What’s Become of the Arctic

Alaska is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the country. Will journalists find a way to tell the whole story?

Bjørn Olson

Over the past two summers, Bjørn Olson rode a fat-tire bike seven hundred miles along the shoreline of the Chukchi Sea, from the small city of Kotzebue, on the Arctic Circle, to Utqiagvik, the northernmost settlement in the United States. He pedaled the beaches, mostly, along with his partner, Kim McNett, and a couple of friends who joined for part of the way. Where old snowdrifts blocked their way, they pushed their bikes over a mountain pass. Nobody had ever made that trip before. Nobody had ever contemplated making it.

Olson, forty-five, is lean, tattooed, and sandy-haired, with a wisp of chin beard. He and McNett ran into caribou on the tundra and chased a grizzly off a barrier island. They saw hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds. When they strapped their bikes onto inflatable rafts to pass protruding cliffs, they watched murres, kittiwakes, and puffins dive-bomb into the water. Elsewhere on the beaches, they swerved around piles of dead birds that had washed up in the tide.

All over, they observed signs of the warming Arctic. They looked for GPS shore stations marked ten years prior along the eroding coast, only to realize that some were now out in the water. They passed an ancient Inupiat village site crumbling out of the thawed permafrost and washing away. They visited a modern village, Point Lay, that not long ago moved back from an exposed beach. Olson and McNett happened to arrive just in time for a whale-hunt feast. At the local school, where blue tarps were spread on the floor of the gym, they joined the whole village for boiled beluga, bird soup, and fry bread, and they asked the whaling captains about the route beyond. The travelers learned that there was still time to follow the barrier island north, though soon that beach would fill with thousands of walruses, which have taken to swimming ashore in summer now that ice floes disappear. To shield this unprecedented animal behavior, for three years Point Lay had closed itself off to uninvited visitors, including journalists.

What Olson saw on his trip horrified and angered him. Back home, in the town of Homer, he is a climate activist and filmmaker, and he manages a website called Alaskans Know Climate Change, full of links to science backgrounders and suggestions for reducing carbon emissions. On Facebook, he posts news articles—about sea ice disappearing, glaciers retreating, salmon gasping in warm rivers and dying before they spawn. There are lots of good stories about how global warming is affecting Alaska. But they rarely seem to have much impact.

It drives Olson crazy. Journalists, he says, can’t seem to break through the daze created by their own steady gloom-and-doom coverage. “Learned hopelessness,” he called it in a newspaper column. Readers in Alaska, desensitized by years of bad climate news, shrug off the latest projections of rising temperatures and rising seas. Some may get upset, but what is there to do? The articles don’t say. Stop burning fossil fuels? In Alaska? While the rest of the world ponders carbon-pricing schemes to slow fossil fuel consumption, the state of Alaska is doing the opposite, subsidizing new oil wells with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax credits. After Mike Dunleavy, a Trump Republican, took office as Alaska’s governor, in December 2018, he dismissed his predecessor’s climate task force and wiped the state’s climate change webpage clean.

The trip: Bjørn Olson rode where reporters don’t. (Photo courtesy Bjørn Olson.)

“We’re the poster state for climate inaction,” Kate Troll, an opinion columnist and longtime conservation activist, told me. Imagine the picture on that poster: an oil state melting into the sea. It is not an easy visual for journalism. The urgency of the crisis and the resistance to doing anything about it fit together awkwardly in a single story. Alaska has a tradition of hard-hitting reporting, sometimes aimed at the oil industry that built its modern economy. Yet oil production continues to dominate state policy, Alaska is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the United States, and climate campaigners like Olson can’t help but find the coverage to be sorely lacking. “People need to feel this in the pit of their stomach all the time,” he said. “Remember when we went to Iraq, you couldn’t turn on the TV or open the newspaper without seeing stories? We are at that stage of mobilization. All levels need to be engaged in this. It needs to become the banner story every day.”

 

The warming of the Arctic has been news in Alaska for a long time. More than a decade ago, local reporters were writing about polar bear science and crumbling villages and pressing evasive politicians to face up to the human causes of global warming. Facing an attentive press, Governor Sarah Palin, during her short tenure, convened a task force that set emission reduction goals, and Senator Lisa Murkowski talked about a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon.

But it’s now been several years since Alaska had a reporter covering climate full-time. Newsroom budgets are depleted, the scientific background is demanding, and travel to the bush, to describe the world Olson saw, is costly and time-consuming. Breaking news stories—such as a “climate emergency” resolution adopted last fall by the Alaska Federation of Natives, over strenuous objections from Native-owned corporations active in the oil business—leave questions dangling for contextual second-day follow-ups that never come. Chris Rose, head of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or reap, the state’s leading alternative-energy nonprofit, spends a fair bit of his week backgrounding reporters as they make piecemeal attempts at climate coverage. He’ll fill them in on ways Alaska could reduce its energy costs and emissions, hoping their articles can influence state policymakers. “None of them have a beat where they can invest the time,” he said. A few years back, a former Alaska Press Club president recalled to me, no awards were given for environmental journalism. Judges from the Lower 48 states said that none of the entries were worthy.

The decline in climate coverage has coincided with a growing reluctance from Alaska politicians to talk about root causes. The production of fossil fuels is, of course, an essential part of Alaska’s political economy. The oil industry directly provides some ten thousand jobs in the state, three-fourths of them for residents, and oil revenue saved in the Alaska Permanent Fund, a state-owned corporation, pays dividends to residents every year. For years, oil taxes funded as much as 85 percent of the state budget. But production income has been on a decline, which in the past decade has brought that number below 40 percent, and politicians say they don’t want to burden a struggling industry with new environmental regulations. Besides, Governor Dunleavy has argued, Alaska’s contribution to atmospheric carbon is too minor to bother about. With its small population (731,000), Alaska ranks fortieth among states in the latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions.

Calculated on a per capita basis, however, Alaska’s emissions in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, were the fourth highest in the country, thanks largely to the pipelines and processing plants in the North Slope oil fields. Despite that fact, when Olson was part of a shoestring local coalition last year, trying to get the state to cut back on the venting and flaring of methane, there was no press coverage. Such efforts tend to get dismissed as windmill-tilting, while consideration of the “downstream” atmospheric impact of burning Alaska’s oil is relegated to opinion columns. Short on resources, Alaska’s media can hardly keep up with the latest Arctic problems—much less address the state’s contribution to making matters worse.

At the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s dominant, Pulitzer-winning paper, there was a brief and giddy reversal of a years-long staffing decline after its owner, debt-burdened McClatchy, sold the paper in 2014 to Alice Rogoff, an angel investor. (I took a buyout from the Daily News in 2009.) For a few years, Rogoff—who had already sunk a small fortune into the Alaska Dispatch, an online news startup, and then merged the two outlets to form the Alaska Dispatch News—aimed to build a national reputation for her newsroom’s coverage of Arctic warming. A full-time climate change reporter was hired; sea ice retreat was tracked assiduously. But in 2017, Rogoff—sinking in red ink and headed for divorce from her husband, a billionaire financier—pulled out. The climate reporter was laid off, along with much of the newsroom. The last of an older generation of journalists departed, taking with them their at-hand paragraphs of environmental context (“The Great Die-Off,” a rueful Gen X editor called it). A stripped-down Anchorage Daily News, restored to its original name, was rescued from bankruptcy by a pioneer Fairbanks family and is now said to be gaining in paid digital circulation and financial stability. But its climate reporting largely hasn’t resurged. “We’ve had to pick and choose much more carefully what we cover,” said David Hulen, the paper’s editor, who guided the more extensive climate efforts under Rogoff. “It’s certainly an important issue in Alaska. At some point, though, we found that the scoreboard coverage of temperature changes and sea ice wasn’t getting a lot of response.”

Public radio has traditionally played an outsize role in Alaska journalism. In 2016, the Juneau station KTOO launched Alaska’s Energy Desk, a project funded with $1.4 million in grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; it has a broad mandate to cover Arctic science and state politics, and runs regular climate and fossil fuel production stories. It was the Energy Desk that got Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation on the record saying that having an official task force even discuss a tax on carbon emissions would be bad for investment in the state’s oil fields (“We need to be doing everything we can to show Alaska’s open for business”). But last year, Governor Dunleavy unleashed a series of devastating budget vetoes, and lost in the wreck were all state funds for public broadcasting, eliminating as much as a quarter of stations’ incomes. That doesn’t bode well for the Energy Desk: the CPB funds continue for another year and a half, and after that the station is left to hope that increased public support will be enough to sustain the work.

On the plus side, private foundation support for climate journalism in Alaska is largely untapped. “The amount of money out there nationally for local journalism is staggering,” said Elizabeth Arnold, a former National Public Radio reporter who got her start in Alaska and returned as a journalism professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Arnold is on the board of the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism, a new nonprofit that has been set up to dole out small grants for training and project support. Climate change is on a short list of topics about which the foundation wants to see smarter journalism—even though the project has roots in the state’s oil economy. (It was seeded with $200,000 from the Atwood Foundation, the legacy of Robert Atwood, the staunchly pro-oil owner of the Anchorage Times, now lost to a newspaper war against the Anchorage Daily News.) The Alaska Center for Excellence was the brainchild of three longtime Alaskans who all spent parts of their journalism careers doing public relations for the oil industry. They became concerned about the quality of the local press while discussing that city hall reporters in Anchorage had been late to a big scoop: the mayor was hatching an important utility sale.

Until more money comes in, however, reporters are left to scramble after stories rather than take the necessary time to be enterprising and imaginative. Climate journalism does not move at the speed of press conferences—it’s more like a two-summers-long bike trip through the wilderness, with lots of uphill pedaling. Shutting down Alaska’s oil rigs overnight could indeed devastate the state’s economy and budget, as Governor Dunleavy says, but journalists with adequate resources could look at ways Alaska might begin to transition away from oil dependence. They could compare the state’s emissions standards to those elsewhere, and see whether shifting oil production to other states or abroad might make things worse; learn the science well enough to interrogate those who don’t accept the consensus view of climate change; or make the center of a story the dissonance of life in a crumbling oil state, in an oil-consuming nation, in a fossil-fuel-burning world. “If you wait for a government official to say something before you cover it, you’re letting them set the agenda,” Rick Steiner, an Anchorage biologist and longtime critic of petrodollar influence, told me. “For journalism to do its job here, you can’t just write about impacts. People get desensitized. It’s what the bad guys want. You need to cover what’s not happening. You have to go down and ask politicians what they’re doing. If they say nothing, that’s a story. It’s a more difficult story to write, but it’s the story of this country.”

Breaking news stories leave questions dangling for contextual second-day follow-ups that never come.

Moving out: Residents of Newtok flee a village lashed by climate change. Marc Lester / ADN

There are those Alaskans who have become inured to repeated headlines about the Arctic, and then there are others whose indifference to climate science has been willed into place by a profound attachment to the continued production of fossil fuels. For a while, Olson took to social media to go after conservative resistance to climate action. Using money raised through Salmonfest, a local summer music festival, he boosted Facebook ads to reach into what he calls “denier camps”—including groups “where they don’t think God’s going to harm the planet again because he said so after the flood.” Then he lurked in the comment threads to plug science. It was time-consuming, but he made a little progress, he thinks, because he doesn’t see as much outright denial anymore.

Denialism was never as widespread as climate indifference, according to Suzanne Downing, who runs a popular conservative news blog, Must Read Alaska. Downing, sixty-five, would have a prominent place on that poster picture of Alaska’s climate inaction, perhaps wearing her blue Alaska-flag knit cap cinched tight over her ears. She is a former editor of the Juneau Empire, the state capital’s daily, as well as a former communications director for the state Republican Party. Her site, funded by donations and advertising, is entirely self-run. Downing said that her readers get information from a variety of sources—television, radio, internet—but they have given up altogether on the state’s mainstream “liberal media.”

“My readers come to me for political analysis,” she said. “They want their views reflected through news coverage.” The stories she churns out—the latest political flap or liberal attack on common sense—tend to be lightly sourced and rely on shorthand political typecasting. One label she doesn’t use, however, is “climate denialist.” Her readers resent the phrase, she said. They don’t reject the idea that the climate is changing, they just don’t think it will turn out so bad. They are more worried about the radical social changes pushed by the left’s “scare tactics” on climate.

“I’m not sure it’s as big of a problem as everybody says it is,” she told me. “I know a lot of people in Alaska who kind of like it a little bit warmer.” On the infrequent occasions when she does post about climate change, it’s to make a joke about hair-on-fire climate activists, or to point out some seeming discrepancy in the weather to show that “the science is all over the map.”

The climate crisis has become a helpful wedge issue not only for Downing’s effort to peel off and claim part of the media audience, but also for her political party, which uses the movement against fossil fuels to position itself as the defender of Alaska’s oil industry. Alaska’s politics lean libertarian and conservative—voters went 51 percent for Trump in 2016—but there is a middle one-third of the electorate that can swing in either direction depending on whether their populist ire is aimed at “outside environmentalists” or the corrupting political influence of Big Oil (four of the last nine governors have been Democrats or moderate Independents). After losing the 2010 Republican primary to a hard-right conservative, Murkowski appealed to the center with a write-in campaign that saved her Senate seat. Downing wrote recently that the 2010 race “split the Alaska GOP into factions that to this day have not reconciled.”

Dunleavy is a Republican of the far-right bloc. His dramatic budget vetoes were prompted by unflinching support for oil-drilling tax credits. Last fall, after the rancorous legislative session in which he fired the state’s climate adviser and made other unprecedented cuts, a recall campaign was launched against him. Deciding to seek outside support, he left Alaska to tour the Lower 48, meet with President Trump, and talk to conservative national outlets. Philip Wegmann, a reporter for Real Clear Politics, tweeted after their interview that Dunleavy had come out strongly against the Green New Deal, a progressive Democratic proposal to address climate change and economic inequality, saying that it would harm Alaska. “It would impact our civilization as we know it,” Dunleavy told him.

“Yeah, that’s kind of the point,” came a Twitter retort from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman who helped craft the plan.

Back home in Alaska, the Twitter exchange drew a response in the form of a newspaper op-ed by Rick Whitbeck, the local director of Power the Future, a Koch-linked policy group. Whitbeck endorsed Dunleavy’s stance, noting how many Alaska households depend on oil industry paychecks. (Skeptical readers noticed that, by ignoring the consequences of continued carbon emissions, the column underlined Ocasio-Cortez’s point.) Downing, on her blog, posted about the Dunleavy-AOC exchange, referring to the congresswoman as “the angel of the apocalypse” and to Dunleavy as “a rising star on the national conservative scene.”

Otherwise, the story drew little notice in the Alaskan press. That was too bad—it could have nicely framed a too-rare narrative about Alaska’s climate and structural changes to the economy. The biggest gap in Alaska’s coverage may be more in the realm of political science than climate science. The state’s official determination to do nothing about the causes of the climate crisis may seem too parochial a subject for visiting journalists, and too provocative for some Alaskans. But forcing state officials to talk just might be a way for local journalists to get the attention of readers—even Downing’s.

Underwater: The Bering Sea coast is beset by erosion, melting permafrost, and flooding. Marc Lester / ADN

In October, the small Bering Sea village of Newtok prepared for a historic moment. It was moving day. In Newtok, which comprises three hundred and fifty Yupik people, house foundations had been falling into the river as permafrost melted and coastal erosion accelerated. At last, after two decades of planning, a transition to a new settlement was beginning; a third of the village was headed by skiff to a rocky bluff nine miles away. Photographers at the scene faced the usual logistical and cultural difficulties of working in remote Alaska, plus a new one for the bush: keeping other journalists out of frame.

A documentary film crew, a video crew, and three reporters were present; others had just left, or were coming in a few days. The press has been trooping through Newtok since before 2013, when The Guardian called its families “America’s first climate refugees.” Help for setting up interviews was available from a local move coordinator, who recognized that another hundred million dollars in public funds would be needed for utilities, a runway, a school, and more houses. But some climate refugees were noticeably tired of answering the same old questions. “There was definitely some journalism fatigue out there,” Marc Lester, a photojournalist covering the event for the Anchorage Daily News, said.

Even as local media have struggled to fully cover the climate story, reporters from Europe, Asia, and across the United States have flocked north, following a muddy furrow to a handful of imperiled coastal communities. The work of these visiting journalists can be impressive—when veterans bring deep knowledge of climate science to bear on local problems, or when a reporter takes the time to assemble a larger tapestry, as the Seattle Times’ Hal Bernton did in the fall, with several sweeping looks at the Bering Sea. Bernton, whose travel was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, traced how the ice pack’s retreat was unraveling the food chain of algae, plankton, forage fish, seabirds, ice seals, and gray whales—not to mention commercial species such as cod and king crab—and creating havoc for fishing fleets and indigenous subsistence communities. “Things are happening so much faster in Alaska,” he told me. “The Bering Sea is really a planetary resource, one of the great fisheries of the world. Scientists were really surprised at how quickly the ecosystem has changed.”

In other stories, however, Alaska is reduced to a colorful prop as visitors turn to easy climate clichés (try Googling “Alaska, canary, coal mine”) to compose a new literature of victimhood. Julia O’Malley, a lifelong Alaskan and former Anchorage Daily News reporter, has freelanced climate stories for the New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, and National Geographic. She recently began turning down assignments, however, bristling at the narrow expectations of editors in other parts of the world. Too many articles she saw were like a Mad Libs game—plug in the name of a threatened village, an endangered marine mammal, a synonym for “windswept.”

“The basic story is, ‘We’re all going to die, but meanwhile here are some beautiful photos.’ We’ve heard this too many times,” O’Malley said. “We are living in what to me feels like an emergency. We have to make stories that connect because they feel true and move people to see what we all have at stake, or we aren’t doing our jobs. I kind of think, right now, we aren’t doing our jobs.”

Visiting journalists interview state officials who pledge support for climate victims, but their resulting articles often miss the subtleties. When Newtok’s climate refugees finally moved, into new portable energy-efficient houses designed by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, an innovative Fairbanks nonprofit, none of the celebratory reports mentioned that the research center’s funding had just been zeroed out by Dunleavy’s vetoes.

Rick Thoman, an oft-quoted meteorologist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy in Fairbanks, spends much of his time trying to steer reporters away from tired tropes. He emphasizes human impacts, he said, but it can be hard conveying how drastic these can be. Last year, at a big-market television conference, Thoman said, he drew a lot of blank stares when he urged weathercasters to concentrate on people stories and not the charts of Arctic temperatures. “It’s so outside the realm of people’s experience, to be living somewhere not connected by road,” he said. “They ask, ‘Why can’t they just move to another town?’ ”

Old habits of race and class, of exoticizing and orientalizing Alaska’s Native people, also affect the choices of visiting journalists, in the opinion of Shady Grove Oliver, the only reporter for the only Arctic newspaper in the United States. Oliver, thirty-two, has worked for more than four years for the Arctic Sounder, a weekly covering Kotzebue, Utqiagvik, and the smaller northern villages. Her newsroom consists of a backpack and laptop, sometimes on a couch in Kiana, sometimes in a coffeehouse in California, where she grew up. Her editor works from a farm south of Anchorage, and ads are sold by the Anchorage Daily News, which recently took over the Sounder. “People in the villages have been seeing these changes for a long time, and have not been heard,” Oliver said. “A lot of local journalists have been trying for a very long time to cover the story in a way that’s meaningful to people on the front lines.”

“We’re all going to die, but meanwhile here are some beautiful photos.”

 

Last summer, returning in his truck from the Chukchi Sea bike trip, Olson drove into a wildfire in the Kenai Mountains. The Swan Lake Fire, as it was named, was about to become the nation’s largest of the season. Flames had just jumped the highway, which state officials were getting ready to close, and were approaching the town of Cooper Landing. Holding his camera, Olson walked into the embers. He did not have to go to the Arctic to see what climate change was doing. The photos he posted on Facebook were shared sixteen hundred times.

Olson was not the only person documenting the scene. The Swan Lake Fire, closer to settled areas than any in memory, brought about a noticeable shift in how local media covered climate. In the midst of what would be the hottest year in Alaskan history, during the state’s hottest month ever, with Anchorage choking on smoke, reporters started connecting the dots. Record warming and extreme drought were presented as part of the story. “The scenario playing out this week is likely to repeat itself in a warming climate of Alaska’s future,” Michelle Theriault Boots, an Anchorage Daily News reporter, wrote, citing the opinion of climate scientists.

Still, the coverage wasn’t explaining what could be done to fight back against climate change. Arnold, the former NPR reporter, believes that to fully engage jaded readers, journalists need to focus more on hope. “Such reporting would also include responses and innovations, and increase pressure on policymakers to act, rather than offering excuses for inaction,” she wrote in a 2018 paper for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. Her research burrowed in on Alaska, where her own early work treating coastal villagers as victims of the environmental crisis now struck her as somewhat exploitative. She noted that the residents of Newtok, for example, think of themselves not as losers but as “pioneers,” and argued that the story of how they cling to their region, rather than disperse, provides a compelling frame.

Arnold told me that her argument has met with some resistance from national climate activists, who worry that a focus on resilience could undermine the important message that we’re in a planetary crisis. But her prescription for writing stories about community ties to a natural world worth saving was seconded by Tim Bradner, a veteran oil industry reporter who spent part of his career as a BP lobbyist, and who has also fretted over the tough-to-penetrate scrim of despair in some readers. Bradner told me that despondency of this kind has now been clinically identified and given the name solastalgia: a measure of how environmental change degrades mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It is a concern, these days, for journalists on the climate beat.

The way to fight solastalgia, clinicians say, is to take action. In her paper, Arnold cited social-science studies that found readers pay less attention to bleak stories than they do to those about creative problem-solving. She also interviewed Denis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day. “There’s a responsibility,” he told her, “for those of us who are active in the field, and, I think, a responsibility on those of you who are covering it, to make sure that hope is part of your stories. It’s not just houses falling into the sea.”

Stories of hope can do more than galvanize the despondent. They can deepen the plot, as resilient communities may become victims again. Three years ago, when I was in Utqiagvik, a town of around forty-five hundred people formerly known as Barrow, to write about climate change, community leaders pointed out that the Inupiat would not still be around in the Arctic after thousands of years if they hadn’t adapted. An essential part of their traditional culture is the bowhead whale hunt. So far, whales had been thriving in the warmer Arctic. But old ways were changing. In the spring, the usual hunting season, the sea ice was sometimes now too weak to support hunts. The people of Utqiagvik had adjusted by turning to open-water hunting in the fall, before freeze-up, to land a majority of their whales.

This past October, however, Alaska’s Energy Desk reported that the fall whale migration had not appeared. With annual temperatures eleven degrees above average, and sea ice unusually far offshore, the bowhead migration, for reasons unknown, had shifted out of range of the town’s small boats.

A national reporter with Inside Climate News picked up the story, noting that as the small boats kept up the hunt, later than ever into the dark winter months, the weather turned warm in Utqiagvik and the snow started melting. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” a whaling captain said. If nothing changed, he added, “we’re going to go hungry.”

 

When Olson gets to feeling solastalgic, he looks around to see what he can do. In agreement with Arnold, he believes that the media has failed to help its audience grasp that it’s not too late to act. “I’ve been frustrated for years about how, in scientific presentations, everyone talks about adaptation and that’s the end,” he told me. “They never go on to talk about a greenhouse gas emissions cap. It was like a forbidden conversation.” Lately, he said, he has come to feel the same way about journalism. “If you realize this is what’s happening, that we’re about to wipe out a million species and everything we know and love is on the line, then there is no story that is more important.”

As 2019 drew to a close, Olson finally read a story that felt like good news: just before the final sunset of the Arctic winter, Captain Qulliuq Pebley and his Panigiuq Crew harpooned and landed a bowhead in Utqiagvik. Shady Grove Oliver got the scoop for the Arctic Sounder. “The crew,” she wrote, “was one of the last to remain out on the water this late in the fall, still searching for bowheads.” Sources described a long line of red brake lights down the road to the beach as a twenty-five-foot-long whale was pulled ashore. “People were hugging, crying, yelling and screaming with joy,” a source told her.

Oliver’s story, picked up statewide, explained how whale meat would be shared around the community and saved for Christmas meals. But a single bowhead would not go far—the previous fall, the town had landed nineteen whales. No scientific explanation had yet emerged for why the bowheads stayed away this year. It wasn’t something the hunters would speak about in an offhand way. Oliver understood, better than any visiting journalist could, the cultural reticence around addressing the whales’ absence—a prevailing belief, even in a modern town built by oil taxes and Native corporation dividends, holds that bowheads choose to bless hunters by giving themselves. And so, out of respect for the scientists and the hunters and the animals, the nation’s northernmost reporter kept the climate angle vague, though every Alaska reader could relate to what she wrote: “This season has been marked by uncertainty, and left many with unanswered questions about what the future may hold.”

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Tom Kizzia was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News who lives in Homer, Alaska. His New Yorker article about climate change and Alaska’s Arctic communities was reprinted in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2017.