Yupik Eskimos have lived in the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island off the coast of Nome, Alaska, for at least 2,000 years.
They were and are subsistence hunters, living on seabirds, whale, walrus, seal and fish. The Yupiks have depended upon a world that was constant, as did the animals they hunted.
Expensive flights from Nome more recently have delivered by airplane what can’t be shot or caught. But the animals are the mainstay of this community along the Bering Sea.
There is a point of land — the Point — on the northwest edge of the island where birders stand in spring to watch an unending flight of nesting species. The birds fly away from the island to find fish, return like bullets to feed young.
Gambell is a must-visit for many serious birders. On my first visit, the first of five, I stood on the Point perplexed by the calls other birders made. Yellow-billed loon! Spectacled eider! Pacific loon! Crested auklet! Where? Which one?
So many birds, species I had never seen, somewhere in that river of birds rushing past.
Those birds, nesting on the island cliffs and ponds — loons, puffins, murres, auklets, sea ducks — were there because the adjoining ocean provided the food the nesting birds needed.
It had worked forever. The ocean provided the food that fed the animals that fed the Yupik. And provided birds for guys like me to see.
There is much less sea ice now, consequently fewer seals and walrus. The water temperature has risen, so whales and birds (and seals and walrus) have ever-increasing difficulty finding the food that always has been there.
Bering Sea fish that the Yupik forage have moved north to find the cooler water they need, according to research. The nesting birds on Gambell and other islands must fly farther to find fish to feed their young. There are limits of time and energy on how long those flights can be.
The mammals move away. The birds starve.
Scientists have been finding dead birds along Bering Sea coasts for years, and the number has risen recently. The birds are skin and bones, emaciated, starved.
Most recently, dead birds washed ashore on St. Paul in the Pribilof group of islands in the Bering Sea, another place to see birds. Hundreds of tufted puffins and crested auklets dead on the beaches “alarmed and astonished local residents and scientists,” according to a May 30 Washington Post article.
The Post reported that on May 14 this year, the air temperature was 84 degrees F. in Arkhangelsk, Russia, very near the Arctic Ocean, north of the Bering Sea. New Orleans was the same temperature that day.
Warmer air, warmer water.
Scientists say that climate conditions for the Bering Sea are 30 years ahead of predictions. Conditions today are where they’ve been predicted for 2050.
Will water temperatures return to “normal”? Will fish return to historic locations? Will mammals return? Will birds no longer starve? Ever? Never?
Some scientists and many politicians are reluctant to make definitive statements about these changes and the cause. There is always a caveat: We can’t be certain. It might get better.
Tell that to the starving birds.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.