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NREL: Visiting the Land of Ice, Whales, and Climate Change

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Whaling season had just begun when the housing survey team from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL’s) Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) showed up in Point Lay, Alaska, this spring. The bowhead whales were moving up the western coast of Alaska, toward this small Iñupiaq village perched on a bluff by the Chukchi Sea.

Outside a house with peeling green paint, an 18-foot aluminum boat was packed full of camping gear, with rifles and harpoons strapped on top. Whaling captain Julius Rexford and his son, Robert Lisbourne, were preparing to head out on the sea ice with the Atkaan Whaling Crew. They were just waiting for the weather to cooperate.

“Right now, the wind is picking up and the ice is going out,” Lisbourne said. “That’s good. Mother Nature’s on our side.”

CCHRC had come knocking on their door to conduct a housing survey. As NREL’s Alaska-based lab, its researchers focus on building and energy technologies for extreme climates. For example, they help communities like Point Lay adapt to rapid environmental change. The permafrost on this strip of Arctic coast is thawing so fast it is destroying buildings and infrastructure. The data gained from these housing surveys will be used to understand the impacts of climate change and figure out ways to design more resilient infrastructure in the future.

man wearing glasses holding up jacket
Julius Rexford is whaling captain of the Atkaan Whaling Crew, which in 2009 landed the first bowhead whale in Point Lay in 73 years. Photo by Molly Rettig, NREL
“The soil in Point Lay is more water than soil, so as the permafrost thaws, it turns into liquid and just flows away. The top layer of the ground is just dropping,” said Robbin Garber-Slaght, a research engineer at NREL’s CCHRC, who was in Point Lay surveying foundations.

Like most of the 70-some homes in the village, Rexford’s single-story house sits on wooden pilings elevated off the ground. This is a common way to build on permafrost—by burying pilings deep in the ground, the home is less likely to move if the ground settles. But in the two decades Rexford has lived there, more than 10 feet of ground has subsided under his house, leaving it standing high up in the air like a tree house. When the wind whips across the tundra, his family can feel the house shake. The moving ground has also burst the water pipes buried outside, which in turn has flooded his kitchen.

“We haven’t had running water in six months,” Rexford said.

Almost every home in Point Lay faces similar issues. As the surveyors walked around town, they saw cracking walls, porch staircases dangling in midair, where the ground used to be, and houses that were leaning sideways. The permafrost degradation has become so severe that the community is considering relocation.

“For our village to survive, we may have to move,” said Marie Tracey, vice president of the Native Village of Point Lay, which recently declared a climate emergency to draw attention to the challenges they are facing.

It would not be the first time the Iñupiat of Point Lay have relocated. Before they built these homes in the 1970s, the village was located on the nearby Kokolik River. Before that, they lived in sod homes on a barrier island in the ocean. And before that, they were nomadic, building seasonal shelters and following the food—the caribou, fish, and whales. While their location has changed, their subsistence lifestyle has not.


Inside Rexford’s home, he showed the NREL team a baleen plate hanging on the wall. Stretching the full length of the room, it looked like a giant whisker but is actually a tooth-like apparatus that bowhead whales use to filter their food. It came from an enormous bowhead his crew landed in 2009.

“We spotted the whales off the northern point,” Rexford said. “There were over 100 whales in that area. My brother, Brenton, was my harpooner, so we started following this whale. It made a circle, and I told my brother it was too big. He looked at me, and he said, ’35 feet.’ I said, ’49 feet.'”

They continued tracking the whale in their boat, following from a safe distance, waiting for the right moment. They were only legally permitted one strike, so they had to time it perfectly.

His brother was a skilled harpooner, and it only took one strike. It was not until they had pulled the whale up on the ice that they could see how big it really was: 49 feet. Then Rexford and his crew circled around it to pray.

“We gave thanks to the whale that gave itself to the crew, and that there was nobody hurt,” Rexford said.

After days of cutting meat and hauling it back to shore, they fed the entire community in a giant feast at Rexford’s home. Everyone who helped took home shares of whale meat and maktak—a special delicacy of skin and blubber—a main source of protein for the year.

“It’s the best time of year living in a whaling community because it brings us together,” Lisbourne said. “That’s what everybody loves: maktak.”

Climate change is creating major challenges for places like Point Lay. But the roots of the Iñupiat are deep. It will be a Herculean effort to adapt, but like landing a whale, it will not be done alone.

The housing survey, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic program, is planned to be completed in 2023, and the assessment can be used by the tribe to remediate their homes and make complex decisions about their future.

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