This 20-foot-deep shaft is four feet by five feet. The ladder remains in the shaft for access; a heavy trap door closes over the top of the shaft. A self-arrest hoist hangs over the shaft to lower the large blocks of meat down to the storage cavern. - Courtesy of the Kaktovik Community Foundation

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After the last sigluaq

April 28th, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder Print this article   Email this article  

Dotting the ground across Barter Island are deep shafts. They look almost like mine shafts, descending into the chilled and dark permafrost below. Their faces are decrepit now and where they used to hold a bounty of whale, they now hold only floodwater.

Sixty years ago, around the time when Matthew Rexford's father's father was turning the ground to build his own ice cellar as a proud whaling captain, there were 12 of these such cellars in Kaktovik.

Today there is only one left.

"All the other family cellars have been flooded and have collapsed," said Rexford, president of the Kaktovik Community Foundation board.

With only the Rexford's still standing and a whaling community to support, the Kaktovik community decided to do something radical: to build a new ice cellar, based on traditional designs but incorporating modern technology for the whole community to share.

"The community of Kaktovik is a whaling community," Rexford said. "Our people will have to adapt to climate change and have been adapting to it."

Changing conditions

Gordon Brower, who comes from a whaling family to the west in Utqiaġvik, remembers honing his own skills on the ice in the late 1960s.

"From the 1970s to the 1980s, I think we didn't see issues with our cellars and they were capable of storing an entire whale and freezing solid inside the cellar," said Brower, who leads the North Slope Borough's planning department.

He is still using his family's cellar that he thinks is probably about a hundred years old.

"It's the best way to preserve the food so that the festival times in the summer and the periods in winter when we pull out the remaining portion to serve the community, the whale kept in the cellar and actually provides a flavor that can't be matched by putting it just in a freezer or outside in the weather," he said.

He described it as a way of cold-curing meat. It didn't need to be cooked. Then, things began to change.

"Sometime in the late 1990s or the 2000s, a noticeable change was starting to occur. When we caught whales and stored them in our cellars, the meat was not actually freezing. It was just changing," he said. "The temperature was changing. Some of the meat was starting to spoil in the cellar. Those kinds of things we never encountered before."

Whaling captains started to be more vigilant about checking their cellars during winter, he said. In the coldest parts of the coldest months, they'd open up their cellars to let the bone-chilling 40 below temperatures seep into the permafrost. Sometimes it would be enough to keep through the spring, but with summers bringing unseasonably warm weather, even then some of the cellars would fail.

"Even though we were doing some of these things to set temperature, again we started encountering issues," Brower said. "The temperature of the permafrost wasn't maintaining enough cold to freeze a whale that's being stored beneath the earth."

The ice conditions were also morphing over time. As the meat spoiled in the cellars, the whaling captains were having to contend with unpredictable single-year ice rather than the sturdy old multi-year ice of their father's generation.

"Over time and all the way up to today, there's a drastic change," Brower said.

In many places, the old cellars were constructed on permafrost near the shoreline, so captains could bring their boats close to offload the whale. Those coastal cellars were the first to flood, or slough off entirely into the sea.

Permafrost thaw and a lack of protective sea ice on the coastlines meant greater impacts from storm surges and even more flooding inland.

"We're in a learning curve up here in the Arctic with our whaling," he said. "That's all the way to include our ice cellars and how we are having issues to ensure our food is edible and good and healthy for our communities."

A poor substitute

With the unpredictability of traditional storage methods bringing issues of food security, many community members sought out substitutes for the old cellars.

Some tried stand-up freezers, which couldn't hold enough meat and maktak. Others tried large box freezers, though Elders said they brought a bad taste.

"The Elders could tell the difference of the taste of the food," said Rexford. "There's sort of an earthy taste to the food when we store it in a traditional ice cellar as opposed to storing it in a freezer. That is one thing we've heard from all the folks in the community. When we bring our food to the feasts, food that was frozen in the ice cellar has a much better taste for the people."

Sometimes, if the temperature wasn't adjusted just right, the meat would either thaw out too much or get freezer burn.

In some communities, like Kaktovik, they turned to larger alternatives.

"Somebody had donated three Connex freezers to the community to help them out with this storage problem," said Marnie Isaacs, executive director of the Kaktovik Community Foundation. "The freezers have a tendency sometimes to fail, which means if it's in the fall or the spring, the meat's going to rot, and they've lost meat in these things. It dries out the meat. There's an enormous power bill to keep this going."

Power surges and outages are commonplace in the villages. When food is dependent on electricity to be regular and temperature to be regulated, refrigerators and freezers are an iffy bet.

"The more I heard about it, the more I thought how utterly inappropriate this whole thing was," said Isaacs. "The fact that the climate is becoming wetter, there's more rain, and the cellars were flooding out, it seemed that this was a problem that had a solution. I just couldn't quite come up with it."

The one thing that was certain was fridges and freezers were out of the question.

Adapting technologies

Isaacs had been working for years in the oil and gas industry as a go-between of sorts, developing communication strategies for companies and local communities.

Large corporations like ExxonMobil that operate in northern climates have had to contend with permafrost thaw, flooding, and the like for years.

"There were issues being addressed for the last 10 or 15 years dealing with permafrost degradation in Prudhoe Bay and subsidence issues with well houses, and things like that," explained Brower. "Those correlated to the issues [communities] were having with permafrost and food security for maintaining ice cellars."

Isaacs had seen similar conversations take place about how to deal with fluctuating temperatures and sensitive ground conditions in her past work.

"At Alyeska, the original design had the same problem. How do you transport warm oil over permafrost without degrading the permafrost? And they used these thermosyphons," she said.

In a nutshell, thermosyphons are refrigeration devices. They typically look like long tubes and they function by transferring heat from the surrounding permafrost out to the air above, thereby cooling the ground they are placed in. They can help maintain stable temperatures in sensitive environments.

Brower recalled the borough reaching out to ExxonMobil and encouraging the company to build ties with Kaktovik, the nearest community to one of its development areas.

"A lot of the North Slope Borough policies are subsistence-related so there can be coexistence of competing users of the same land," he said. "I think we're seeing some of that benefit because we have policies that tell the industry and developers that responsible development includes making sure our communities have some opportunities to find work and continue their subsistence way of life and find ways to communicate and work together."

ExxonMobil funded a modeling study to test whether or not thermosyphon technology could be used to protect the permafrost around an ice cellar in Kaktovik, Isaacs explained.

"With the two cultures, the oil and gas industry culture and the North Slope Inupiat governance and culture, there's just so many opportunities to collaborate, particularly with the challenges they both have right now. When I started hearing about the cellar problems, I just couldn't help myself. It just seemed like something should be done," she said.

The syphons were developed by Arctic Foundations and were already in use across the oil patch and throughout the North Slope Borough, where they'd been incorporated into building foundations and structures.

The study had positive results. It looked like industry technology could be adapted to regulate the temperature of an underground ice cellar. At that point, ExxonMobil took a step back, the community created the Kaktovik Community Foundation so it could take donations and hire engineers, and the project to build a modern, climate-change resistant ice cellar was off to a strong start.

"This is one community's pushback on a changing climate," said Isaacs. "They all pulled together. There was no time for politics."

Innovative design

Now four years after the start, the cellar doesn't look like much from the outside. It's outside the busy part of Kaktovik, down a subdivision road and a short walk out on land leased by the local village corporation for a symbolic $100 per year.

"It's very unassuming," said Isaacs.

It's situated on one of the highest points of the relatively flat island, about 48 feet above sea level. But beneath the surface, the cellar is an example of the seamless melding of Inupiaq design and modern technology.

Opening the door to the outbuilding reveals a hatch, leading to a long shaft that dives down through the active layer into the deep permafrost below. The door to the hatch is covered in thick hoarfrost crystals that hint at the cold beneath.

"All of the moisture comes out of the air and there's enormous frost crystals that are just gorgeous, very, very fine and feathery. And then you've got six feet of heavy yellow cedar cribbing that protects the shaft going down through the active layer. Then it's all permafrost walls the rest of the way down, about 20 feet," said Isaacs. "You're just looking into something that you've never seen before. It's a brand-new sight for the eyes."

Down the ladder is an arched door about six feet tall that leads into a storage room carved out of the clear, hard, thick permafrost.

"You get in there and it's perfectly silent. There's amazing silence. And there's little crystals all over the walls and the ceiling from the permafrost. It's like sitting in a little cathedral," she said.

Despite the calm interior, this cellar was built to last.

"The housing itself has been designed to withstand three key things," said Isaacs. "The first is 100 mph winds, so it's strapped onto a pretty robust foundation. The second is a thousand-pound polar bear banging on it trying to get in. The third, of course, is to keep water out. We did everything we could think about to seal the cribbing and the shaft and the housing together and waterproof it."

Hidden throughout the permafrost and along the shaft are sensors constantly monitoring the air and surface temperature. Those sensors are connected to wires that lead to a box. On top of the cellar is an antenna that sends the sensor readings to a satellite which transfers them to Anchorage, where they are being monitored.

The technology is powered by solar panels on the south face of the building which are connected to batteries they power. In the depths of winter, the batteries drop to about half power but are rejuvenated once again come the rising of the sun. The whole setup costs about $25 per month to run.

"We'll be working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and also with the local school here to get that data and get it recorded, so if there are any problems we will be aware of it," said Rexford.

The design was governed by five guiding principles, one of which was that all cellar activity and operations were to remain off-grid.

"To plug it in would cause lights to be left on or fuel to be spilled. The traditional way of letting the permafrost and solar power manage your needs in the cellar [was the way to go]," Isaacs said.

The next was that the design had to represent a blend of traditional and modern technology. It also had to address climate change threats through adaptation and monitoring.

It also has to be shared each year by the three successful whaling captains and never be held by just one person or family.

"The whaling captains and crews are the ones we created the ice cellar for," Rexford said. "Each year, Kaktovik is allowed to subsist three bowhead whales. So, we decided we would make it so the community would have a place for the three whales that are harvested."

In Canada, ice cellars are often shared by community members. However, in Alaska, cellars are passed within a family.

"They are kind of like heirlooms," Brower explained. "The cellar I use is over a hundred years old."

He said he hopes someday the same technology can be adapted to save some of the old-style cellars falling into disrepair, to keep alive that part of the tradition.

It's a shift in the way of thinking to move to a shared space. But, it's part of that adaptation Rexford and his community were prepared to undertake. Rather than the new cellars passing from father to son, they'll pass from one generation to the next within Kaktovik.

The final guiding principle was that all the plans for the cellar would be shared openly and freely with other villages facing the same problem.

"The idea was this was a prototype and that if other villages were interested, we wanted them to fully understand what we were doing and why," said Isaacs.

Looking ahead

They'll also make their results open to all as they continue monitoring the cellar's progress through the seasons.

In the short term, Kaktovik's whaling captains are preparing for the warm summer months by thinking ahead to fall whaling. It's commonly held that the best way to pack whale from the fall harvest is on a bed of spring snow, which is more granular and better protects the meat and maktak from picking up any dirt or debris from the permafrost itself.

In the coming weeks, teams will haul bucket after bucket of snow down the shaft where it will wait for the bounty to be placed atop it come hunting season.

In the long term, the cellar will be closely watched and maintained carefully by both the local community and those working remotely from Anchorage.

"We can't foresee climate change affecting it as much as folks might think," said Rexford. "We feel that it may be around for many generations and how my father's traditional cellar is going, it looks like it will live as long as we maintain the cellar each year and make sure it's maintained throughout the year. We believe we prepared and discussed and designed it well enough so that it can be here for a long time."

They designed the project to have a 50-year lifespan, though they hope it will last for generations to come. They set that marker to give the engineers something to work against.

"For today or tomorrow, it's going to look overbuilt, but in 10 years it may be exactly what we need to keep this thing operating," said Isaacs. "I just wish I could live long enough to see what happens."

Up in the village just last week, she said she took a bunch of kids to go and visit the cellar. They thought it was very cool to see, she said, which is good. After all, they'll be the future whaling captains who inherit this modern traditional ice cellar — this technological siġḷuaq — from the generation that came before them and knew they had to adapt.

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at


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