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Martha Stackhouse
Martha Stackhouse

Martha Stackhouse was interviewed on December 5, 2003 by Bill Schneider and Sidney Stephens at their home in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this interview, Martha talks about environmental changes she has observed around her home community of Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow) and the effect of these changes on their subsistence lifestyle. She discusses changing ice conditions, changes in plants and vegetation, changes in seasonal conditions, and changes in bird and animal populations.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2001-113-09

Project: Climate Change
Date of Interview: Dec 5, 2003
Narrator(s): Martha Stackhouse
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Sidney Stephens
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Science Foundation
Alternate Transcripts
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Background information

Changing ice conditions

Spring conditions and changes to the willows

Atmospheric changes

Bird and animal movements

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Bill: Okay. So, let’s see, today is December 5th, 2003. Sidney Stephens is here, I’m Bill Schneider, and we have the pleasure today of -- of talking with Martha Stackhouse. And Sid, do you want to give a little introduction as to what Martha did before and how we decided this would be really valuable to do? Sidney: Sure. Bill: Okay. Sidney: Well, every June we’ve been holding an institute for teachers focused on the idea of climate change and its effects in communities around Alaska and its effects on people in Alaska. And Martha came to our workshop this last summer and did just a wonderful job of talking about changes that she’s observed and changes that elders have talked about in Barrow, and the effects that that’s had on the lives of people and subsistence activities and so on in Barrow. And we neglected to record that, and so we’ve asked Martha if she could talk with us again about it because it was so interesting. Bill: Okay. So thank you, Martha. Martha: Uh--hum. Yeah. Well, this is on the global warming in the North Slope and how we have observed it done. And a lot of the elders have been talking about it throughout the North Slope. And the biggest -- the biggest thing that we see about the global warming is that sea ice conditions. And because the thickness of the ice is thinning every year. And there’s always a lot of open waters up there in the middle of winter, rather than... See, in the -- in the old days when I was growing up, it used to be very thick and the ice would come right in and there -- there’d be piles and piles of ice and there was no fear of falling in. People used to go seal hunting and all throughout the winter and now they have to really watch themselves because the ice is so thin. So -- and then it has also had a big impact in whaling because they have to pull up the whale in order to butcher it and they have -- a lot of the places are so thin that they keep falling. And so they have to find an area, a butchering site, that has a little more thickness to it than -- than the other places. So it’s getting harder and harder to -- to find a butchering site in the spring when there’s spring whaling. There’s also the south wind that brings in the ice and disrupts camp. It has a -- you’d think that south wind would take away the ice, but then I guess it has something to do with currents. And so -- so when there’s a south wind, the ice comes in. And so a lot of the -- so sometimes the -- there’s no open water except for small pockets here and there. And even though it’s -- it’s thin ice, so it’s very hard to whale on in the spring sometimes when we keep having south wind. It’s warm. It’s a warm south wind, but the ice comes in and there’s no open lead or anything. And then finally, when there’s a north -- north or a northeast wind, then the ice goes away, and then they are able to whale. And it -- and people are actually happy to have the north wind. It’s colder but they are able to whale a little bit longer in the -- in the springtime. It’s also -- we used to get a lot of glacial ice out on the -- on the ocean, but they are getting scarce up there and -- and I think it’s because they are -- they are melting quite a bit. So -- so the people that went whaling used to go after this glacial ice, but now they have to bring it in from the lakes up from the land. So -- so that they can have drinking water during whaling time. So we know that the glacial ice is -- is also starting to disappear. Sidney: Martha, could I -- Martha: Yeah. Sidney: So they would get -- if they were in a whaling camp, they would -- or if they were out whaling, they would bring in glaciers to melt the drinking water? No? Martha: No. The -- there used to be glacial ice right along with the other ice. And, you know, it’s -- they are sort of embedded with the sea ice and then there would be glacial ice there. And then they would know the difference from the color. So they would go out and chip it and, you know, get chunks of ice from there for drinking water. Sidney : Okay. So now there’s not as much glacial? Martha: Yeah. Yeah. So now they have to bring it in from the -- the lakes out there, from the land. Sidney: Oh. Martha: Yeah.

Martha: The ice didn’t -- in the last few years, the ice hadn’t been coming in until about Christmas time. When -- when I was little, it used to always come in in October. (Telephone ringing.) Bill: Hang on. This is back on and we should be in good shape. Martha: Okay. So when I was growing up on and the sea ice used to come in right around October and sometimes end of September and would stay for the rest of the winter, but in last few years, it’s been coming around -- right around between Thanksgiving and Christmas time. So there’s -- so it’s been -- we’ve had problems with -- with waves coming in in the fall. Well, actually, it would be wintertime by then, when there’s big storms right around Thanksgiving time. Last Thanksgiving we had a big storm and it was coming right up to the beach road and there was no ice. But this year there is ice so -- so it varies every year. But this year, our ice is only about, oh, maybe not quite a mile of ice out there. And there’s open water. You can tell that there’s open water with the -- they -- they call it, you know, it’s the evaporate -- it creates that cloud, like a dark cloud, and you know that there’s open water out there. So -- so there’s -- there’s open water out there and there’s a little bit of ice. And we know that ice is very thin so we always have to warn all the young people not to go riding their snow machines out there. So we encourage them to just stay on land rather than going out there. And also during whaling time, we tell them to stay on the trails and not to deviate from the other trails because there might be pockets of very thin ice and they can just easily fall through. So -- so those are the things on the sea ice. But the lagoon that is right by Barrow there, it melts earlier in the spring, it’s melting earlier in the spring and it’s also freezing much later in the fall. So -- and people that were used to riding their snow machines right across the lagoon from Browerville to Barrow and back and forth, they -- there have been a few accidents. And I know of one -- there’s been a couple of people that -- that died because they thought the lagoon was thick enough to go across and -- and it wasn’t. So -- so now we also warn a lot of the young people to stay -- stay off the lagoon until we know for sure that it’s gotten thick enough to ride on. So those are the things that are happening. Also, up inland, there’s -- the rivers are -- are freezing a lot later so the ice fishing season is a lot later, too. So people used to go out there in September and they can’t go out there in September anymore. And so now it’s getting to be more like October or November. So -- so they are ice fishing a lot later than they used to. And the biggest thing about beach erosion is that the Nalukataq site, that’s the blanket toss, had to be moved. It used to be right in town in Barrow area in the beach, but it eroded so badly they had to move it to the Browerville site. And they brought in a lot more gravel. And that’s where it’s been the last, oh, probably 8 years or so. So probably more like 10 years maybe. But so now the Nalukataq site has been moved. And we barely have beach out there anymore all along the coast. So that’s one of the big factors that we’ve noticed. Sidney: And so -- and are you associating that beach erosion, then, with -- with the fall storms and the lack of sea ice, or that’s the connection? Martha: Uh--hum. Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Sidney: Okay. Martha: Uh--hum. So a lot of fall storms and yeah. And there’s no sea ice there to -- to protect it. So they’ve had to build walls to try to protect the beach road there, too. Yeah. Sidney: Hmm. And do elders remember? Do they have -- do they have a sense of this kind of thing happening before or does this all seem quite recent to them? Martha: Yeah, it’s recent to them. I think because it -- they say it’s been much, much colder before, and, you know, they -- they know that this is definitely a big change that they’ve seen. Things are getting warmer every year, seems like, a lot of the things that are happening. Yeah.

Martha: So along with that is that spring warms up earlier but -- and it -- but then it freezes and then -- and it warms up again. So -- so we’re having a -- every year it seems like it’s getting -- the colder climate in the springtime is a little prolonging. It’s longer than it used to. So -- so it would be -- it would warm up and we’d think that things are going to start melting right away, but then it would freeze again. And so -- and it would stay frozen for quite awhile, much longer than we thought it would. So -- so somehow in the spring it’s starting to stay colder a little bit longer. And then -- then it would warm up again, then -- then they’ll go into the summer. So -- so that’s been happening quite a bit. I don’t know why that is. So. And we’re able to go -- we’re happy because we’re able to whale a little bit longer, and then right after whaling season is geese hunting season. And so, you know, we need the geese to -- for the feast, for the Nalukataq feast. And so we’re able to go up inland to go geese hunting. So -- so that it’s good in that sense. Yeah. One thing in the summer is that we’re really seeing the willows, the willows are getting much, much bushier. They used to really hug the ground all the time, right along -- they used to, you know, go -- grow all on the -- along the surface of the tundra, but now they are starting to sprout up and they are getting much bushier. And this is right in town. And I know up inland they used to go -- they used to grow up to my knees, and now they are -- they are past our knees -- knees. So -- and one of the -- one of my kid’s parents had gone up inland and he brought back a really long, tall piece of willow, willow bush. And he showed it to our class and it was probably 6 or 7 feet. And that was, you know, really pretty -- pretty tall. Sidney: Uh--hum. Martha: ---- than what they used to be. Sidney: Uh--hum. Martha: So -- so this fall we had an -- an example of a willow that had grown quite high from inland. SoAnd I know that they used -- that they grow like that in Kotzebue area, but I’ve never seen it in the North Slope. So it’s -- this is something new. So they are getting taller and much bushier. Sidney: And are they also -- Martha: Yeah. Sidney: ---- did they used to be in town? I mean, have they always -- is their range changing at all? Martha: Yeah. Yeah. In town, if you drive up the road, there’s a place on, it’s -- it’s a oil -- Gas Well Road, and they -- and when you drive up the road, then you can see -- see the bushes and they are really gotten quite tall. And they are -- they’ve never been that bushy before. So -- Sidney: They’ve been there, they’ve just not been that big? Martha: Yeah. Uh--hum. Sidney: I see. Martha: Yeah. Uh--hum. Yeah. Yeah. We -- we call them uqpiich, and they used to be just on the ground surface, they just spread, you know, out and just on the ground surface. Now they are starting to sprout up. So -- so in town, that they are -- you can see the difference in -- in height. There’s still some that still hug the ground surface, too. So -- so not all of them are doing that. So -- but if I -- I should take some pictures of some of the ones that we see and the ones that have sprouted up, too. Sidney: Uh--hum. Martha: So -- so that’s one thing that we’ve been seeing in the summer.

Martha: With the atmosphere, there’s more -- seem like we’re getting more snow. And that means it’s warmer. And as opposed to just having that cold and blowing snow. We used to get a lot of blowing snow, but now we actually see snow coming down. So that means it’s warmer winters. And there -- we’re seeing a lot less 40, 50 belows, you know. They are not as long. They are shorter stretches. I know in December, January, you know, two months of cold, used to be real cold in December and January all throughout those two months, but now we -- we get them for a while, then it would warm up some, and then it would get cold again. So -- so 40, 50 belows are getting shorter, it seems like. Yeah. They are not as -- Sidney: And when is the snow, Martha? Is the snow associated with -- like the open -- the lack of ice cover, or is the snow when -- when is the snow happening? Martha: Well, all throughout the winter it’s -- you know, it’s snowing more. And I think it might have something to do with open water out there. Sidney: Uh--hum. Uh--hum. Martha: And creating, you know, that -- oh, what do they call that cycle? Sidney: Evaporation and condensation. Martha: Yeah, evaporation. Yeah. Sidney: Uh--hum. Martha: And I think that has something to do with it because of our open waters out in the ocean. And so -- so we’re getting a lot more snow, yeah, than we used to. Yeah. And -- and the storms, we’re not getting -- we -- seemed like when we -- when I was little, we used to get days of storms sometimes. But now, storms are very rare and -- you know. We do get them once in awhile, but not as severe as they used to be, it seems like. So that’s another thing that’s gone on. Sidney: Are these winter storms? Martha: Uh--hum. Yeah. Winter storms. Sidney: And so what is a winter storm? Martha: Winter storm is when there’s a lot of wind and you can barely see your next door neighbor. And you can’t see the lights coming from town, you know, that -- that are lights all over town. And so -- but those are -- so those winter storms are getting much rarer than -- we used to get them quite often, but now it’s not happening very often anymore. So yeah. Yeah. And so -- so we’re not getting as many storms, but -- but in the summer, we’re getting more rains. So right around July, practically the whole month of July, like, there will be rain, rain, rain, almost -- almost every day now. There might be a break and then it would rain for three days. And you know, another break and rain for another four days. So it just keeps raining and raining. And as a result, there’s a lot of -- our tundra has gotten a lot greener. So -- but -- and then -- then there’d be a few sunny days in between then, but -- so. Sidney: And then in July, did it used to be a dry month? Martha: Yeah. Yeah. It would be clear, clear days in July when I was growing up, and it would be pretty warm -- well, warm is 30, 40 below -- I mean, above. And -- but now that it’s raining quite a bit more than -- than when I was growing up. Yeah. So -- so we’re getting fewer sunny days, it seems like. But our -- and our -- our tundra is getting more soft. But it’s also really pretty green when you look out there. Yeah. And as a result, too, the -- the berries are coming -- seem like they are getting more and more north. There’d be -- there’s some berries around Atqasuk, now they are getting really plentiful right around Atqasuk area. And -- and I think in the -- in the past, there were some berries, but now it’s getting more and more plentiful there. So there -- so people go around that area to go pick their berries. I know there’s some -- quite -- quite -- quite a -- quite a bit of berries right around Point Hope area. And -- but they are coming more and more north, it seems like. Yeah. So. And I know Point Hope has had to move their town due to erosion. They used to be at the -- that point. So they’ve had to move more inland. And they are -- and I was just listening to one of the old stories from the elders not too long ago because they show them over the radio, they have this Inupiaq hour, and they tell -- old people tell stories. They were saying that their -- their cellars are -- they are losing more and more of their cellars due to erosion because it’s coming in and taking the land out. So -- so they are having to build their cellars farther inland to -- but they are losing quite a bit of their cellars there. Sidney: So that’s because they are -- they are -- they are very close to the beach and the beaches are moving away? Martha: Uh--hum. Sidney: Is that what it is? Martha: Yeah. Yeah. And the fall storms are really taking its toll, especially. And before they moved, you know, the -- the water was coming right into town sometimes. They -- so they were -- they were experiencing flooding. So that’s why they had to move up farther inland. Sidney: And when did they need to be -- when did they move? Martha: Oh, gosh. Probably around the ‘80s, somewhere around there. I think somewhere, yeah. Sidney: Uh--hum.

Martha: We’re seeing also animals -- well, the birds, like there’s lots of swans. We used to see them farther inland when we went camping, swans and cranes, but now we see them in town, really close to town. And there’s lots of them. Once we saw, like, 20 to 30 swans. And it’s just right up the road from -- from Barrow. So -- so we know that they are coming farther and farther north. You know. Which is -- and it’s getting to be pretty common in the last few years. And this is something new. Last five years, they have become very plentiful. We started seeing a few of them, like, about, oh, a good 10 years ago or so, but now -- and nowadays, they are -- they are a common site. So -- so they are right in town now. Sidney: What do they -- I mean, so are they -- are they coming north because -- and further north and breeding, having breeding grounds there? Martha: Uh--hum. Sidney: And any nests being found? Martha: Yeah. Yeah. And -- yeah, having nests there. And I guess they are eating, you know, they are out -- they are always swimming around in the lakes and so there must be more things for them to eat in there. Sidney: Yeah. Martha: Yeah. Bill: Do you know if those are juveniles, little ones, or the big ones, or does it matter? Martha: There’s both, I think. Yeah. Yeah, there’s -- there’s some big ones, and they have little juvenile ones around, too. So. Yeah. So we’re getting more and more of those right in town in Barrow now. Well, not right in town, but very close, very close to Barrow. And -- and same with ground squirrels. We’re not get -- seeing ground squirrels right -- right around Barrow area, but they are, you know, a little more north than what they used to be. So -- so ground squirrels are getting to be that way, too. So. There was a lynx that was caught right around the vin -- vicinity of Barrow also. That was just this last year. And so they used to be seen way up inland, you know, and they are very rare. But -- and so a lynx was caught right around there. It was close to Barrow. So -- so -- so these animals that used to be way up inland are now starting to get closer and closer, so -- so that probably means that they are finding, you know, food. Sidney: Uh--hum. Martha: That used to not be there before. And so -- Sidney: And when you say way up inland, how far are you talking about? Martha: Well, for the lynx, it was more around Anaktuvuk area. That’s hundreds of miles in, you know. And so -- so a lynx that was caught close to Barrow is very rare, you know. And then for the swans, I’m probably thinking more like 40, 50 miles in, inland. Sidney: Uh--hum. Martha: And now they are just a mile or two from the coast. Yeah. So. So there’s been a lot of changes there, I think, in those -- in that way. Sidney: Uh--hum.