Throughout March, and the weeks of Polar Oceans Activities, we will be receiving regular updates from a research cruise on the Healy Icebreaker in the Bering Sea, as aswell as connecting live to researchers during our Live Events.
This page introduces the 'Thin Ice' team who will be documenting the adventure, and sending us details about the researchers, and research, being carried our aboard.
Daily stories from the ship have started
A documentary by Tom Litwin, Clark Science Center and Lawrence R. Hott, Florentine Films/Hott Productions
Watch video podcasts from the documentary. To learn more about Alaska past and present see The 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedtion Retraced, www.pbs.org/harriman.
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 hemispheres. 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, and all the world's red-legged kittiwakes. It's a zoo up there.
On Thin Ice in the Bering Sea, an education project featuring a four-part vodcast series, focuses on two connected Bering Sea stories--the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island and the 2008-2009 USCGC Healy scientific expeditions in the Bering Sea.
During the 2009 USCGC Healy scientific expedition scientist Tom Litwin and Alaska writer and photographer Tom Walker will be on the Healy reporting for the IPY Polar Oceans Days. From the Bering Sea, their posting include photographs, interviews with the Healy scientists, and blogs describing the ecology, wildlife, and stark beauty seen during the scientific icebreaking mission.
Dereky Akeya of Savoonga, Alaska, building an ice-block windbreak.
St. Lawrence Island
Once the Healy reaches the Northern Bering Sea, it spends much of its time off the shores of St. Lawrence Island. St. Lawrence, a small, rocky, treeless island that sits in the Bering Strait, 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 certain stability and a future that promises rapid and significant change. The sea is getting warmer and rising; sea ice is receding, permafrost on land is melting, and the shore line eroding into the Sea. Ice from the Arctic that once arrived in October now may not appear until December or January. Whale and walrus subsistence hunting, which requires stable ice, is delayed and the season is shorter. Storms have become more violent and unpredictable.
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 entire globe will eventually feel the effects of this warming, but on St. Lawrence they see it now, and every day.
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 ship that routinely plies the waters of the Bering Sea and Arctic.
In March 2008 and 2009, 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 ice change having on Bering Sea waterfowl?
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.
Tom Litwin aboard the Healy
The US Coast Guard Cutter Healy anchored at sundown in the Bering Sea.