In doomed Alaska town, hunters turn to drones and caribou as sea ice melts

Climate change is forcing indigenous people to find new ways to survive as a remote village of 600 grapples with rapid erosion

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 its a toy, but a lot of people know that its 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 doesnt 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 states extreme western tip, Shishmarefs 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.

Shishmaref is running out of time. Photograph: Zachariah Hughes for the Guardian

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 theres also an abundance of natural resources and the traditional knowledge of how to harvest them.

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Balmier weather has meant ice doesnt 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.

Going oogruk hunting or walrus hunting, you can go, like, 30, 40, 50 miles without seeing something, Davis said of the last few years.

It isnt that there are fewer animals, but as they follow retreating sea ice, they are distributed further from the town prompting hunters to travel greater distances searching for them.

Last year Davis went almost all the way to Kotzebue, about a hundred miles away, looking for oogruk. On the way back, the weather took an unexpected turn, nearly costing the hunting party all their equipment when his boat became stuck in the ice and had to be abandoned.

A home destroyed by beach erosion in Shishmaref tips over. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The way we hunt oogruk or seal hasnt changed. The conditions have, said Percy Nayokpuk, 65, who runs a store in town and is Davis father-in-law. This year has seen the latest freeze-up of the ocean he can remember.

Climate change is having other profound impacts. Traditionally, people in Shishmaref relied more heavily on marine mammals for food. In the last few decades, residents say more caribou are venturing closer to town, increasing the local harvest.

Outside homes all around town, ruby-red haunches cure in the sun and tangled piles of antlers rest on roofs. The shifting distribution could be the result of a changing food supply on the tundra or fluctuations in herd size. But with fewer opportunities to hunt marine mammals, caribou is becoming a more dependable option.

Its a similar story with musk oxen, shaggy prehistoric goats that were wiped out of Alaska in the 1800s, reintroduced to the mainland just 50 years ago, and are now steadily working their way back into peoples diets. For some hunters, terrestrial animals like these are a relatively new opportunity to reliably put food away.

Like most people in Shishmaref and indigenous communities across Alaska, hunting is no idle pursuit for Davis. Back at his cluttered three-bedroom home home on a chilly January evening, he fried up a house special: musk ox burgers.

I compare musk ox to wagyu beef, because its so marbled, Davis said.

All seven of his kids still live at home. By the time everyone is finished with dinner, eight pounds of musk ox meat is gone. Buying this much frozen ground beef at the store would have cost up to $70. That per-meal cost is out of reach for many in Alaskas rural communities, where jobs and cash are scarce and everything costs several times as much as it would at a supermarket in the lower 48 even water. A gallon is $11 at the store.

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