Melting Permafrost Due To Climate Change Jeopardizes Native Alaskan’s Food Storage

Failing Ice Cellar in Point Hope, Alaska       Photo: Mike Brubaker, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

For generations, Native Alaskans have stored their food year-round in icy cellars that have been dug deep underground, but recently many of these cellars are either becoming too warm so that the food spoils or failing completely due to flooding or collapse Civil Eats’ Kayla Frost reported from Alaska The cellars, known as siġluaqs, are usually about 10 to 20 feet below the surface and consist of a small room that used to be consistently about 10 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.  The Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, which is “causing permafrost to degrade ‘extensively, persistently, and rapidly,’ according to new research published in the journal Advances in Climate Change Research.”

Why This Matters:  The loss of these natural freezers could be devastating to Native Alaskans. The rapid melting of permafrost is just one of a number of changes from altering caribou migration patterns, to changes in berry season and salmon runs that are causing food insecurity there.  As one native leader explained, it’s not feasible for people in rural communities, many of which are only accessible by bush plane or boat, to depend on grocery stores because of the extremely high cost of importing food. “It’s an incredible strain when a gallon of milk is $10 or a loaf of bread is $8.”

Adapting to Climate Change

“In some of our communities, there is an 80 or 90 percent reliance on subsistence foods” that are foraged, fished, hunted, or grown through small-scale agriculture, Tikaan Galbreath, a member of the Mentasta Traditional Tribe told Frost.  So some are trying to find new ways to keep subsistence foods safe for longer periods of time.

Dune Lankard, founder and president of the Native Conservancy and an Eyak Athabaskan, believes that as the climate crisis worsens “we’re going to be dealing with less and less food products and less and less food sources.” His organization is looking for a modern substitute for the permafrost cellars using an advanced, portable freezer system that would give communities the ability to freeze food long-term — so far the results are promising.  The system they are piloting uses wave energy and is made by DENBA, a Japanese company, that makes freezers that preserves food long-term without freezer burn and with minimal loss of taste, moisture, and texture.

Changing Conventions

Using wave energy freezes food from the inside out — the water molecules in the food to form small, round crystals that cause minimal harm to the cell tissue of the food being stored. Conventional freezers work the opposite way — they chill food slowly from the outside in, which causes water molecules in the cell tissue to form large, spiky ice crystals that damage the tissue, reducing the food’s shelf life and quality. Still, as Frost writes, “when the last ice cellar is no longer usable, a piece of Iñupiat culture will be gone. But the people…will figure out new ways to live—just like they always have.”

To Go Deeper: into the Ice Cellar, read the whole story here.

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