Can Modern Technology Save Ancient Food Storage Techniques in a Warming Arctic?

For many centuries, people along the Beaufort and Chukchi seas have preserved whale meat and other foods by digging ice cellars, called siġḷuat, into the permafrost. The cellars can store hundreds of pounds of whale meat, more than any modern household freezer could hold. And North Slope residents like Doreen Lovett, who is director of natural resources for the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope (ICAS), say they are better at preserving freshness and flavor. Cleaning and maintaining a siġḷuat is also tightly tied to Indigenous whaling practices.

In recent years, thawing of permafrost due to anthropogenic climate change has led siġḷuat to leak or collapse, threatening both essential food supplies and long-held cultural practices. In response, ICAS is awarding grants to use long metal pipes filled with refrigerant, called thermosyphons, to protect siġḷuats. The pipes are drilled into the ground and can pull warmth out of the soil. Thermosyphons are already used to prevent thawing permafrost from damaging schools and other buildings on the north slope and the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Lovett says the project is important for food security, food sovereignty, and to preserve traditional practices. ICAS expects to install the first syphons before this winter.


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