In 2014, Canadian musher Hank DeBruin was camped on the Yukon River near the Alaska-Canada border. His dog team was resting, three days into the 1,600km (1,000-mile) Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. DeBruin was in his sleeping bag, dogs nestled into piles of straw, when the tough, grizzled musher said he heard the ice rumble under him.
Days later, DeBruin retold the story over coffee at a checkpoint further down the race trail. “I didn’t think,” he said. Instinctively, he grabbed his gear and moved his dog team further up the riverbank. When he turned back moments later, a wide swath of dark, murky water had opened up where he had been camped minutes before. “All the leads were opening up everywhere,” he said.
The sudden – or early – melt of lakes, rivers and sea ice is causing problems for more than sled dogs and mushers. Last winter, at least seven people went missing on four of Interior Alaska’s major waterways and coastlines while hunting, fishing, traveling and, in one case, foraging for firewood.
Climate change is warming Arctic air temperatures and melting sea ice, changing the conditions for travel in the North. The average air temperature in the Arctic is 5C (9F) warmer today than it was 100 years ago – and it’s expected to increase another 2C to 9C (3.6F to 16.2F). Weather and ice conditions are becoming less predictable, and many are worried that they could lead to more injuries and more calls for search and rescue.
Whether these are already on the rise in Alaska is unclear. “According to rural Alaskans, ice travel has gotten more hazardous in recent decades,” said Chas Jones, a hydrologist and postdoctoral fellow who worked on a river-ice project at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute. That project confirmed that Alaskan rivers are breaking up earlier in spring, but Jones cautioned that data on risks remained anecdotal.
“People have been falling through ice forever,” said Tim DeSpain, a spokesperson for the Alaska State Troopers. “It’s always been a concern, but not necessarily because [search and rescues] are on the rise … or whether climate change is a factor.”
In Nunavut, there is data to show that search and rescue events have more than doubled in the last decade. “I’ve heard a number of times from people I’ve interviewed and from hunters out on the land [who] say seasonality is changing,” said Dylan Clark, a researcher in the Climate Adaptation Research Group at McGill University in Montreal. Clark and colleagues recently linked environmental conditions to search and rescue incidents in Nunavut.
Clark and his colleagues gathered data from gasoline sales to examine the relationship between hunting and traveling on the land and the risk of injury requiring search and rescue operations. After narrowing the data to include only gasoline purchased for snow machine use, they compared it with local weather and sea ice conditions and with search and rescue cases in Nunavut.
They confirmed that search and rescue events were associated with the days that people went out on the land, but also that search and rescue activity peaked in the spring shoulder season. According to the study, search and rescue efforts increased as the days became warmer and the daily minimum temperature approached -3C (26.6F).
In most cases, the reason a search and rescue operation was needed was not recorded, but the leading known cause was mechanical breakdown of the snow machine. With warmer temperatures, snow machines are more likely to overheat, get stuck in the mud or encounter rotten ice. With low snow conditions, travelers hit rocks.
“It’s easy to picture the ice getting thin and people going through, but there are more complex processes going on,” said Clark.
If mechanical breakdowns and running out of fuel are driving search and rescue operations, communities can encourage people to use satellite beacons, for example.
Clark would like to see more complete information collected on search and rescue efforts in the North, to better understand the links between climate change and the risk of injury. Canada has recently started tracking search and rescue events, but other databases, including Alaska’s trauma registry system,offer more detail because they often include explanations or the cause of the accident or injury, said Clark. Nothing like it exists in other parts of the remote Arctic, including Nunavut, he said.
Some local groups have found new ways to keep their community members safe. This spring, Doyon, one of Alaska’s largest Native corporations, and Fairbanks’ business owner, Craig Compeau, partnered to provide the corporation’s shareholders with small handheld ice picks. The tool, attached to a cord, is worn around the neck. If a snow machine breaks through the ice, the driver can stab the picks into the ice shelf to keep from being submerged.
Out on the Bering Sea coast, conditions are increasingly unpredictable. Dennis Davis, who lives in Shishmaref, Alaska, is using drones to take video and photos of the sea ice, which he then posts to various social media platforms. “The past five years, [the ice has] been forming later and later and later,” said Davis. The ice used to be far more reliable, he said. “In the springtime, once everybody gets ready to start ugruq [bearded seal] hunting, you can’t really see what the ice is going to be like out there.”