Climate change batters this Arctic island—can the community cope?

From vanishing ice to shifting walruses, Native Alaskans living on Little Diomede have watched their home transform with disturbing speed.

Photograph by Juan Herrero
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Ed Soolook, a retired U.S. Army veteran and Native Alaskan, searches for a seal that ducked under the water near his home on Little Diomede. His grandson Bubba hides behind a rock.
Photograph by Juan Herrero

Ed Soolook’s house sits on an island that’s about as far from tropical as imaginable. A polar bear skin sits at the foot of his front steps and a hundred yards away, icy Arctic waters lap the shore. Temperatures here have been known to dip into the negative forties in the winter. Come summer, the average is about fifty degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a world where every degree counts, and Soolook finds the slow upward creep of temperatures almost comically worrisome.

“You never used to get really hot,” he said, remembering a recent summer when temperatures hit the 70s. “Holy cow, everybody was like, ‘phew’…..pretty soon we'll start growing palm trees.”

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Little Diomede, Soolook’s home, is a rock of an island—less than three square miles in area—perched in the middle of the Bering Strait off northwestern Alaska. It’s larger sibling, Big Diomede—which is about four times the size—is located only about two miles to the west. Together these sister islands have seen more change in the last fifty years than some communities do across centuries.

Historically, the Iñupiat communities on the islands have been deeply intertwined. In the winter, water would freeze into an ice bridge (across which some of the first humans may have traveled to North America) and residents would regularly walk between the islands.

“My grandfather used to cross back and forth between the islands all the time,” said Frances Ozenna, the Little Diomede tribal coordinator. Little and Big Diomedeans would intermarry, had shared customs and traditions, and their cultures blurred into one.

Even the political distinctions were largely inconsequential. Since 1867 Little Diomede has been part of Alaska, and Big Diomede part of Russia. Although both the border and the international date line passes between the two (making for a 23-hour time difference), few actually took notice. But, according to Ozenna, “that all changed with the Cold War.”

In 1948, as the post-World War II world was giving way to new tensions, the Russian government decided to forcibly evacuate Big Diomede. The native population was moved to the mainland and the island was turned into a military base. The divide came to be known as the “Ice Curtain.”

“Right across the border is another country, another continent, another day,” said Robert Soolook, Ed’s brother and the Little Diomede tribal president. Robert was speaking from the town office, where, through the window, Big Diomede is well within sight.

The Cold War split separated not only the two countries and two islands but also friends and families. Communication became sparse, connections dwindled, and visits extremely rare.

According to Soolook, “I think the last time they came out here was '91.”

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This mural in the gym of Diomede School symbolizes the relationship between Little and Big Diomede Islands. Once joined as a single community, the islands were forcibly split by the Cold War.

On Little Diomede, the hope among the roughly one hundred residents has long been for the political tides to shift back. And last summer, after years of preparation, those wheels were finally put into motion. The plan was for five Russians who used to live on Big Diomede to travel to Little Diomede. Instead of the two-mile journey, however, they’d have to go the long way—a charter flight from Russia to Nome and then to the coastal Alaskan town of Wales by plane. From there they would hop a ride to the island via a helicopter, which, aside from often treacherous sea crossings, serves as Little Diomede’s only real link to the mainland.

But, as often happens here, Mother Nature had other plans, and bad weather put the reunion in jeopardy. “There's never a right time to come out here,” said Robert Soolook, explaining that the fickleness involved in getting to the island has taught people not to let their emotions run too high, or too low.

That’s the crux of life on Little Diomede—it’s highly dependent on the weather. It’s a fact that has made the impacts of climate change all the more poignant and immediate.

A warming island

Temperatures in the Arctic region are rising at more than twice the rate as they are at lower latitudes, and Little Diomede is no exception.

“Over the past few years we've noticed the change of global warming here and it is affecting us,” said Robert Soolook. Ed adds that some of that change is becoming permanent. “The ground, the permafrost is melting and it's shifting down. We slide about two to six centimeters a year.”

Thawing permafrost has wreaked havoc on parts of Alaska—cracking foundations, roads, pipes and even trees across the state. But, for Little Diomede, the most pressing problem lays just off-shore, in the ice. Or rather, the lack thereof.

“Climate change is really true,” said Orville Ahkinga, a Diomede tribal elder, noting that the ice comes later and leaves earlier than ever before (just this February, an Arctic heat wave caused another record ice-melt in the Bering Strait). And Robert Soolook notes that even the ice that is there is not as thick as it used to be. “It gets a lot thinner every year.”

One consequence of this change is that the island no longer has an ice runway in the winter, which had provided significantly more reliable and frequent access to the mainland than the occasional helicopter flight. It can also lead to more damaging storms, says Brenda Ekwurzel, the director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Communities are more exposed,” she said, explaining that ice helps blunt turbulent weather and seas. As it disappears, she says, so do those defenses. “Storms that used to pass over an ice region are now going to make direct hits.”

Our visit came in summer, when the weather on Little Diomede is (relatively) calm. The constant wind and mid-40 degree July temperatures were about as good as conditions get there. And, in mid-summer, the Arctic light extends well past midnight. For a community dependent on subsistence hunting-gathering, that means little rest.

Ozenna works with Robert Soolook at the tribal offices during the day and then heads out to gather fresh greens on the far side of the island until late into the evening. And she is not alone. Some residents scour the island’s nooks and crannies for murre eggs. Still others scramble up the hillside to swoop aucklets out of the sky with hand-made nets. The ultimate prize, though, is walrus.

Walruses swim by Little Diomede in herds (or float, if they’re asleep). They drift past dozens at a time, eyeing the shoreline for potential rocks to rest on. When the first walruses come through, the entire community gathers and collectively tries to call them toward shore. (Indigenous communities in Alaska are allowed to hunt walrus for their own use; and traditionally, every bit of the animal—down to the sinew—gets used). The deep-throated grunts do the trick, and the walruses turn toward the concrete slab at the center of town where the helicopter lands (locals call it the heliopad).

When the animals draw close, the men grab their guns and take aim. If they hit a walrus, they’ll use hooks attached to long ropes to lasso the animals—which can weigh over 2,000 pounds—and bring them to shore. Ed Soolook is among those out front. Lifting the sight of the gun to his eye, he takes the first shot. A miss—the herd scatters.

This subsistence cycle repeats on Little Diomede, one day often blurring into the next. But, across weeks and months, the changes here are hard to miss, locals say. Walrus come more sporadically than before, the seal hunting season is shorter, and the polar bears are relatively scarce. As a whole, the ecosystem—and thus life—there, and around the Arctic, seems in flux.

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Teenagers play in the outskirts of Little Diomede village. From left to right: Kenneth Ozenna, Milton Paul, and Brendon Ozenna.

"A lot of [Arctic] communities rely culturally, nutritionally, and economically on a really robust, stable subsistence system,” said Todd Brinkman, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “[But] those traditional cues are failing. It's becoming a much more unpredictable environment.”

That means “knowledge of the timing and behavior of seasonal shifts from decades ago can no longer be reliably counted on,” said Ekwurzel. But that can leave traditional communities in a tough place.

A tearful reunion

On July 29th, a welcome break from the routine comes as the Russians land on the heliopad—five days behind schedule—to a crowd of their kin. Bracing against the wind from the helicopter blades, the Soolooks embrace their cousins and shout inaudible greetings. The next few days are filled with a cacophony of song and food. Fermented walrus stew, seal, cake—the works. Twice the town gathers in the school gymnasium for traditional dance, a custom that has transcended separation.

Ahkinga, the tribal elder, currently lives in Nome, but returned because he didn’t want to miss the historic festivities. “The more we visit, we get a little bit stronger,” he said. “The native people get a little bit stronger.”

That said, there are also signs that, overall, the cracks in tradition may actually be widening, not narrowing.

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A view of Big Diomede Island (Russia) from Little Diomede, Alaska. Lying in the Bering Strait, the landmasses are separated by 1.8 miles of water and the international date line.

Growing up on Little Diomede today is still likely to involve drying hides or going ice fishing. And the annual “polar bear watch” to help keep the community safe remains in effect during winter. But these days, being young here also involves video games, computers, and DVDs. Each afternoon the school turns on its wi-fi network for a few short hours, and children from around town gather on the front deck. Huddled under blankets, they catch the only signal in town.

The challenges become even more stark as kids get older. Aside from spotty Internet, life here also means both limited employment opportunities and high costs of living. A bottle of Tide laundry detergent at the island store costs $44.15. On another shelf is a five-pound bag of pink Himalayan sea salt, which a previous store manager had apparently bought in preparation for the apocalypse. It’s been sitting there for years, with no one willing to pay the $32.59 sticker price. Little Diomede, like many communities in contemporary North America, has also struggled with alcoholism and sexual abuse.

But climate change presents the newest, and perhaps gravest, unknown. “A lot of these rural communities have undergone change for thousands of years,” said Brinkman at the University of Alaska. “What we don't know is whether some of these changes are actually pushing these communities past their threshold.”

Relocation is already a possibility that other Alaskan communities have had to face. And Robert Soolook says that Little Diomede may eventually have to ponder the same question. “I'm sure they would vote [to] move,” said Soolook, on how the younger generation may eventually respond to a radically altered climate. “But like all animals, or any human who lives on Earth, [we] are adaptable.”