The Plight of Ice Cellars in Barrow, Alaska

We have all heard of root cellars and the like from our parents or grandparents, but most of us today live with the refrigerator, or the freezer. They are wonderful inventions, able to store food much longer than in the past and a huge benefit for many persons to own one. But what happens when you have a couple tons of whale meet to store for months on end? And that is not a hyperbole. What if you and your neighbors had 144 tons of whale meat to store for up to six months?

The many Indigenous groups of Alaska and Siberia solved this issue with ice cellars, 14ft deep or more, dug down into the rock-hard permafrost. These cellars are capable of storing thousands of pounds of meet for extended periods of time. And the cellars themselves can last for generations.

But in Barrow, Alaska (among other places) ice cellars are increasingly failing, becoming filled with water and ruining the meat stored inside. Researchers believe this is due to a mix of factors, but mainly geological and climate change. An increase in overall temperature increases the amount of snow melt (and the overall precipitation levels) and also thaws the permafrost ever so slightly. Combine this with geological disturbances and water flows freely through the cracks in permafrost, only “snow”-balling the issue.

To see a more in-depth discussion of the impact of failed ice cellars, check out this article from National Geographic.

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