I’m standing atop Rush Hill on Alaska’s remote St. Paul Island. Though only 665 feet high, it provides a 360-degree view of this tundra-covered, 13-mile-long, seven-mile-wide part of the Pribilof Islands. While the hood of my rain jacket flaps in the cold wind, I gaze in wonder at the silvery waters of the Bering Sea. The ever-present wind whips the surface into a chaos of whitecaps, scudding mist and foam.
The ancient cinder cone I’m perched on reminds me that St. Paul was, oh, so long ago, one of the last places woolly mammoths could be found in North America. I’m here doing research for my book, The End of Ice. And that, in turn, brings me back to the new reality in these far northern waters: as cold as they still are, human-caused climate disruption is warming them enough to threaten a possible collapse of the food web that sustains this island’s Unangan, its Aleut inhabitants, also known as “the people of the seal.” Given how deeply their culture is tied to a subsistence lifestyle coupled with the new reality that the numbers of fur seals, seabirds and other marine life they hunt or fish are dwindling, how could this crisis not be affecting them?
While on St. Paul, I spoke with many tribal elders who told me stories about fewer fish and sea birds, harsher storms and warming temperatures, but what struck me most deeply were their accounts of plummeting fur seal populations. Seal mothers, they said, had to swim so much farther to find food for their pups that the babies were starving to death before they could make it back.
And the plight of those dramatically declining fur seals could well become the plight of the Unangan themselves, which in the decades to come, as climate turbulence increases, could very well become the plight of all of us.