Weather changes disrupt subsistence hunt in Arctic Alaska

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A new study says that hunting in the Northwest Alaska community of Wainwright has been made more difficult in recent years thanks to rough weather shortening the windows available to bag whales and caribou. (Ben Anderson / Alaska Dispatch)
A new study says that hunting in the Northwest Alaska community of Wainwright has been made more difficult in recent years thanks to rough weather shortening the windows available to bag whales and caribou.
(Ben Anderson / Alaska Dispatch)
Opportunities to safely hunt whales and caribou in one northwestern Alaska village have diminished because treacherous winds have become more common during harvest seasons the last few decades, a new scientific study reports.

The study, published in the December issue of the journal Arctic, found that for the hunting-dependent residents of Wainwright, there are about seven fewer suitable spring days to harvest bowhead whales and about seven fewer suitable summer days to harvest caribou compared to 1971.

Problems arise when winds reach about 24 mph, said lead author Winslow Hansen, a research fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s zoology department.

“Wind is the major concern because it makes the ocean rough,” said Hansen, who was a research technician at the University of Alaska Fairbanks when he worked on the study with other UAF researchers.

Whale harvest

The Inupiat hunters in Wainwright, a community of about 550, use boats to harvest bowhead whales in the spring and caribou in the summer. While high winds are good for opening leads in the ice, they also make boat travel difficult, Hansen said. Winds below about 13 mph are needed for good hunting conditions, the study found.

Weather records are scarce in Wainwright, so researchers relied on detailed interviews with local hunters, Hansen said. The hunters’ descriptions of wind problems matched the detailed multi-year records kept at Barrow, 90 miles to the northeast, he said. The hunters’ comments also matched the single year of wind data kept in Wainwright, he said.

More windy days is a less-obvious impact of a warming Arctic compared to reduced sea ice and delayed freeze-up, Hansen said. Still, there are some important impacts to residents’ lives, he said.

“In terms of available hunting opportunity, they’re seeing major day-to-day anomalies like wind direction and rain on snow,” he said.

Frequency of favorable weather days for whale and caribou hunting declined nearly 12 percent from 1971 to 2010, the study notes.

 Long-term climate impacts

In some ways, the study points out, long-term climate impacts affect the short term, too. Sparse sea ice means less of a buffer against waves, making winds and the choppy seas they create more of a problem, the study says.

Loss of good-weather days for hunting causes another squeeze, Hansen said. As more residents move into jobs in the cash economy, they have less flexibility with their time and fewer days available to participate in subsistence hunts, he said. One response is to hunt in more dangerous conditions, he said.

But it’s not entirely a doom-and-gloom story, Hansen said. “I think it’s really important to emphasize that the hunters are well aware of what’s going on and adapting to the conditions,” he said. One answer might be a tweaking of hunting seasons, such as a shift to winter hunting for caribou, he said. Another response could be more flexibility in work schedules to allow residents to take advantage of good weather when it happens, he said.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com

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