How to

14 March 2017

Alaska’s Subterranean Meat Freezers Are in Peril

Snow and ice come and go, but as the name suggests, permafrost is here to say, or at least it’s supposed to be. Permafrost is what keeps mountaintops white, ski-resorts open and, for Alaskans, meat cold. For centuries, the Natives of Alaska and settlers alike have used underground ice cellars to keep their food frozen, but that old way is in danger.

Building and maintaining them is a hard, thankless task. First, they have to find deposits of hard permafrost beneath the ground, dig through enough to make space for storage, and then cover it well enough that melting snow and rain won’t find its way through and spoil the meat. In years past, ice cellars were only one rather extreme kind of cold storage, since the climate was reliably cold enough to keep food on ice for the better part of the year.

As the temperature has warmed, ice cellars have become more and more prevalent, but with the climate still warming and ground disturbances have placed this ancient, reliable practice in danger. Cellars which have been active for decades are melting, and even those which retain their icy walls are often not cold enough to actually store meat safely.

Being able to control the temperature our food is stored at is something that we often take for granted in the civilised world. For the people who still rely on hunting and farming, the surrounding environment is the greatest asset, and that environment is changing more rapidly than ever before. It’s leaving many Natives in a state of desperation.

Alaskan Inupiat live on a diet of caribou, walrus, seal, whale and fish. These large hauls of meat need to be stored in a very particular way so that it doesn’t rot during lean months. One whale catch needs to last a very long time, not only to get the most out of the huge quantities of meat and blubber, but to keep the hunt sustainable. The tribes take so few animals that the natural balance is unaffected. With and more cellars filling with water, far too much of that meat is going to waste.

The other difficulty is that, even after years of study, scientists still can’t definitively say why some cellars stay frozen while others thaw. The nearest answer is that warmer climates are allowing water to infiltrate the cellars through cracks in the ground more often, an issue that can be fought with better insulation, but not completely stopped. If water wants to get in, it will.

Because of this, many Natives are now sharing freezers with Arctic research teams, but those freezers aren’t meant for storing meat, and the change in flavour is starting to make some people feel like their heritage is slipping away from them. All of us have to adapt to the new world, but while for some of us that amounts to learning what ‘on fleek’ means, for others it’s a matter of life and death. For Native Alaskans, it means potentially abandoning an age-old tradition, and perhaps drastically changing their diet. 

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.