Observations on Shorefast Ice Dynamics in Arctic Alaska and the Responses of the Iñupiat Hunting Community


  • J.C. George
  • H.P. Huntington
  • K. Brewster
  • H. Eicken
  • D.W. Norton
  • R. Glenn




Iñupiat, sea ice, safety, breakup, calving, shorefast ice, hunting, technology, whaling, Barrow


Although shorefast sea ice forms a platform that facilitates travel, camping, and hunting by Iñupiat subsistence hunters and fishers in the western Arctic, the nearshore sea-ice zone remains an unforgiving and dynamic environment. Traditional hunters constantly hone site-specific experiences and skills with which to optimize the reward-to-risk ratio inherent in operating from this coastal ice. Nearshore ice conditions nevertheless can change suddenly, endangering even the most experienced subsistence hunters. This study examines two (of several) 20th-century events, 40 years apart, in which shorefast ice failed, threatening Iñupiat whale hunters with loss of confidence, livelihood, and life. These events differed in character. In one event, the shorefast ice was "crushed" by moving ice floes. In the other, the shorefast ice broke free of land. Our examination focuses on the relationship of subsistence hunters to the ice, the environmental causes of ice failures, the evolving technology for predicting ice behavior, and the longer-term implications of global change for this system. The complexity of geophysical processes underlying coastal ice behavior makes ice failures unpredictable. Thus, hunters must assume and manage risk. The variable and uncertain environment to which whale hunters are accustomed has produced an inherent flexibility that has helped them adapt to new conditions and will continue to do so in the future.