Sea Ice Distribution and Ice Use by Indigenous Walrus Hunters on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

  • Marie-Luise Kapsch
  • Hajo EickenEmail author
  • Martin Robards


The hunting success of St. Lawrence Island walrus hunters from Savoonga (Sivungaq) and Gambell (Sivuqaq) is studied in relation to weather and sea ice conditions for the period 1979–2008. Satellite remote-sensing data, including ice concentration fields from passive-microwave radiometer data, have been examined over the entire time series in conjunction with walrus harvest data from two community-level monitoring programs. Important information to aid with interpretation of these data sets was provided by the hunters themselves, in particular through a log of ice conditions and ice use by L. Apangalook, Sr., of Gambell. From these data, we determined which ice conditions (concentrations >0 and <30%) and which wind speeds (1–5 m s–1 at Savoonga and 5–9 m s–1 at Gambell), temperatures (–5 to +5°C), and visibility (>6 km) provide the most favorable conditions for the walrus hunt. The research demonstrated that at the local level, though not necessarily at the region-wide scale, the sea ice concentration anomaly is a very good predictor of the number of favorable hunting days. With the exception of 2007 (and to a lesser extent, 2008), negative anomalies (less ice or earlier onset of ice retreat) coincided with more favorable (Savoonga) or near-average (Gambell) hunting conditions, controlled mostly by access to ice-associated walrus. Ice access and temporal variability differ significantly between Savoonga and Gambell; in contrast with northern Alaska communities, St. Lawrence hunters were able to maintain typical levels of harvest success during the recent record – low ice years of 2007 and 2008. We discuss the potential value of data such as assembled here in assessing vulnerability and adaptation of Arctic communities depending on marine-mammal harvests to climate variability and change.


Sea ice Subsistence hunt Ice conditions Pacific walrus Climate change 



We gratefully acknowledge the contributions by Leonard Apangalook, Sr., who shared his knowledge about weather and ice conditions around Gambell through regular ice observations and during a personal interview with one of us (M.-L. K.), and by all the other Yupik elders and hunters of St. Lawrence Island, who contributed indirectly to this chapter. We are also grateful to the native hunters and harvest monitors; their support was crucial in assembling the harvest-monitoring data set which made this research possible. Brad Benter (USFWS) supplied walrus harvest data from the USFWS and shared his personal insights into the walrus hunt on St. Lawrence Island with us. Steve Gaffigan (Alaska Ocean Observing System) provided access to and computational help with processing of satellite remote-sensing data. Martha Shulski (Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks) and Jim Ashby (Western Regional Climate Center) provided hourly weather data from stations in Gambell and Savoonga and Hyunjin Druckenmiller (Geophysical Institute, UAF) suitable SAR scenes. We appreciate the comments by Anthony Doulgeris, Brad Benter, and Igor Krupnik on earlier drafts of the chapter and Matt Druckenmiller’s help with the map. This work was made possible through the National Science Foundation’s support of the SIZONet project (0632398) and the SNAP project (0732758); opinions, findings, and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect any of the aforementioned individuals or organizations’ perspective.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marie-Luise Kapsch
    • 1
  • Hajo Eicken
    • 1
    Email author
  • Martin Robards
    • 1
  1. 1.Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska FairbanksFairbanksUSA

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