Melting Permafrost Due to Climate Change Jeopardizes Native Alaskans’ Food Storage

Ice Cellars Alaska

For generations, Native Alaskans have stored their food year-round in icy cellars dug deep underground, but many of these cellars are failing completely -- either becoming too warm so that the food spoils, or from flooding and collapse as reported by Civil Eats' Kayla Frost. The cellars, known as siġluaqs, are usually about 10 to 20 feet below ground level and consist of a small room that is ideally kept at a consistent 10 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. However, the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, which is "causing permafrost to degrade 'extensively, persistently, and rapidly,' according to new research published in the journal Advances in Climate Change Research."

Underground community freezer in Tuktoyaktuk, Canada (Photo: Jim Bob Malone).

Why This Matters

The loss of these natural freezers could be devastating to Native Alaskans. The rapid melting of permafrost is just one of a number of changes causing food insecurity there, from altering caribou migration patterns to changes in berry season and salmon runs. Because of the extremely high cost of importing food, it’s not feasible for people in rural communities, of which many are only accessible by bush plane or boat. As Tikaan Galbreath, Alaska's Intertribal Agriculture Council’s technical assistant specialist and member of Mentasta Traditional Tribe explained, "It's an incredible strain when a gallon of milk is $10 or a loaf of bread is $8."

Adapting to Climate Change

"'In some of our communities, there is an 80 or 90% reliance on subsistence foods' that are foraged, fished, hunted, or grown through small-scale agriculture," said Galbreath. So some are trying to find new ways to keep subsistence foods safe for longer periods of time.

Dune Lankard, founder and president of the Native Conservancy, believes that as the climate crisis worsens "we're going to be dealing with less and less food products and less and less food sources." His organization is looking for a modern substitute for the permafrost cellars using an advanced, portable freezer system that would give communities the ability to freeze food long-term -- so far the results are promising. The system they are piloting uses wave energy and is made by DENBA, a Japanese company, that makes freezers that preserve food long-term without freezer burn and with minimal loss of taste, moisture, and texture.

Changing Conventions

Using wave energy freezes food from the inside out -- the water molecules in the food to form small, round crystals that cause minimal harm to the cell tissue of the food being stored. Conventional freezers work the opposite way -- they chill food slowly from the outside in, which causes water molecules in the cell tissue to form large, spiky ice crystals that damage the tissue, reducing the food's shelf life and quality. Still, as Frost writes, "when the last ice cellar is no longer usable, a piece of Iñupiat culture will be gone. But the people … will figure out new ways to live -- just like they always have."

Photo: Li Erikson, USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.