barrow all year,’ 51-year-old Leavitt said. ‘Now when the ice takes off it doesn’t want to come back. So our hunting is very limited.'”–Joe Leavitt, Barrow resident and whaling captain  

* * *

“‘We used to live as nomads in those days,” Sanguya continued. “After Christmas, when there was enough snow, we’d go out on the sea ice and make igloos.  

‘In those days I didn’t have any math or measurements … or anything like that. But I remember looking down through seal breathing holes and the ice was so thick, they looked like they were tapering away.  

‘Today you don’t see that very much. You’ll probably see 4 feet or 5 feet (down) and that’s it.'”–Joelie Sanguya, Elder and hunter, Clyde River, Nunavut

Hunters in Qaanaaq, Greenland traditionally travel over the sea ice on dog-powered sledges like these. Photo: Hans Jensen

Delivering Boardwalk

May 10, 2010

PFSers Larry Gullingsrud and Annelisa Neely deliver boardwalk to Mike Weintraub's tundra plots at Imnavait Creek. Researchers will use the dark material in the background to artificially warm some of the tundra plots. Photo: Jason Neely

University of Toledo’s Mike Weintraub returned to Imnavait Creek near Toolik Field Station last week for the first full season of tundra plot studies supported by his recent NSF grant.  The project is one of a group of new research to be fielded at/near Toolik this year to study changing seasonality in the Arctic (CSAS).  Specifically, Weintraub’s team is looking at how altered timing of seasonal events—earlier spring thaw and later fall freeze, for example—may affect nitrogen cycling in the soil, and how that in turn impacts tundra plant and microbe growth.

Polar Field Services staff returned to Toolik in late April for spring science support and station facilities projects. Among the larger science efforts, Jason Neely’s team placed about 3000 linear feet of boardwalk out on Imnavait Creek tundra manipulation plots for Weintraub’s CSAS soil nutrient experiment.   The boardwalk protects the fragile, slow-growing tundra from the many footsteps of researchers visiting the plots to collect plants, data and/or to manipulate the conditions.  The Weintraub team will continue working on the CSAS project for the length of the summer season at Toolik Field Station, departing in late August.

Weintraub heads an interdisciplinary collaboration composed of four other PIs:  Paddy Sullivan (U Alaska), Josh Schimel (U California), Edward Rastetter (Marine Biological Laboratory), and Heidi Steltzer (Colorado State U).

Researchers will manipulate the timing of seasonally driven processes in tussock tundra ecosystems by advancing the timing of snowmelt with radiation-absorbing fabric placed over the snowpack in the late spring and by using open-top warming chambers in concert with advanced snowmelt. They will follow how seasonally driven plant and soil dynamics are affected by changes in the timing of snowmelt and warming.

Travels with Kenji

April 28, 2010

Kenji Yoshikawa calls in adjustments to his permafrost outreach itinerary. Photo: Ned Rozell,

Permafrost troubadour Kenji Yoshikawa (University of Alaska) last week visited permafrost observatories in remote villages of Alaska. “In general weather was not great this spring especially Bristol Bay area,” Yoshikawa wrote to PFS’ Alaska support manager Marin Kuizenga. “I could not make some villages by the weather at this time.”

Kenji is a one-man Arctic Observing Network or AON, and he spends the summer in perpetual movement (or so it seems to us) servicing permafrost sites sprinkled all over the Arctic, and concentrated in Alaska. At each stop, he brings his permafrost knowledge to local residents.

Yoshikawa presents permafrost information to Alaska's next generation. Photo:

Ned Rozell joined Yoshikawa last week. Ned wrote about the adventure and posted pictures to his AlaskaTracks Web site. Don’t miss his observations.

Yoshikawa also maintains a permafrost outreach site at This fun site is full of tidbits about the places he visits, amply peppered with pictures. Make sure you have time to enjoy this site when you visit, because it’s easy to linger in Kenji’s world. And of course, there’s Tunnelman. 

Yoshikawa’s grant from the National Science Foundation  funds the installation and maintenance of around 100 permafrost observatories around Alaska.  For each one, Yoshikawa drills into the permafrost and installs micro dataloggers with temperature sensors to measure air and permafrost temperatures on the hour. These observatories are located next to schools. Yoshikawa visits the schools, teaches students and instructors about his work and then trains them to download and analyze the data from his instruments.

Yoshikawa visits a permafrost observatory. Photo:

Being COY

April 21, 2010

Polar bear cubs captured, inspected, and released by Hank Harlow's research team. Photo: John Whiteman

The Bears of Summer is back–that’s John Whiteman’s contribution to a collection of polar research dispatches called Ice Stories maintained by the San Francisco Exploratorium. Whiteman, a PhD student in the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology, has returned to Kaktovik on Alaska’s north coast for early spring fieldwork.  He’s part of Hank Harlow’s polar bear physiology study, an NSF-funded research project that aims to understand to what extent warmer summer temps–and attendant changes in sea-ice coverage–may impact polar bears who use the ice as a hunting platform. The Harlow team has been capturing, examining, tagging and releasing bears early and late in the growing season since 2008 to find out if they are successfully feeding during the summer, and if not, how they may be using their own body’s resources (mainly fat) for sustenance.

In his latest post, Whiteman writes about examining a gigantic male, the largest bear he’s ever handled. He also comments on the number of COYs he’s seeing–“COYs” being cubs born around January. The above three are taking a snooze on their bear mama while waiting for  a short-lasting dose of anesthesia to wear off.

So far, the team has had some success in recapturing bears tagged last year and in capturing new ones as well; this is particularly good news given that last fall’s capture and study period was hampered by poor ice conditions that prevented the researchers from safely reaching the bears.

Paddy’s Put-in

April 8, 2010
Smoke curls from the woodstove at Paddy Sullivan's camp site along the Aggie. All photos: Christie Haupert

Smoke curls from the wood stove at Paddy Sullivan's camp site. Photo: Christie Haupert

Christie Haupert helped Paddy Sullivan (University of Alaska) put in to his remote research site in Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve earlier this week. They flew in to Kotzebue and rode snowmachines on flagged paths to the Agashoshak River, from there traveling up river on the Aggie’s frozen surface until they reached Paddy’s site. Christie sent a note describing her adventures.

Kotz was great. As we landed at this small community frozen into a tiny spit of land surrounded by sea ice, a snowmachine whizzed by a dog-sled team. I wondered, are they both off to get groceries, or maybe just to stretch their legs a bit? Welcome to the bush – I couldn’t help but smile.

Kotzebue. Photo courtesy

Our hosts were Lars and Meghan Nedwick, an amazingly super cool couple with a 4-year-old, Otto, and a 2-year-old, Arnie. Talk about HIGH ENERGY – whew, I was exhausted just hanging out in the kitchen. Give me 100 miles of skiing any day instead of trying to keep two young boys entertained when it’s -20 F and blowing outside. The Nedwicks put us up in their house.  A warm, freshly baked spaghetti pie was waiting for us when we arrived, filled with fresh musk-ox meat from the neighbor. Paddy slept on the floor, I on the pull-out couch.  

We snowmachined two rigs out to the site on the Agashoshak on Tuesday. There was just one mile of visibility when we left, but thanks to a well-wanded “road” system we didn’t lose our way. The Brooks Range, like much of the interior and northern Alaska, has suffered a very low snow year. There was not enough snow on the ground to travel across tundra so we stuck to just the river systems. This meant fun on ice. Paddy’s machine did some nice twirls along glare ice a few times.  A bit more cautious, I managed not to spin doughnuts.

Our home was a cozy 8’x8’ Arctic Oven, equipped with portable woodstove and all. Once we learned how to manage the stove and not smoke ourselves out of the tent each time we put on a log, it made for fairly comfortable accommodations – certainly the warmest winter accommodations I have stayed in away from line power. The mountaineer in me had a hard time truly relaxing, it felt almost too plush. It was weird not to travel via human power, not to carry everything on my back and mostly it was weird to have a heated tent to sit in at night.

The next day, clear and sunny, was spent working on weather stations, including one that had been ravaged by a bear earlier in the fall, and digging snow “pits.” With a snow pack not much deeper than 40 cm, we didn’t really have to dig. Paddy is partly interested in how trees respond to different stressors – snowmelt, drought, etc. The snow pits help to characterize the snow conditions and to estimate the initial pulse of water the trees will receive at spring break-up. Paddy even commented that he hopes this year proves to be another drought, as it always results in interesting data.

After a fitful night’s sleep resulting from -20 F temps and a popped luxury camp thermarest (always bring back up sleeping pad when winter camping), we arose to yet again brilliant sunshine, hopeful for an eventful day. We shuttled a few deep-cycle batteries to the new sites Paddy will outfit with weather stations this spring. The rest of the day was spent trying to get one of the two snowmachines started. Despite having it hooked up to a generator for more than six hours, it wouldn’t start. At 6:00p.m., we decided to abandon it and ride back together on the other snowmachine.  My hope for an eventful day wasn’t quite what I imagined, sitting in a pristine area in the western Arctic listening to the drone of a small generator and trying to get a snowmachine started.

The snowmachine pulls a sledge full of science gear and camping supplies. Photo: Christie Haupert

The three-plus hour ride was tolerable, as it gave me a chance to just take in the scenery and not concentrate on the driving. My mind was mostly lost in thought about what we could have done to have avoided stranding a snowmachine.  It turned out there was water in the gas tank; even the rescuers had to tow it back to Kotzebue and warm it up in a garage before it would start. Thankfully for my ego, it wasn’t user error.

Friday was going to be my walk-about day, getting to know Kotz. Instead Lars Nedwick, who happens to fly for Bering Air, offered me the co-pilot seat on a trip to three nearby villages:  Ambler, Kobuk, Shungnak.

Kotzebue is on the coast; the three villages are shown at right. Map courtesy

I couldn’t turn down that opportunity. We loaded up the Caravan with 1500 pounds of soda pop (not kidding) and five passengers. We stopped in Ambler to drop off some mail, then in Kobuk we dropped off most of the passengers. Shungnak was the recipient of the soda.

We also had a State Trooper fly with us because in Shungnak there was a “perp” waiting in handcuffs to be escorted back to Kotz for an arraignment hearing. It was a real snapshot of village life.

Crammed into five days I had at least five new experiences and learned a lot while I was out there. The folks that live in bush Alaska are really of a different breed. Good stuff.