State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

New Film Explores Combining Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science to Understand Waning Arctic Sea Ice

WHAT: Launch of Ice Edge, a documentary film about the co-production of knowledge that reveals the forces behind disappearing sea ice and the effects on the Native Village of Kotzebue, northwest Alaska. The event will include clips from the film; discussion by Iñupiaq elders, scientists and the filmmaker; and audience Q&A.

 WHEN: Thursday, January 27, 10-11:30am Alaska time, 2-3:30 pm US Eastern

WHERE: The Earth Institute’s Sustain What webcast. You can also watch it on Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn.

View the movie ahead of time and join us with questions.

Roswell Schaeffer Sr., an Iñupiaq elder and hunter from Kotzebue and coauthor of a recent study of ice-season changes, hunts for bearded seals, May 2019. (Courtesy Sarah Betcher, Farthest North Films)

Under human-driven climate change, the Arctic is warming much faster than the globe as a whole. This is disrupting ecosystems, landscapes and seascapes that indigenous communities have depended on for countless generations.

Five years ago, facing momentous changes in coastal sea ice, Iñupiaq residents of the Native Village of Kotzebue, together with scientists from Columbia University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, co-developed questions to understand changes going on within Kotzebue Sound, and how the community’s future might be affected by climate change. The project, called Ice Bridges, or Ikaaġvik Sikukun in the Iñupiaq language, melded indigenous observations, monitoring from aerial drones, geophysical measurements within the ice and water, and ocean and marine mammal science to address questions forged through this dialogue. The first peer-reviewed studies have been published, and a 14-part film series on the effort has been made available on YouTube.

In this special Sustain What episode from the Columbia Climate School, we celebrate the launch of the feature-length film, produced by Sarah Betcher of Farthest North Films. The film chronicles the years-long study and the relationships it forged. It explores lessons that can inform efforts around the world to bridge local and western science when tackling challenges where the impacts of climate change are greatest.

Seals are integral to the local diet, so these changes have major implications for residents. Seals customarily rest on seasonal sea ice in this area, but later formation and earlier breakup of the ice have greatly compressed the hunting season. On top of that, flooding on top of the ice surface has reduced seal habitat.

One new paper recently published from the project shows that over the past 17 years, seal hunting season has shrunk one day or more per year, and that seal habitat itself  is shrinking as the sea ice declines. A second paper demonstrates that the decline in seal habitat is due not only to loss of ice cover but to the remaining ice getting thinner. This is leading to surface flooding that can inundate seal lairs as the weight of accumulated snow depresses the ice below the waterline. A third paper confirms that ice loss is driven by the vertical rise of heat from the ocean, and shows that the outflow from two major rivers is a crucial control on coastal ice in the region, helping to insulate the ice from underlying ocean heat during winter, but driving ice breakup (and thus initiating the seal hunt) during the spring.

The film offers a detailed view of these realities for both the natural environment and the native residents. Images in the 80-minute film were taken from the air, on and under the ice, and in Kotzebue itself.

Guests at the launch will include filmmaker Sarah Betcher; Iñupiat Elder Advisory Council members Ross Schaeffer, Bobby Schaeffer and Cyrus Harris (contingent on availability); Alex Whiting, environmental program director of the Native Village of Kotzebue; Donna Hauser, marine mammal scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; and Christopher Zappa, oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia Climate School. Moderated by Andrew Revkin, founding director of the Columbia Climate School’s Initiative on Communication and Sustainability, and host of the SustainWhat webcast.

The research and the film were funded by a $3.7 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The grant was aimed at bringing new depth to the concept of co-production of knowledge. Further research is now underway in Kotzebue to investigate changes in the coastal waters. The scientists hope to widen their efforts to include other coastal native communities in the Arctic.


Watch the whole movie on YouTube

Ikaaġvik Sikukun / Ice Bridges project website

Q&A with Columbia oceanographer Chris Zappa

Grant announcement from Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Filmmaker Sarah Betcher’s website

Scientists and Native People Jointly Study Sea-Ice Declines State of the Planet

A new Indigenous-led study shows how ice loss is changing seal hunts, Arctic Today

Explore more than 200 Sustain What episodes


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Lena Ellen Mcclellan
Lena Ellen Mcclellan
2 years ago

so neat to see our tribe be involved as it affect our livelihood, how we hunt, what we eat. we know it is affecting our foods, we have no caribou in our freezers, no black meat and oil like long ago. As Elders we need this meat and blubber and oil to sustain our bodies.