This paper was written as part of the 2010 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

The Affects of Receding Sea Ice on Point Hope


Margaret Herbert
Nathaniel Feemster
Madalyn Campbell
Dawson Werner
Eileen Audette

Perusing Pycnopodia

Seward High School
2001 Swetmann Drive
PO Box 1049
Seward, Alaska 99664


Point Hope, an Inupiaq village 330 miles southwest of Barrow, Alaska, has a rich culture that partially depends on subsistence hunting and the use of seasonal sea ice (Rock, 2009). Over the last 20 years, a significant change in sea ice thickness has been observed. These changes can be linked to global climate change. Two of the marine mammals to be affected in the vicinity of Point Hope are the walrus Odobenus rosmarus, and the bowhead whale Balaena mystecetus. Both are vital to the culture and traditions of the Point Hope residents, and have been directly affected by the changes in the sea ice due to the fact that the sea ice is part of their natural habitat. Hence, Point Hope residents that rely on these marine mammals are directly affected by the changes in sea ice. However, not all changes are necessarily bad. Sea ice recession could open up new industries in the Arctic. This paper attempts to address the growing concern for the effects of changes in sea ice, upon native villages such as Point Hope.


Two common species found in arctic Alaska are the bowhead whale Balaena mystecetus and the walrus Odobenus rosmarus. The bowhead whale is a marine mammal of the phylum mystecetus, meaning that it uses baleen to catch its food. A bowhead whale can be up to 20 meters long, and resides in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It eats small plankton and other euphausiids. Bowheads rely on the Arctic sea ice for their migration patterns (NOAA, 2009). The walrus is a large tusked marine mammal. They mostly travel in pods and live in the north Atlantic and Arctic oceans. They eat mollusks, small fish, and other benthic invertebrates. Walruses depend on arctic sea ice for breeding grounds and haul out locations during molting. These vital locations are slowly disappearing due to climate change (Arctic Animals, 2009). Climate change is any change in global temperature and precipitation over time due, to natural variation or human activity. Although the root cause of climate change is indisputably the increased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere, who or what is responsible for these changes is up for debate. Some say that human activity is the sole cause of it, while others claim that it is unavoidable and has happened before. The inescapable fact, however, is that, no matter the cause, climate change is happening. The ice caps are melting, species are disappearing and appearing, temperatures are rising—the evidence is everywhere.

Point Hope, Alaska is home to 757 residents that hardly see daylight in the winter. Point Hope is about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is 330 miles southwest of Barrow. The people in Point Hope are 90.6% Native or part Native Alaskan. Many of the members of the community are part of the Tikigaq Corporation made up of over 1000 Inupiaq shareholders (Rock, 2009). Point Hope's climate is arctic. They have short, cool summers, and long cold winters.

Residents of Point Hope and other native villages rely on subsistence harvesting and the use of seasonal sea ice to harvest seals, walrus, bowhead whales, and other marine mammals. Sea ice is frozen sea water. It has a total salinity that varies from 4 to 15 parts per thousand (Thurman, 1995). The Beaufort and Chuckchi seas are covered with sea ice more than 60% of the year. Sea ice is important to the eco-system of the Arctic seas for many reasons. The marine mammals utilize it for breeding, finding food, molting, rest stops, and the people use it for transportation and to find the animals of which they subsistence hunt, along with countless other uses. Without the sea ice many creatures, complex or not, will find themselves without home, food, or map, making them like so many other animals, lost.


Subsistence is the usage of natural resources to survive. Subsistence was a major way of life for ancient civilizations and nomadic cultures. Today we rely on large corporations to do the work of surviving for us yet, there are still some Native American cultures that rely on subsistence to keep their heritage and themselves alive. In Alaska there are several indigenous groups of people that still rely on subsistence as a way of life. In fact, rural Alaska's subsistence harvest of game meat—terrestrial and marine mammals—is about 354 pounds per person (A.E.W.C., 1992).

Point Hope relies heavily on subsistence hunting. Two culturally important subsisted animals in Point Hope are the walrus and the bowhead whale. They provide food, pieces of clothing, items for ceremonial dances, stories, and celebrations. The walruses blubber was once, and still is, used for food and oil. Subsistence also provides material for Native Alaskan art, which for some families may be the only source of income. At an early age, the children of the village are taught about whaling. They learn about the umiaq (animal skinned boat), how to navigate sea ice, and about the thousand year old culture that they will become a part of (A.E.W.C., 1992). Other than the continuation of the Inupiat culture, the bowhead whale is also a key food source and source of income for many of the village residents.

While hunting for bowhead whales, an umiaq with a small group of hunters navigate using the edge of the sea ice. Once a whale is sighted, it is repeatedly harpooned. After its death it is pulled to shore and sectioned out for the different families in the community (A.E.W.C., 1992).

Subsistence, not only for the Inupiat, but for all cultures that rely on it, is something not done merely to survive. Subsistence is the center of their beliefs; it is what all of their traditions, celebrations, dances, stories, and morals are based on. For some rural communities subsistence is the only real way to survive because every-day commodities are often scarce or expensive. Simply put, without the use subsistence hunting by these cultures, they would not exist.

Marine Mammals

One animal greatly affected by the receding sea ice is the bowhead whale. The bowhead whale is a marine mammal that many coastal Alaskan towns and villages depend on for the upkeep of their economy (NOAA, 2009). Its name comes from the 5-meter long bow-shaped skull it sports. This baleen whale resides in the cold, ice-ridden waters of the northern Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Recent studies have shown that the bowhead whales may be the oldest living mammals on earth, reaching ages of over 170 years old.

Bowhead whales follow the edge of the Arctic ice in their migration patterns to lead them to their off-season resting places. They swim along the edge of the Arctic ice south to the Bering Sea in the winter (American Cetacean Society Fact Page, 2004). Because the Arctic ice has been gradually decreasing, the bowhead whales' migration patterns have been slowly moving farther and farther north. The bowheads do not pass through all the towns they used to during their migration.

Another marine mammal affected by the receding Arctic sea ice is the walrus. Belonging to the pinniped family, the walrus lives in the Arctic and subarctic areas of the globe. A large layer of blubber under the skin protects the walruses from the frigid temperatures of their habitat. Walruses can range anywhere from 9 to 12 feet in size, and weigh between one and two tons when they are fully grown. Walruses mostly eat bottom dwelling invertebrates such as clams, snails, crabs, shrimp and worms. Some distinguishing characteristics of the walrus include their long ivory tusks, whiskers, and the unique barking noise they make. The tusks, which grow between two and four feet, help distinguish the rank of walruses in a community; the longer the tusks, the higher the rank. Males use their tusks during mating season to joust or fight over the females. Females use their tusks to pull themselves out of the water onto the ice and also to drill breathing holes in the ice (Arctic Animals, 2007).

Walruses depend on Arctic sea ice for their migration patterns. They also depend on ice as a place to rest during long migratory swims and as a place to haul out during molting season. Due to the recent receding sea ice, the walruses have taken to congregating in large numbers along the coast of Arctic Alaska. These congregations can become dangerous when the walruses are startled and begin to stampede into the water. Younger or smaller walruses are sometimes injured or killed by the 2000 pound adults. Because there is a limited amount of Arctic ice, the walruses cannot rest as much during their long migratory swims. Another extreme problem is that the sea ice is receding into deeper waters, which means that it takes more energy for the walruses to get to the benthic organisms that they feed on (Artic Animals, 2007).

Sea Ice

Sea ice is directly affected by climate change. The term sea ice is used to differentiate frozen sea water from icebergs. The freezing point of pure water is normally 0°C where as the freezing point of seawater with a salinity of 35 parts per thousand is just about 2° lower at -1.19°C. Depending on the rate of freezing, newly formed ice can have a total salinity from 4 to 15 parts per thousand (Thurman, 1995). Sea ice forms as small needlelike crystals in a hexagonal shape. The small crystals eventually become so numerous that slush begins to develop. After this stage, the slush forms into a thin sheet of ice, but is broken up by wind stress and wave action and forms pancake ice. Pancake ice is a form of ice that is made up of round pieces of ice with diameters ranging from a few inches to many feet depending on the conditions of where it is being formed. Pancake ice has elevated rims that rise a few inches above the sea ice (Terraquest, 1995). As the ice freezes further, the pancakes join together to form ice floes. An ice floe is a floating chunk of sea ice that is less than ten kilometers at its greatest dimension. (Polar Ice Capz, 2009) If the ice is greater than ten kilometers at its greatest dimension, however, if is referred to as an ice field. Sea ice is at its lowest coverage during the months of August to September, and at its greatest coverage from February to March, which coincides with the hunting season of the people of Point Hope. (See Figure 2.)

Point Hope

Point Hope is located in the northern most part of Alaska; it is 68.347° north and 166.76° west (ePodunk, 2007). (See Figure 4.) Point Hope has been moved many times due to terrible weather conditions, erosion, and the movement of the marine animals. (Rock, 2009) Point Hope's weather is typical of the Arctic climate. The summers are short and very cool with temperatures around -1 to 10° Celsius. During the winter, Point Hope averages below zero temperatures around -40° Celsius. The precipitation is very light around 10 to 12 inches annually. With around 36 inches of snowfall around the month of November there is strong northern surface winds bringing strong wind and blizzards. The Chukchi Sea is around Point Hope and does not freeze between the months of late June until the middle of September. At that time, slush and ice began to form along the shoreline. The amount days Point Hope has of sunlight is 147. The Chukchi Sea is more than 60 feet deep. Unlike other coastal areas the tides do not have a direct impact on Point Hope's region. The shoreline consists of high cliffs (reaching heights of around 1,000 to 2,000 feet) and beach ridges. (Rock, 2009)

The population of Point Hope, home to roughly 757 residents residing in over 200 housing units, is about 90.6% Alaska Native. The median home price is $158,931 with a 110% cost of living. The majority of the residents are single and live in Point Hope for work related reasons. Although there is 5% unemployment, the median annual household income is $75,120 (ePodunk, 2007). The North Slope Borough supplies all utilities for the community. Some of the households have water delivered and tanks filled with water acquired from a lake six miles east of the community. There is a health clinic in town that provides health care services, although, mostly for minor illnesses. There is also a volunteer fire department available for combustion catastrophes (Rock, 2009).

Many of these aspects can and will be affected by the receding Arctic sea ice. People will be forced to readjust their lifestyles, traditions will change, and along with several other significant changes, the geography itself will alter.

Affects on Point Hope

Receding sea ice is a real problem. The effects on Point Hope are only one small portion of the possible outcome. Many dimensions of Point Hope will be affected.

The vast majority of the population of Point Hope is Native Alaskan (Tikigaq, 2009). This means that they have the right to subsistence hunt and fish. However, since the receding sea ice is causing disruptions in the animals' habitats, Native Alaskans may have to change long standing traditions. Subsistence hunting and fishing is used to provide clothing, fuel, food, trade, and ceremonial goods, arts and crafts, and other entities essential to village life. Many animals that are relied upon for subsistence are being affected by the retreating sea ice. Walruses, for example, provide food as well as skins and ivory which are utilized for various purposes. Unfortunately, the receding sea ice has caused, and will cause, more significant problems for Arctic marine mammals and, in turn, those who rely upon them. The walruses, once again, have been forced to haul out on land instead of their customary sea ice and, as a result, have been forced to swim farther for their food. Because of this, traditional native customs will be forced to change. Many of the handcrafted products made in and exported from Point Hope are dependent upon the resources that the marine mammals provide. Without theses lucrative items, there is not much left of the local economy, and without the sea ice, there is no habitat for the animals who provide a majority of these entities.

When Arctic sea ice hit an all time low in 2007 (Figure 1), the summer pack ice lost more than 1.5 million square miles. This is 20% greater loss than previously recorded and larger than the states of Alaska, Texas, and California combined (Audubon Alaska, 2009). The receding sea ice opens up a lot of ocean that can be used quite effectively. For instance, the increased open water areas would have opened up a huge market for commercial fishing. However, from now on, the federal government has placed a ban on commercial fishing in over 200,000 square miles of Arctic waters until extensive research can be conducted. This would have been a huge opportunity for Arctic Alaska. The fishermen would have made money, and it might have been lucrative to open one or more fish processing plants in the area. This could all still happen, but it is being put on hold indefinitely by the federal government (Pemberton, 2009).

The open water will also open opportunities for oil and gas extraction from the ocean floor. In February of 2008, almost three million acres in the Chukchi Sea were lease sold for more than $2.6 billion. This area is located 50–60 miles off the northwest coast of Alaska. This is the first lease in over 20 years. The Bush administration had adopted the current near-shore outer continental shelf (OCS) plan to lease sell 70 million acres in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas over the next 5 years. Many different organizations protested and sued over the lack of research. The court threw out the plan and sent it back to the Department of the Interior for corrections. Also, just before the transfer to the Obama administration, the Bush administration drafted and proposed a nearly identical plan that called for 128 million acres to be leased in the Arctic seas. For the time being, all lease sales in the Arctic are on hold. If lease sale plans ever pass, however, the Arctic seas could become a wellspring of oil and gas.

Unfortunately, the influx of freezing melt water into the Kamchatk and Oyashio currents will be too cold and the other tributaries will not be enough to reheat the overall current. This glacial stream will make its way into the Gulf of Alaska. The difference in temperature will affect many aspects of the ecosystem such as: possible declining fish populations that could result in reduced commercial fishing numbers; a possible deterioration in plant life that may subsequently harm surrounding animal populations; and countless other harmful consequences.

In a different set of outcomes, the settlement of Point Hope, located on a gravel spit known as Point Hope Promontory, has already been forced to relocate several times due to erosion and flooding (Tikigaq, 2009). Sea ice is usually present from October to early July, but if it continues to retreat this shield from the harsh seas will be lost, leaving the promontory open to more extreme buffeting from the ocean. This steady assault would further erode the coastline, eventually causing the need for the village to relocate yet again. This could be a huge hardship for villagers short on money, older villagers, or the very young.

There could, however, be a number of good changes. The receding sea ice will, and has, opened up shipping lanes in the Arctic seas. This could stimulate the economy of Point Hope because with Arctic shipping becoming more lucrative, it could become a fuel or loading stop. Also, if the shipping lanes are open long enough, cruise ships may start to take advantage of a new Alaskan cruise route, giving northern villages more tourism possibilities.

Many changes are on the verge of becoming reality. This could mean devastation or new opportunities for arctic villages such as Point Hope. Subsistence, location, imports, exports, and tourism are all in line to be affected.

Action Plan

The recession of Arctic sea ice has global implications that cannot be solved with a 'quick fix.' There must be extreme action taken to even hope to solve this pressing issue. To even produce any viable plans, the entire problem and the entire world must be taken into consideration. Changing one part of the world to fix something will almost certainly negatively affect something else.

For example, while decreasing the salinity of the Arctic seas and Arctic ice cap could at least temporarily solve the problem of receding sea ice, a large part of the rest of the ocean, as well as some parts of the Arctic, is reliant upon this salt. If the salinity were decreased in Arctic waters, this reduction would drift into the remainder of the ocean and severely affect organisms elsewhere.

Any method employed in the Arctic must be reasonable, affordable, and practical. However, it is difficult to produce ideas that meet even one of these requirements, let alone all three. The procedure being put into action in the Swiss Alps makes a valiant effort. At ski resorts in the Swiss Alps, they are covering their glaciers and ski slopes with blankets. This, however, is not as low-tech as it sounds. Theses blankets have been specially designed with outer surfaces that reflect heat and inner surfaces that preserve the cold temperatures. Each blanket covers 330 feet and the covered areas have experienced 80% less melt (Pacella, 2007). However, all of this preservation comes at an extremely high cost—$12 million per square mile. This design is both reasonable and practical, but the price renders it useless for large areas.

If a similar method to the one being used in the Swiss Alps is attempted in the Arctic, there would be several dilemmas. First of all, the $12 million per square mile cost is virtually impossible for the various concerned parties to acquire. Another problem facing the expansion of this project is that it may not be possible to extend this project into so large an area as the arctic ice cap.

To permanently solve this problem, the root cause needs to be addressed—climate change. The only way for climate change to be stopped or slowed is to target the populous as a whole. If the everyday person reduces their carbon foot print—drive fuel-efficient cars, replace traditional lightbulbs with halogen light bulbs, use less electricity—emissions around the world will start to decrease. This is the only way to solve global climate change and all the deviant problems such as ocean acidification and arctic sea ice recession.


Retreating Arctic sea ice has many major implications. Many scientists believe that global climate change is the main cause of this recession. When Arctic sea ice hit its all time low in 2007, researchers realized the imminent problems facing both villages and species. The marine mammals that many villages depend on, rely on the pack ice for haul out areas, rookeries, and convenient foraging pit stops. The changes to the Arctic marine mammals' habitats are causing decreases in populations, overcrowded shores, and changes in Arctic village cultures. Point Hope, Alaska is one of many arctic villages that could possibly be affected. The geography, location, hunting traditions, cultural celebrations, exports, and countless other parts of village life may be changed. The only way to successfully resolve this problem is to consider the larger issue—climate change. There is no easy way to save the species at risk and their dependents. The world must take it upon themselves to make sacrifices and save those in jeopardy.


graph showing sea ice decrease over the years

Figure 1. (Allianz, 2008)

picture of polar sea ice decrease

Figure 2. (NASA, 2009)

minimum polar sea ice

Figure 3. (Drummoyne/Canada Bay/LoweClimate Action Group, 2008)

map of Point Hope

Figure 4. (Rock, 2009)