Oil and subsistence in the warming Arctic A conversation with Tom Kizzia
The view from Point Hope, early winter 2015. (Photo by Ellen Chenoweth/University of Alaska Fairbanks)In the most recent issue of The New Yorker, Alaska writer and longtime former ADN reporter Tom Kizzia looks back at the debate over offshore drilling in North Slope communities. Kizzia visited Point Hope to report on how climate change is affecting the region’s twin pillars: oil development and subsistence hunting.He spoke with Rachel Waldholz of Alaska’s Energy Desk from Homer, where he lives. His article, Whale hunters of the warming Arctic, appears in the Sept. 12 issue of the magazine.Listen nowKizzia said it’s easy to label communities as either for or against oil development, but in his reporting he found many residents who could see both sides.KIZZIA: I think a lot of people really kind of held both opinions at the same time, was my sense. Individually they would sort of lean one way or lean the other, but the flag-waving leaders on either side weren’t as common as the people who had this deep ambivalence or anguish about what they might be doing to their whaling future [if they allowed offshore drilling]. At the same time, if they didn’t have the property tax income [from oil development] to keep civilization running up there, how are they going to live? So that was what was impressive to me, that sort of ambivalence in the middle that so many people had.WALDHOLZ: What drew you to this particular story?KIZZIA: Well, I think underlying that debate over offshore oil is the question of how the climate is changing, the ice is melting and what’s going to happen to the ancient culture up there if the ice goes away. They’re looking at a warmer future that’s going to really change the way things are done up there and they’re trying to figure out how to respond to that. In that sense, they’re just like all Americans, but it’s so much more concentrated. You can see the dilemma within the Inupiaq culture in some ways more easily as an outsider than you can when you look at our North American culture. But it’s really the same dilemma.WALDHOLZ: You open the story with this amazing scene out on the sea ice, and I’m wondering if you can describe that for our listeners.KIZZIA: It was a year ago in the spring. The ice had gotten so thin that they couldn’t hunt bowheads anymore off of Point Hope. Basically the hunters were just out there on their own, just watching the whales swim by. I saw some amazing photos, you could see the black backs of the whales right there, and you couldn’t catch them.And while they’re out there, suddenly there are three warning shots. And the warning shots meant the ice lead had broken off behind them and they were on a piece of ice that was threatening to float away and take them out to sea. They got back and they could see a hundred yards of blue water between them and the shore-fast ice. And their solution was to take their snowmachines and get a good running start, and just skip like stones across the open ocean to get back onto the ice on the shore side. It was just a pretty terrifying moment for a lot of people — and something the kids would do, I’m told, in the lagoons up there in the summer, practice with their snowmachines. And it turned out to be a pretty useful technique for saving their lives.WALDHOLZ: You have this line toward the end of the story where you say people have worried they may need to choose between oil and subsistence — but now they’re facing the prospect of potentially losing both. Is it really that bleak?KIZZIA: Well, I hope not. I mean, clearly nobody wants that to happen. But I just wanted to describe in broad strokes how that situation is beginning to come into focus as a possibility, and there’s not a real easy checklist of things we can do to deal with that. But I think as a journalist, trying to recognize what the challenges are is sometimes the first step. And in Alaska that’s often clouded by our short term interests — [it’s] hard to see the big picture.