Climate change is an urgent crisis that will affect everyone on the planet, and for millions of people it already has. Nowhere is this clearer than the Alaskan Arctic. Scientists call Alaska “ground zero” for climate change, and this past July was the hottest month on historical record. But climate change in Alaska means more than just warmer weather; it means devastating wildfires, intense storms, vanishing sea ice, retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, and diminishing natural habitats affecting both animal species and the people who depend on them.
Naun Lala braids freshly caught river herring in order to dry the fish out in the sun in Newtok, Alaska, a Yupik village of roughly 380 people. May 26th, 2019. Subsistence-based practices such as gathering eggs, hunting, and fishing are a way of life in Newtok, crucial to everything from culture and economy to nutrition and survival. Alaska native communities like Newtok are inextricably tied to the land, yet will be some of the first communities in the world forced to relocate as a result of climate change. Newtok is the first community in Alaska that has begun relocation as a direct result of climate change—pioneering a process that many other Alaskan villages may soon undergo. The entire village is sinking as the permafrost beneath it thaws and the coastline shrinks due erosion.
Nelson Nayokpuk of the Herman Ahsuak whaling crew in Utqiagvik, Alaska holds a polar bear skull they shot and killed the day before when it tried to eat their seal skin canoe. April 19th, 2016. Polar bears have grown increasingly hungry as melting sea ice affects their ability to hunt seals on the Arctic Ocean ice sheet. More and more bears are coming into whaling villages like Utqiagvik to feed off scraps and bones during the annual subsistence whale hunt. The massive influx of polar bears makes another issue in the community a larger issue-thawing permafrost destroying traditional ice cellars (generations-old massive underground freezers dug deep into the permafrost). Now, community members are forced to store their hunted food above ground, which attracts bears. The more climate change forces polar bears to interact with humans, the more dangerous it is not only for humans, but the already vulnerable polar bear species, who will be shot and killed as self-protection.
For Alaska’s indigenous people, especially those living in rural areas, climate change threatens to bring an end to their way of life. Hunting, fishing and foraging for food, known as “subsistence,” is the anchor of culture and economy for Alaska’s many indigenous groups, some of which are so fragile that only a handful of living elders still speak their ancestral languages. Yet hunting conditions have become increasingly dangerous and unpredictable, animals are dying off or migrating in new patterns, and the communities who rely on them for nutrition, income, and spiritual practices are being pressured in countless ways. In some places, climate change is not only affecting their subsistence way of life, but displacing entire communities. Numerous villages across Alaska are disappearing due to erosion, permafrost thaw, storms and floods and one community, Newtok, has already begun relocating.
After a successful hunt, Josiah Olemaun, a young whaling crew member takes a break from moving and stacking whale meat into his family’s ice cellar in Utqiagvik, Alaska. April 29th, 2018. Ice cellars are generations-old massive underground freezers dug deep into the permafrost. As permafrost thaws it is wreaking havoc, melting what used to be permanently frozen ground and destroying and flooding many ice cellars. Others have warmed up to a point that they are unusable, spoiling whale meat and other crucial hunted foods.
Walrus blood in the Arctic Ocean after an Inupiat family hunts a walrus on the sea ice near Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow). June 25th, 2015. Hunting affects all aspects of life in Barrow, and is an important food source for this community. June used to be seal hunting season, but in 2015 hunters were seeing mostly walrus instead, which local scientists and hunters told me was rare that time of year and most likely due to warming weather changing migration patterns.
For the last six years I have dedicated myself to telling the human stories on the front lines of climate change as part of the long-term photography project Chasing Winter. The project explores how climate change is challenging communities across Alaska, and transforming the relationship between people, animals and the land.
It is a historic moment in time as the reality of climate change unfolds. Drastic complications from our warming planet play out in the lives of people daily, and their stories matter. It also matters that new approaches and diverse voices tell those stories. Part of the Chasing Winter project includes the “Chasing Alaska” workshops, which teach photography and social media storytelling in Alaska Native villages. The next workshop will take place in Newtok, Alaska in 2021.
Katie Orlinsky was born and raised in New York City and began her career as a photographer thirteen years ago. She has photographed all over the world documenting everything from conflict and social issues to wildlife and sports. For the past five years Katie’s work has focused on climate change, exploring the transforming relationship between people, animals and the land in the Arctic. Katie is a contributing photographer with National Geographic and work is frequently published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Smithsonian Magazine among others. She has won numerous awards over the course of her career from institutions such as the Art Director’s Club, PDN30, Visa Pour L’image and Pictures of the Year International. She was the 2016 Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography winner and the 2016 Paris Match Female Photojournalist of the Year. She received a Masters's degree in Journalism from Columbia University, and in 2018 was named the Snedden Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.