A documentary by Tom Litwin, Clark Science Center and Lawrence R. Hott, Florentine Films/Hott Productions
Watch video podcasts from the documentary.
The Bering Sea – the oval of water between the Aleutians and the Bering Strait – is no ordinary or inconsequential place. The Bering Sea touches two continents, joins two great oceans, spans hemi¬spheres. It’s huge – one and a half times the size of Alaska – and wondrous. It is home to twenty-six species of marine mammals, including twelve kinds of whales, and over 450 species of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks; no less than 80% of the U.S. seabird population spends time here. The area has the highest concentration of Pacific walrus on earth – most of the world’s polar bears – most of the world’s northern fur seals – all the world’s red-legged kittiwakes. It’s a zoo up there.
Dereky Akeya of Savoonga, Alaska, building an ice-block windbreak.
On Thin Ice in the Bering Sea, a film and education project of the Clark Science, Smith College and Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc, focuses on two connected Bering Sea stories – the people of St. Lawrence Island and the 2008 USCGS Healy scientific expedition in the Bering Sea.
St. Lawrence Island
The first story takes place on St. Lawrence, a small, rocky, treeless island that sits in the northern Bering Sea, just 150 miles from the Arctic Circle.
Situated between Siberia's Chukchi Peninsula and the Alaska's western shore, the island is a vestige of the land bridge that once connected two continents. St. Lawrence has been part of the United States since 1857, and its 1200 residents are citizens. They are also Yupik, with familial and cultural ties to people living in Alaska and in Siberia.
Merle Apassingok, who lives on the island, says "we are in between two continents, in between two languages." They are also in between two epochs: a past that held a certain stability and a future the promises rapid and significant change. The sea is getting warmer, and rising; sea ice is receding; permafrost on land is melting; some species are moving north, and other species are suddenly eating different prey, or being eaten.
The US Coast Guard Cutter Healy anchored at sundown in the Bering Sea.
The entire globe will eventually feel the effects of this warming, but on St. Lawrence they see it now, and every day. The hunting seasons for whale and walrus is shorter. Storms have been more violent and unpredictable. Snow, once a certainty is September, now holds off until December.
People on St. Lawrence have been keeping records – some oral, some written – for centuries, and thus are able to talk about climate change with a grim specificity. "We're more and more melting into the new lifestyle and I think one day we probably won't hunt anymore," Apangalook says. "That is inevitable and will be the situation hence. But we're not quite ready for that yet."
The USCGC Healy
The ice-breaking marine vessel USCGC Healy is a scientific research boat that routinely plies the waters of the Bering Sea, often near St. Lawrence Island.
In March 2008, the passenger list for this U.S. Coast Guard vessel included two dozen scientists studying the Bering Sea environment, examining every aspect of this dynamic ecosystem, from the largest sea mammals to the tiniest ice creatures. These biologists, botanists, geologists and ornithologists are looking at dozens of particular questions. For example, how will melting ice affect algae blooms? How quickly are bottom fish, crabs and sea stars moving northward in the warming water? What effect is industrial development in Alaska having on Bering Sea water fowl?
Researchers from the Healy setting up equipment on the ice.
Along with the scientists, residents of St. Lawrence will also travel aboard Healy. Their firsthand knowledge of climate change is a powerful tool, a way to understand how global warming affects human life on earth. It is one thing to note that the reduction of pack ice contributes to violent storms at sea, another to relate how four family members lost their lives when their whaling boat capsized in 2005.
Scientists carefully document changes that can be consistently measured, often using high-tech instruments. St. Lawrence residents rely on more general observations, noting the presence of an unfamiliar animal or a change in the typical fishing catch. Together these two records clearly document Arctic climate change in both scientific and human terms.
The Project – Merging Two Sets of Records
Tom Litwin of Clark Science Center, Smith College is directing this project. Lawrence R. Hott of Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc., is project co-director. Working with the people of St. Lawrence and the scientists aboard to Healy they have produced a four-art video series that is now at NOVA Online. They plan to produce a feature-length PBS documentary, a companion book, website, and educational materials that will be available to libraries, museums and journalists.
What is IPY
Tuesday, 03 March 2009 19:40
On thin ice in the Bering SeaWritten by Louise Huffman
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