Cellars overwhelmed by warming
Underground vaults that villages have used for generations to store food are starting to melt and mold.
early 1900s, according to a study published in 2017 that looked at traditional cellars in Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, following reports of flooded and collapsed cellars. The study, funded by the National Science Foundation and George Washington University, found ice cellars don’t meet federally recommended temperature standards, but allow the culturally preferred aging to occur.
The study was inconclusive about the cause of ice cellar failures, citing an absence of extensive scientific analysis. Researchers mapped 71 ice cellar locations around town and monitored five functioning cellars from 2005 to 2015, finding little thermal change over that relatively short time frame. One of those cellars has since failed, however, and another is starting to collapse, according to one of the study’s authors, George Washington University research scientist Kelsey Nyland.
The study concluded that while a changing climate has great potential to affect ice cellars, there are other factors, including soil conditions and urban development. For example, some Utqiagvik residents might inadvertently warm the soil beneath their cellars by putting sheds on top of the entrances to keep them free of snow, Nyland said.
“Climate change, air temperatures, all these physical changes are affecting them,” she said. “But also, a lot of it has to do with development and modern life in an arctic setting.”
To adapt to the new environment, the village of Kaktovik, on the Beaufort Sea coast, took ambitious steps after it lost all but one family’s cellar to flooding.
In 2013, the village launched a project to build a community ice cellar incorporating traditional designs with contemporary technology used in Alaska’s North Slope oil fields — thermosyphons, off-grid tubelike refrigeration devices that cool the ground by transferring heat outside.
The hand-excavated cellar was ready for use in 2017, but it has yet to be filled. Whaling captains want to expand it first, according to whaling captain George Kaleak Sr., who represents Kaktovik on the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
Temperature sensors inside the cellar show it’s working as intended, Kaleak said. He expects the expansion to begin as early as next spring.
In the meantime, subsistence foods are stored in three 40-foot village freezer vans. But that equipment is no substitute for imparting that aged taste so prized in the region, Kaleak noted. He hopes the new cellar mimics that process.
“There’s nothing that tastes better than ice cellar food,” he said.