This year residents along the Kuskokwim River experienced a rare break-up when the river seemingly broke up in reverse. While elders say this year was a unique event they also believe it could be sign of things to come.
The Kuskokwim River serves as the main transportation route for the Yup’ik living along it. People use it to reach other villages and gather their food. So predicting it’s behavior is an essential part of survival. Atmautluak elder Henry Tikiun has never seen anything like this, “they said the weather would change with the people, I never thought I’d ever reach this in my lifetime. In my first memories in Bethel, upriver areas like McGrath and Aniak would always break up first. After that downriver would break up even though it’s closer to the ocean,” says Tikiun.
Tikiun says the ice would be much thicker in those days. Break-up would be signaled by loud rumbling from the river caused by ice grinding and breaking against each other. He says the climate is changing because of the way people treat the land, “all of us just the same are polluting our land with no respect,” says Tikiun.
Tikiun points to trashed fuel drums along riverbanks as just one of numerous examples.
At the mouth of the Kuskokwim, Tuntutuliak elder and pilot James Charles says the early downriver break-up is attributed to the lack of snow and thin ice, “the lower area had no snow and the ice was thin so it broke up first. It usually breaks up last when there’s snow,” says Charles
Charles says he’s noticed reports of melting glaciers and permafrost and believes this is attributed to global warming, “people say our land is thawing and getting warmer and I believe what they call ‘global warming’ is happening,” says Charles.
On the south side of the Kuskokwim Bay, elder John Alexie says breakup near Eek was similar to just one other that occurred about a decade ago. He says warming temperatures were predicted by his ancestral elders, “I used to hear from people who came before me that the weather would change. It wouldn’t be as cold as it used to be and the winters would be different,” says Alexie
He also heard some of the elders mention that while this area gets warmer, other areas in the lower 48 would get colder with harsher winters.
While break-up was unusual this year, the elders say similar break-ups may not be uncommon in the future.