ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Warming ice cellars may present a threat to the health and safety of residents in the Arctic, according to a state health official.

“Elders (in Point Hope) have told me that until up to a decade ago they could rely on going down any time of the year to their ice cellars and getting frozen muktuk (whale skin) and frozen whale meat, but now it isn’t frozen anymore,” said Michael Brubaker, with the Center for Climate and Health at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Whale meat and blubber are ideally stored below minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. While no one has yet reported getting sick from eating food out of an affected cellar, higher temperatures can increase the risk of salmonella, bacteria that causes fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. If spoiled food has to be thrown out, it may create a shortage for village residents who rely on a subsistence diet, especially elders.

Thawing is also a safety concern — in one cellar the permafrost walls, which used to be as hard as ice, have started to crumble, slump and show danger of collapse.

Brubaker said that the issue of thawing ice cellars first came to his attention during a visit to Lorino, Russia, in the spring of 2008. Residents of Lorino hunt marine mammals, including the grey whale and walrus, and use a large, communal ice cellar built underneath part of the village to keep their food frozen. They told Brubaker they were struggling to keep their food as cold as it had been in the past.

A year later, ANTHC was conducting a climate change focus study and while in Point Hope “right off the bat, people starting talking about this growing problem of not being able to keep their whale meat and muktuk frozen all year.”

Point Hope has quite a few cellars, some more than 100 years old and framed with whalebone and shipwrecked wood. While they used to keep food frozen all year, “What was developing was a seasonal ice cellar, and really just a cooler,” Brubaker said.

Just like Point Hope, Kivalina residents reported their cellars were thawing and flooding in the summer and they had to throw out spoiled meat as a result.

Brubaker said the problem of thawing ice cellars was also present in the northernmost community in Alaska, Barrow. But what is puzzling to those researching the issue is that not all the Barrow cellars are in trouble — some continue to have freezing temperatures all year.

Brubaker said that of the four cellars they surveyed in Barrow, three had warmed, two with standing water, but one was functioning with no problems.

Working with the North Slope Borough, the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, ANTHC is hoping to find out why some cellars continue to work while other do not — whether it’s the proximity to the coast, the depth that the cellar is dug, the way the cellars are constructed or other factors that are making a difference.

The ultimate goal is to find a way to adapt the ice cellars to a warming climate or replace them.