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    After the 45th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March, the race board says, several dogs from a single team tested positive for a banned substance.

    After the 45th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March, the race board says, several dogs from a single team tested positive for a banned substance.
    Ellamarie Quimby / AP

    It's not your ordinary sports doping scandal: Some dogs who mushed this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race have tested positive for the opioid pain reliever tramadol, the event's governing board said Wednesday.

    The Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors, which oversees the nearly 1,000-mile race, says that when dogs were tested six hours after finishing in Nome, Alaska, in March, several from one team came back positive for the drug. It is the first positive result since Iditarod testing for prohibited substances began in 1994, officials said.

    The board announced last week that "a prohibited substance" had been found in some of the dogs. The latest information clarifies that it was tramadol.

    The Associated Press reports that investigators estimate the drug could have been administered up to 15 hours before the test.

    The grueling Iditarod is hard on mushers but harder still on the dogs, with the canines up against subzero temperatures, blizzards and rough terrain. As GearJunkie notes: "Those obstacles, coupled with significant prize money and sponsorships, also build incentives to cheat."

    AP quotes Iditarod Board member Aaron Burmeister as saying all the dogs that tested positive were from the same team, but he said he doesn't know the identity of the musher. He says only the first 20 teams to finish are tested.

    "It's not a good situation," Burmeister, who is himself a musher, but didn't compete in this year's race, tells the AP. "I'm hoping that we can turn a positive light on it and the musher steps forward."

    However, the Alaska Dispatch News quotes Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George as declining to name the musher in question over "legal concerns" and "confidentiality."

    In last week's announcement, the board said it was revising the rules on doping by shifting the burden of proof from race officials to the mushers.

    In future, mushers will be held accountable for a positive test unless they can prove the drugs were administered the drug outside their control. Previously, the rule could be interpreted so that race officials would need to prove the doping was intentional, AP says.

    Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
    Story does not include AP content SportsNational Normal

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    Dallas Seavey poses with his lead dogs Reef (left) and Tide after finishing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska, in March 2016. Seavey denies he administered banned drugs to his dogs in this year's race and has withdrawn from the 2018 race in

    Dallas Seavey poses with his lead dogs Reef (left) and Tide after finishing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska, in March 2016. Seavey denies he administered banned drugs to his dogs in this year's race and has withdrawn from the 2018 race in
    Mark Thiessen / AP

    Alaska's Iditarod race committee has identified four-time champion Dallas Seavey as the musher whose dogs tested positive for a banned opioid pain reliever in this year's race. Seavey denies the charge and has withdrawn from the 2018 dog sled race in protest.

    Last week, the Iditarod Trail Committee announced that at the March finish in Nome this year, four dogs from a single team had tested positive for the drug tramadol. The committee initially declined to name the musher involved.

    However, competitors kept up pressure to release the name of the accused musher. On Monday, the Iditarod Official Finishers Club released a statement signed by 83 current and former competitors calling for the musher to be named within 72 hours, according to The Associated Press.

    Seavey, now 30, came in second in this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race behind his father, 57-year-old Mitch Seavey.

    In a YouTube video, a visibly agitated Dallas Seavey denied any wrongdoing and fired back at the race organizers, saying he had been cooperating with them to clear things up.

    "I did nothing wrong," Seavey said in the video.

    "I have never knowingly broken any race rule. I have never given any banned substance to my dogs," he said, adding that he fully expects to be banned but that he doesn't care "if I never make another cent" from the sport, which he said "is my life."

    He said he spent several months trying to explain how his dogs showed positive for the drug, but instead was "thrown under the bus."

    "I believe this was given to my dogs maliciously," he said. "That's one of the options. I think that is the most likely option. There are numerous ways that could have been done."

    As we wrote in last week's story:

    "[T]he board said it was revising the rules on doping by shifting the burden of proof from race officials to the mushers.

    "In future, mushers will be held accountable for a positive test unless they can prove the drugs were administered the drug outside their control. Previously, the rule could be interpreted so that race officials would need to prove the doping was intentional, AP says."

    Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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    Belinda Batten of Oregon State University stands in front of a wave energy generator prototype.

    Belinda Batten of Oregon State University stands in front of a wave energy generator prototype.
    Jeff Brady / NPR

    Think "renewable energy" and the wind and sun come to mind, but someday it may be possible to add ocean energy to that list.

    The fledgling wave energy industry is getting a boost from the federal government. The Department of Energy is spending up to $40 million to build a wave energy test facility off the Oregon coast.

    Wave energy has a long way to go before it's ready to power the lights in your house. At this point, engineers aren't even quite sure how best to capture the power of the water.

    "We don't know what the right kind of wave energy converter is," says Belinda Batten, executive associate dean of the College of Engineering at Oregon State University.

    Batten says part of the challenge is that the ocean moves in different directions depending on the location. "It goes up and down when you're out in the water," she says. "As you're getting close to the coast, it's going back and forth in surge. Within the ocean, the particles go around in circles."

    Batten has a collection of models of the various wave energy converter prototypes the industry is considering. A video demonstrating how some of the generators would work is here.

    Batten says OSU's Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center will build the new offshore test facility. It will be connected to the power grid by underwater cables. She says it should help speed the industry's progress in testing various styles of machines.

    There is research underway now, but without the offshore test facility it is limited. Some of it happens at OSU's wave research lab, which is housed in a cavernous gray building with a concrete tank that's almost as long as a football field. At one end of the tank a big engine makes waves and then sends them through the tank. (You can see a video of the wave machine here.)

    But this testing can only go so far. "You need the full-scale wave energy converter out there for some time to prove that it's going to survive [and] to prove what its cost of energy is," says Batten. Then she says companies will have a better chance of attracting venture capital that will help the industry grow.

    Wave energy supporters like Jason Busch are excited. He heads the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, which estimates 10 percent of the world's energy could come from the ocean.

    "Marine renewables is a vast opportunity. The amount of energy that's in the ocean available for us to utilitize is massive. And it's right there — it's right off our shores," says Busch.

    The technology will be expensive at first and Busch says more research is needed on the environmental effects of wave energy.

    "But the only way to do that is, of course, getting the machines out in the water and monitoring them for a longer period of time," says Busch. The new test facility will make that possible.

    The fishing industry also has some worries about whether wave energy will interfere with their business. That's why OSU consulted fishermen to figure out exactly where to build its offshore test facility.

    They found a location about 6 miles off the coast of Newport, Ore. Construction is expected to start in 18 months. The university hopes to begin testing in 2021.

    Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
    Story does not include AP content NationalScienceEnvironment Normal

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    The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

    The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
    Getty Images / Getty Images

    For all the negative headlines that 2017 have generated, Republicans are on the cusp of accomplishing two major policy goals that have eluded them for decades, at the same time.

    The Senate could soon approve oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with its bill to overhaul the nation's tax code.

    ANWR has long held an outsized symbolic role in the tug-of-war between environmental protection and the desire to increase domestic oil and gas drilling.In that regard, you could argue, it was the original Keystone XL Pipeline — an issue activists on both sides could rally, fundraise and organize around.

    Legislation opening up a portion of ANWR for leasing cleared a key Senate hurdle this week, when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved it on a 13-10 vote. The measure is tied to the budget process that Republican leaders are using to advance the tax overhaul, which means the bill would only need 51 votes – not the usual 60 – to advance in the full Senate. That means they can conceivably pass their legislation with just Republican votes.

    The measure would generate $1.1 billion over the coming decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That figure would help Senate Republicans offset the cost of their proposed tax cuts. Under reconciliation rules, the tax changes can't add more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years, or they'd need 60 votes to advance.

    Democrats are seizing on that cost disparity as they blast the bill.

    "The Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been instructed to raise a billion dollars, and at the same time the Finance Committee is trying to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion with tax cuts for corporations and millionaires," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said at this week's committee hearing. "The fact our committee's contribution to that deal is about 7/100th of one percent of the Republicans' increased deficit spending shows that this is not a serious budget proposal. It's a cynical effort to open up the heart of the Artic Wildlife Refuge for oil."

    Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican and longtime proponent of drilling in ANWR, authored the bill. She pointed out that the legislation limits drilling to a relatively small area of the reserve.

    "Alaskans will do this the right way," she said ahead of the committee vote. "We will protect the environment while providing substantial economic benefits all across America."

    The leasing's estimated revenue comes at an opportune time for Republicans, who are scrambling to offset the costs of their proposed tax cuts. But it's not clear whether the industry would scramble to drill new wells in ANWR.

    The United States experienced an unprecedented oil and gas drilling boom over the past decade because of advances in hydraulic fracturing – or "fracking"– technology. The combination of fracking and advanced horizontal drilling unlocked previously unobtainable oil and gas reserves, and eventually flooded domestic markets. That led to a substantial drop in oil prices, and a corresponding slowdown in drilling.

    Still, over the past 40 years Republicans have repeatedly tried to approve ANWR drilling and repeatedly failed. The chance to use reconciliation and pass a measure with a bare 51-vote majority may be the best opportunity the GOP ever has to reach this coveted policy goal.

    Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
    Story does not include AP content NationalPolitics & GovernmentEnvironment Normal

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    During a storm, the Alaskan village of Newtok can lose 10 to 20 feet of tundra. Erosion is getting worse because of warming temperatures and record low sea ice.

    Noah "Robert" Waska (left), Dalen Ayuluk, Andrew John and Jason John stand above the rock quarry at Mertarvik, the site where Newtok residents hope to relocate their entire village.
    Rosie Matthias, Byron John, and Pedro Active, ninth graders in a Yup'ik language class at the Newtok School. Residents worry they will lose their language and culture if they are forced to scatter as their land erodes.
    The Alaskan village of Newtok, seen from a plane in 2015, is threatened by eroding land. The Yupik people have lived in coastal areas along the Bering Sea for thousands of years.
    Joseph John Jr. washes freshly caught salmon with his son, Jeremiah John, while waiting for the tide to come in on July 1, 2015 in Newtok, Alaska. Families in the village of roughly 400 people depend on hunting and fishing.
    During a storm, the Alaskan village of Newtok can lose 10 to 20 feet of tundra. Erosion is getting worse because of warming temperatures and record low sea ice.
    During a storm, the Alaskan village of Newtok can lose 10 to 20 feet of tundra. Erosion is getting worse because of warming temperatures and record low sea ice.
    Rachel Waldholz / Alaska's Energy Desk

    Record low sea ice this fall, and near record warm temperatures, are bad news for villages along Alaska's coast. Winter ice used to serve as a buffer, protecting the shoreline during the region's strong fall storms. Now, it's forming later in the year, leaving communities exposed.

    Nowhere is that more evident than in Newtok, which sits on a river not far from the Bering Sea. The later freeze-up has allowed the river to eat away at the village's thawing permafrost. During a storm, blocks of tundra the size of a minivan slump into the water and disappear.

    Andrew John, Newtok's tribal administrator, is standing on the bank of the Ninglick River, taking stock after a short trip away.

    "I took some measurements and oh my goodness!" John says. "I don't recognize any of this."

    Erosion has always been a problem here. But it's getting worse as Alaska warms faster than the rest of the U.S. John estimates that, just this season, the river has torn off 40 feet of tundra.

    The nearest homes? They're less than 40 feet away.

    Katie Ayuluk lives in one of them, and she says the storms feel closer and closer.

    Three generations live in the three-room house where Ayuluk grew up. As she serves baked salmon and duck for dinner, Ayuluk, 24, says when she was little, the river was so far away you could barely see it. Now, she and her husband Dalen say it feels like the storms are at their doorstep.

    "You're looking at huge swells during a storm," Dalen says. "And when those swells hit the side of the land, you'll see water shoot up."

    "Even up to this day," Katie says, "it surprises me there's big waves, even though I've seen it every day of my life. So every day I'm scared."

    "I need to move," she adds quietly. "I want to move."

    People here want to move, but not to a distant city like Anchorage, some 500 miles from here.

    Connection To Culture And Language

    Life in Newtok is distinct. Nearly all of the village's 400 or so residents are Alaska Native. Families depend on hunting and fishing. Stop by the school, and you can hear the pledge of allegiance in the local language, Yup'ik.

    People here worry if they're forced to scatter, they'll lose that tight connection to language and culture.

    So in 2003, Newtok negotiated a land swap with the federal government, hoping to relocate the entire village together.

    The new site is a bumpy half-hour boat ride up river into a brutal wind.

    "We're going to heaven!" Andrew John shouts over the sound of the motor. "That's what it feels like when we're there. It's beautiful!"

    That heaven is Mertarvik — the new Newtok — a site up on the side of a low mountain, firmly grounded in rock. It's not about to erode away.

    Over the past decade, the village has pieced together enough funding to start building. There are a handful of modest wood houses, framed this summer. A row of heavy equipment waits for the next construction season.

    But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will cost $130 million to move the whole village. In a community where more than 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line, that money will have to come from outside.

    'A Disaster In The Making'

    If Newtok were destroyed in a single hurricane, the funding might come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

    In Congress, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has pressed FEMA for disaster relief.

    "Clearly these are situations that anyone would look at and say, 'This is a disaster,'" she said at a hearing in February. "And if it's not a disaster immediately, it's clearly a disaster in the making."

    But FEMA says federal disaster relief isn't meant to deal with the gradual impacts of climate change, like thawing permafrost and erosion. Last year, the Obama administration turned down Newtok's request for a federal disaster declaration.

    FEMA official Alex Amparo told Murkowski that the main law governing disaster relief, the Stafford Act, only recognizes damage from a single major event, like a severe storm or earthquake.

    "The situation of a slow-moving disaster in the making is something not contemplated under the Stafford Act," Amparo said, adding that adapting to climate impacts like those facing Newtok will require a "whole of government" response.

    That response has yet to happen.

    Joel Neimeyer heads the Denali Commission, the federal agency most closely involved in Newtok's relocation efforts. He says this problem is bigger than Newtok.

    "We have these examples all across the country where you're having extreme weather events," Neimeyer says. "And as a country we haven't yet resolved the question of how we want to respond to these."

    He says Congress never envisioned relocating whole communities. There's no agency in charge of it, no pot of money to fund it. And yet, as climate change hits coastal communities around the country with flooding and erosion, it's a problem we will likely see more and more.

    In 2016, the Obama administration did offer a grant to move an entire town in coastal Louisiana, but that was a one-time solution.

    Neimeyer believes Congress needs to make a decision: In these situations, is it U.S. policy to move whole communities? Or just move families? Or do nothing?

    "Obviously moving a village is more expensive than moving families," he says. "But when you move families, you are dispersing a community, you're dispersing a tribe, you're dispersing a culture. And you'll lose that. So that is a very real policy decision Congress needs to grapple with."

    At the new village site, Andrew John and Dalen Ayuluk say, with no coordinated response, their village faces a Catch-22. Federal and state agencies won't devote funding to things like roads or power until enough people live here. But there's no money for housing unless you have that infrastructure.

    "Frustrated is an understatement," John says. "We're here, fighting for our way of life. We're fighting for our sustainability as a people."

    Ayuluk wishes the rest of the country would decide that his home is worth saving.

    "We grew up here," he says. "We fish here, we hunt here. Our community doesn't want to separate. We want to live together. So it's like asking, why destroy that?"

    Newtok residents believe they have three or four years, at most, before the river reaches the school and the airstrip. At that point, they'll have to move, whether there's a new home waiting for them or not.

    Copyright 2017 Alaska Public Media. To see more, visit Alaska Public Media.
    Story does not include AP content NationalScienceEnvironment Normal

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    In this undated photo, caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The refuge takes up an area nearly the size of South Carolina in Alaska's northeast corner.

    In this undated photo, caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The refuge takes up an area nearly the size of South Carolina in Alaska's northeast corner.
    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP

    It was hardly a footnote in most national stories on the issue, but Congress' passage of the Republican tax bill will be a chapter in Alaska's history books. The law opens a part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, ending an epic, nearly four-decade battle.

    For years, environmental groups, the oil industry, Alaska Native communities and the state's political leaders have debated the potential consequences of oil development in ANWR — on species like caribou and polar bears, on Alaska's oil-dependent economy, on nearby villages and on the climate.

    But now, those hypotheticals are about to get real. The tax bill calls for the federal government to hold at least two oil and gas lease sales in the next decade. And Alaska might finally get an answer to one of its big questions: which oil companies — if any — will actually want to drill in ANWR?

    For now, the top three oil companies in Alaska are keeping their cards hidden. ExxonMobil declined to comment for this story. ConocoPhillips said in a statement it will "consider it against other opportunities in our portfolio, just as we do with exploration opportunities worldwide." BP referred all questions to an industry lobbying group, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Kara Moriarty, the association's president, said she has no idea what oil companies might bid on leases to drill in the Arctic Refuge.

    "They don't talk about whether they're participating in a lease sale or not because it's a highly competitive industry," Moriarty said.

    That said, there are clues that oil companies are pretty curious about the 1002 area — the 1.5 million-acre section of the Refuge Congress just opened up for oil development. David Houseknecht, of the U.S. Geological Survey, is an expert on Alaska's oil resources. Lately, he's been getting a lot of calls.

    "I've been contacted by companies as far away as Australia asking, 'well it looks like the legislation might pass that would allow exploration of the 1002 area. We are interested in evaluating whether or not we would like to participate in such a lease sale,'" Houseknecht said.

    There are good reasons for oil companies to be asking questions, he continued. The data on how much oil is in the Arctic Refuge is extremely limited. Companies haven't been able to explore the area since the 1980s. But the data that does exist is intriguing. USGS estimates there's potentially somewhere between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of oil in the Arctic Refuge's 1002 area. Those are huge numbers. For comparison, Alaska's second biggest oil field, Kuparuk, has produced about 2.5 billion barrels of oil.

    Moreover, Houseknecht said the 1002 area has other advantages. The oil potential lies on shore — potentially an easier target than more technically complicated and expensive drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Alaska is also in a politically stable country. Those are big pluses for the oil industry. Houseknecht noted there aren't many other places on the planet like that.

    The Arctic Refuge's 1002 area is "quite unique when you look around the world for areas where there may be billion-barrel opportunities for discovery," Houseknecht said.

    But there are also uncertainties. Any oil production in the Refuge isn't likely to occur for at least a decade. But at today's low oil prices, developments in the Lower 48 are often cheaper for oil companies to pursue than projects in Arctic Alaska — especially with the rise of improved oil recovery techniques like hydraulic fracturing.

    "It's clear Alaska needs more development," said Wood Mackenzie analyst Cody Rice. "It's not as clear to me that oil companies need big, complicated Arctic projects right now when you can see billions of barrels in resource being added on an annual basis in West Texas."

    It's also a safe bet that environmental groups are going to continue fighting oil development in the refuge any way they can, including in court. Erik Grafe, an attorney with EarthJustice in Anchorage, said Congress may have changed the law to allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge, but all other environmental laws haven't gone away.

    "If the Trump administration tries to rubber stamp oil decisions or takes shortcuts, we won't hesitate to go to court to enforce these environmental laws," Grafe said.

    But Moriarty of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association said for the industry she represents, dealing with environmental opposition is just part of the job.

    "Alaska has been the poster child for litigation cases for any type of development on [Alaska's] North Slope. And so I think companies sort of factor that in," Moriarty said.

    Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who spearheaded the measure to allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge's 1002 area, is also confident that the environmental opposition won't dissuade the oil industry from pursuing development there.

    Speaking to reporters in Anchorage several days before the tax bill passed, Murkowski added she's not surprised oil companies aren't publicly expressing interest in ANWR.

    "If the door is never even cracked open, they're not going to line up. They have other prospects to look to," Murkowski said. "And only after such time as we allow for it to even be considered would we anticipate that you're going to have the companies show any interest."

    Now, that door is open, and the world is going to find out just how much the oil industry really wants to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

    Copyright 2017 Alaska Public Media. To see more, visit Alaska Public Media.
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    Here's what archaeologists think the Upward Sun River camp in what is now central Alaska looked like 11,500 years ago.

    Here's what archaeologists think the Upward Sun River camp in what is now central Alaska looked like 11,500 years ago.
    Eric S. Carlson and Ben A. Potter/Nature

    In Alaska, scientists have uncovered something they say is remarkable: the remains of two infants dating back more than 11,000 years.

    Their discovery is evidence of the earliest wave of migration into the Americas.

    "It's incredibly rare," says Ben Potter, an archaeologist at the University of Alaska who is among the researchers on the project, at a site called Upward Sun Riverin central Alaska. "We only have a handful of human remains that are this old in the entire Western Hemisphere." The findings were published Tuesday by the journal Nature.

    The remains were in such good condition that geneticists were able to extract DNA from one of them. They compared the sample with the genes of people from around the world.

    They conclude that the ancestors of these infants started out in East Asia about 35,000 years ago. As they traveled east, they became genetically isolated from other Asians. At some point during the last ice age they crossed a frozen land bridge from Siberia to Alaska called "Beringia."

    Potter says during this great migration, either before or after they crossed the land bridge, this group (which the researchers call the founding population for all Native Americans) split again, into two populations. Scientists had suspected this and surmised that one group stayed put in and around Beringia. They call them Ancient Beringians.

    The two infants are the first hard evidence that they did indeed do that.

    The ice age was still on, but these people hunkered down and made the best of what was there in this arid, frigid landscape, says Potter. "Bison, horses, mammoth. Big grazers were very common."

    The other group moved down into North and South America and are believed to be the direct ancestors of current Native Americans.

    David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University who studies ancient DNA, says genetic material like this tells a more detailed story of how people came to America, but not the whole story. "There were presumably many related populations like this," he says, "one of which split to form these two lineages that have diversified into Native Americans today."

    That group, the one that moved south, eventually spread far and wide: up into Canada, the East and throughout Central and South America. Their descendants are the Native Americans of today.

    Two Native American groups cooperated with the researchers in the excavation in Alaska.

    For the Beringians who stayed behind, Potter says, it would have been a rough living as the last ice age drew to a close. "They're dealing with climate change that we can only imagine now — major changes from [the] ice age, to extinction of a wide range of mammal species, including mammoth," he says. "And these are the people that adapted in this region."

    For a while at least. Writing in Nature, the researchers say the infant remains show the Beringians lasted at least until about 11,500 years ago. How their end came is still unknown.

    Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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    The Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility, dug in the mid-1960s, allows scientists a three-dimensional look at frozen ground.

    A mammoth bone sticks out of the wall of the tunnel in the permafrost.
    Ice wedges form over centuries, creating polygonal patterns in the permafrost.
    The tunnel turned up a variety of ice age mammal bones — including the giant leg bone of a mammoth.
    The Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility, dug in the mid-1960s, allows scientists a three-dimensional look at frozen ground.
    The Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility, dug in the mid-1960s, allows scientists a three-dimensional look at frozen ground.
    Kate Ramsayer / NASA

    A short drive north of Fairbanks, Alaska, there's a red shed stuck right up against a hillside. The shed looks unremarkable, except for the door. It looks like a door to a walk-in freezer, with thick insulation and a heavy latch. Whatever is behind that door needs to stay very cold.

    "Are you ready to go inside?" asks Dr. Thomas Douglas, a geochemist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    Behind the door is a geological time bomb, scientists say. No one knows exactly how big the bomb is. It may even be a dud that barely detonates. But the fallout could be so large that it's felt all around the world. Now there's evidence that, in the past few years, the bomb's timer has started ticking.

    Douglas opens the shed door, and we step inside. Immediately, we're standing 40 feet below ground, inside a tunnel carved into the hillside.

    "That's a mammoth leg right there," Douglas says as he points to a giant femur protruding from the tunnel wall.

    All around are signs of extinct creatures. Tusks poke out of the ceiling and skulls stick up from the floor. But it's the material between the bones that interests Douglas the most: the permafrost.

    In the 1960s, the Army dug the tunnel so it could study this unique surface, which covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. In some places, the frozen soil extends downward more than 1,000 feet, or about the height of the Empire State Building.

    Technically, permafrost is frozen soil. But it's helpful to think of it in terms of chocolate cake. Typically, cake is soft, moist and spongy. Now if you take that cake, dip it into water and freeze it, the cake becomes hard or stiff. That's exactly what happens to soil when you freeze it: Moist, soft soil turns hard and stiff. That's permafrost.

    For the first time in centuries, the Arctic permafrost is beginning to change — rapidly. It's warming up. Some places are softening like a stick of butter left out on the kitchen counter.

    In northern Alaska, the temperature at some permafrost sites has risen by more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in November. And in recent years, many spots have reached record temperatures.

    "Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades," NOAA wrote in its annual Arctic Report Card last year.

    The consequences of this warming could have ripple effects around the world.To explain why, Douglas takes me deeper down into the tunnel.

    "This is really an amazing feature," he says, shining his flashlight up to the ceiling. Crispy grass is dangling upside-down above our heads.

    "It's green grass — from 25,000 years ago," he exclaims. "It has been preserved that way for 25,000 years."

    The permafrost is packed with the remains of ancient life. From prehistoric grass and trees to woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, just about every creature that lived on the tundra over the past 100,000 years is buried and preserved down in the permafrost.

    And all this life is made of carbon. So there's a massive amount of carbon buried down here. "The permafrost contains twice as much carbon as is currently in Earth's atmosphere," Douglas says. "That's 1,600 billion metric tons."

    In fact, there's more carbon in the permafrost, Douglas says, than all the carbon humans have spewed into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution — first with steam trains, then with coal plants, cars and planes.

    Right now the permafrost carbon is inert and trapped in the frozen soil. But what happens when the soil thaws? That's the question Douglas and his colleagues are trying to figure out.

    A few years ago, they ran a simple experiment. They brought big drills into the tunnel and cut out chunks of ice. "We collected pieces about the size of Coca-Cola cans," he says, as he points out holes in the tunnel's wall.

    They took the ice back to the lab and let it slowly come up to room temperature. Then they looked for signs of life. A few days later, something started growing — slowly at first, but then like gangbusters.

    "This is material that stayed frozen for 25,000 years," Douglas says. "And given the right environmental conditions, it came back alive again vigorously."

    They were ancient bacteria. And once they warmed up, they were hungry. The bacteria started converting the carbon that's in dead plants and animals into gases that cause climate change: carbon dioxide and methane.

    That experiment was in the lab. But imagine these bacteria waking up, all around the Arctic, across Canada, Greenland and Russia. Last year, scientists started seeing signs of this happening in northern Alaska.

    "We have evidence that Alaska has changed from being a net absorber of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to a net exporter of the gas back to the atmosphere," says Charles Miller, a chemist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who measures gas emissions from Arctic permafrost.

    Scientists don't know yet how much carbon will get released from thawing permafrost or how fast it will happen. Some of the carbon — maybe a big percentage of it — will get washed into the ocean by erosion. Some of the carbon will also get sucked back into the ground by new trees and plants popping up across the warming tundra.

    But once carbon begins to percolate up through the thawing soil, it could form a feedback loop "over which we would have zero control," Miller says. The gas, coming from the ground, warms the Earth, which in turn causes more gas to be released and more warming to occur.

    Thawing permafrost is a big wild card of climate change.

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    In this file photo, a worker with the Pebble Mine project test drills in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska.

    In this file photo, a worker with the Pebble Mine project test drills in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska.
    AL Grillo / AP

    An investor, First Quantum Minerals, has pulled out of a partnership to build the proposed Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska while the project is in the middle of a permitting process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    Now opponents of the mine are calling on the state's governor to stop the project. The copper and gold mine would be located on state lands near some of the richest salmon fisheries in the world. Robin Samuelson, a chief for the Curyung Tribe in Dillingham and a commercial fisherman, says the company's withdrawal from the mining project is a victory for indigenous communities and commercial fishing groups that have been fighting Pebble Mine for years.

    "But I think the governor has the right to cancel [the] leases and I think now is the prime time," says Samuelson, a 67-year-old Yup'ik Alaska Native.

    Samuelson says he believes that without the financial backing of First Quantum Minerals, the project cannot meet the high environmental standards required by state and federal agencies.

    Shares of Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian Company, plummeted on Friday when news broke of First Quantum's withdrawal. First Quantum is just the latest of several companies that have abandoned partnerships to build a large mine upriver from Bristol Bay. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has stated previously, "I do not have information sufficient for me to be comfortable or supportive of the Pebble Mine. The burden is on them to prove that it can be done without a risk to the fish in that area. It's a high burden - it's the highest burden, and to me, they have not met that yet." An email from the office of the governor on Friday stated:

    "The state is currently assessing how the withdrawal of First Quantum's support will affect the Pebble project. As they evaluate a path forward, we encourage the Pebble Project to account for local input from those whose lives and livelihoods could be affected." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental review of the project is underway and the Corps is preparing an environmental impact statement.

    The Corps recently extended the scoping and public comment period for the project until June 29. Pebble Limited Partnership CEO, Tom Collier, vowed to continue the project in a statement released after the news that the framework agreement between Northern Dynasty Minerals and First Quantum Minerals had been terminated.

    Collier stated, "Pebble remains one of the nation's most important undeveloped mineral resources. It is on state land and is an important economic asset for Alaska. Our project is well defined and we are going to continue communicating with Alaskans about why we believe in the opportunity it represents."

    Some indigenous people living near the proposed mine site have been supportive of Pebble Mine because they want jobs and economic development.

    "We need jobs in Bristol Bay, not everybody is a commercial fisherman," Samuelson conceded.

    "But we don't have to sell our culture, our heritage, and our ecosystem down the tube, i.e. through a mine."

    Samuelson is still working as a commercial fisherman and this year, he says, he will start the upcoming Bristol Bay sockeye season working with his four grandsons as his crewman.

    "I've never seen people united so strongly and so committed against a project like they are with the Pebble Mine," Samuelson says.

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    Rene and Sam graduation promo pic

    Sam Oozevaseuk Schimmel, 18, has grown up in both Alaska and Washington state. He is an advocate for Alaska Native youth.
    Gambell, Alaska, is on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. On clear days, Siberia is visible in the distance. People have lived on the island for thousands of years and developed subsistence hunting strategies and traditions that are still being passed
    St. Lawrence Island is more than 1,000 miles from Sitka, where many Alaska Native children, including Constance Oozevaseuk, were sent by the federal government to attend boarding school.
    Rene Schimmel has worked to give her son an Alaska Native identity, while struggling herself with the lingering effects of cultural destruction that traumatized previous generations of their family.
    Sam Schimmel spent much of his childhood with his mother's family. His great-grandmother Estelle Oozevaseuk taught him stories and songs from her childhood.
    Rene Schimmel celebrates her master's degree in education with Sam. She became a teacher at the public elementary school that he would also attend.
    Jeremy Schimmel, with his son Sam, says of Sam's childhood in Alaska: "He never was inside. He hunted and fished."
    Sam Schimmel prepares fishing gear at his home. An accomplished fisherman and competitive shooter, he learned traditional Arctic subsistence hunting techniques from relatives in Alaska.
    Sam Schimmel, pictured with parents Rene and Jeremy, says time spent with relatives in Alaska helped to shape his cultural identity.
    Rene and Sam graduation promo pic
    Jeremy Schimmel

    On Aug. 24, 1952, the Silook and Oozevaseuk families of Gambell, Alaska, welcomed a baby girl into the world and introduced her to the island that had been their home for centuries. Gambell is at the western edge of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. When the weather is clear, you can see Siberia in the distance.

    Baby Constance was born into a culture that was rich and well-adapted to the exceptionally harsh environment. Her ancestors had passed down skills for surviving — ways of reading the ice to know when walruses, seals and whales could be caught and methods of fishing in the cold water. Families worked together; subsistence hunting does not favor the greedy. Most people spoke the Alaska Native language, Yupik, with Russian and English words mixed in. That is the language Constance's mother, Estelle, taught her daughter.

    But things were changing. Earlier in the century, missionaries had made it to the island, and World War II had brought soldiers to a base near the village. The distance between the people of Gambell and the federal government was diminishing, and as it did, a wave of cultural destruction that had already torn through American Indian communities across the U.S. and mainland Alaska was bearing down on the community. It would hit Gambell's children the hardest.

    When Constance was in middle school, she was forced by the federal government to leave her family and move to a boarding school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Department of the Interior. Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, was 1,200 miles away. Classes were in English, the teachers were mostly white, and the students were forbidden to speak the languages they had grown up with.

    The goal of the boarding school program was simple and destructive. A founder of the program, Army officer Richard Pratt, explained in 1892, "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

    Constance Oozevaseuk was taught to hate a lot of things about her culture and, by proxy, about herself. The food she grew up eating, the clothes her family wore, the way they hunted and fished, the stories they told, the songs they sang and the very words they spoke were inferior, she was taught. It was traumatizing.

    Constance's daughter Rene Schimmel remembers how her mother was affected. "They told her how to dress, how to speak, how to hold herself," says Rene. "She said there was a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of physical abuse. If you got up late or you didn't clean how you were supposed to clean, you were beaten."

    As an adult, Constance never seemed to recover a strong sense of whom she was or whom she could aspire to be. She died in 2005, but Rene remembers noticing contradictions in her mother's identity. When Constance was away away from Gambell, "she would cry to be at home," Rene says. "But when she was at home, she'd be miserable."

    A 2005 study on the long-term effects of boarding schools on Alaska Natives found that many students suffered from "identity conflicts" and later struggled when they had children of their own, in part because they had been separated from their own parents at such an early age and had never fully learned family traditions and subsistence skills.

    "My mother was very harsh. Nothing was ever good enough," remembers Rene. "She never used kind words. She didn't show her love that way."

    This is the root of what sociologists call intergenerational trauma. A family goes through something cataclysmic — in this case, a war on their culture. The family survives, but the effects of the trauma are passed down in the form of addiction, domestic violence and even suicide.

    Alcohol numbed some of Constance's pain, at least temporarily. "Both my parents drank," Rene says. "And then they were drunk and she's yelling at him about something. They fought a lot."

    It was a hard childhood. Her mother's trauma was always present. Rene reacted by working extra hard in school. She wasn't sure what she was striving to do exactly; she didn't know anyone who had been to college or left their community for work, except for seasonal oil jobs on the North Slope. But she was good at science and naturally excelled in high school, and when she graduated, she applied to college at the University of Washington, in Seattle, with the help of young man from Pennsylvania named Jeremy Schimmel, whom she had met and fallen for.

    "I had just moved out of my parents' house and gotten my first phone number, so of course I wanted to give out my number," she laughs. "And he was someone I wasn't related to, which was new."

    Jeremy had just graduated from college in California and ran a wilderness guiding business in Alaska. They started dating off and on. Rene enrolled in college, moved away from her family and slowly started to build an intellectual identity for herself. She was interested in teaching, she decided.

    Meanwhile, the same dynamic that had made Rene's childhood difficult was playing out across her extended family. Alcohol abuse, drug abuse and domestic violence swept through Gambell. The suicide rate spiked.

    And then, in 2000, Rene and Jeremy found out she was pregnant. Rene was then 24. She had just graduated from college.

    "I was terrified," Rene says. "So scared. How was I going to take care of a child? I wasn't ready. We didn't have a place to live. We weren't married. My family couldn't help. My own mother was so dependent on me."

    Sometimes her mother would call her, drunk, late at night, and talk until Rene insisted she needed to study. Rene knew that her son would need what his grandmother had lost: a strong cultural identity, grounded in the traditions of their family. Rene just didn't know how she could give that to him while also protecting him from the trauma that had been passed down to her.

    This child is OK

    From the moment he opened his eyes, Sam Oozevaseuk Schimmel was precocious. He starting talking at 6 months, walked at 9 months and hated sleeping.

    "He was a pain in the ass," laughs Jeremy. "He exhausted you. When he was a little kid, I would read books to him. I've never read more books in my life. Frog and Toad would last, like, a minute. So then you're on to Dr. Doolittle and The Little Prince, and by the time, you're done, you've read nine books and it's, like, 'Oh my god.' And he's still awake. You just couldn't satiate his need for listening and for knowledge."

    Jeremy and Rene had moved back to Alaska, in part so Sam could be born at the Alaska Native Hospital where Rene had health coverage. As a child, Sam spent most of his time outside with his parents and with Rene's family.

    "He never was inside. He hunted and fished," says Jeremy. "He was catching fish when he was 2 — off the dock." Sam watched and listened to his family in Gambell with the same intensity he gave to books. He memorized old songs and stories his great-grandmother sang and told. She would hold his little body close and press her cheek to his, as if to convey: "You are one of us."

    Sam pestered his relatives to let him hunt seals with them. When Sam was 5 or 6 years old, they handed him a low-powered rifle and told him to start practicing; if he could shoot a ground squirrel "through the eye," he could hunt with them. For a couple weeks, he shot all day, every day. By the end, he was ready to accompany his family out to the seal blind.

    Sam's cultural education was going well.

    Rene breathed a small sigh of relief and refocused on her own goals. She decided to get a master's degree in education. The family started splitting their time between Alaska and Seattle, where she was in school. When she graduated in 2004, she got a job at one of the best public elementary schools in the city. "I was so happy," she remembers.

    Her classroom was different from those of some of the older teachers, who put desks in rows and told children to speak only when they were spoken to. "In my classroom, it was more like everybody's working together. We're a team. We're going to teach each other," Rene remembers.

    When Sam turned 5, he entered kindergarten at the same school.

    "Oh, I love that boy. Sam was just full of energy," remembers teacher Kathy Coglon. "I could tell he was smart." Coglon would ask her students what their favorite activities were. "If they can tell you a lot about the thing they're interested in, that's a good sign," she says.

    When she asked Sam what he liked to do, he said he loved fishing and then listed dozens of fish and lures and nets he had used with his family in Alaska.

    But school was difficult. Sam didn't like sitting still and didn't understand why he needed to follow so many rules about when to talk and what to say. He started getting in trouble in class.

    Rene and Jeremy would meet with school administrators. Some teachers and counselors suggested Sam had a learning disability or a behavioral disorder. His parents entertained that possibility but explained that Sam was growing up in a different environment than his peers. The family still spent summers in Gambell. No one else at the school was from a subsistence hunting culture. Might it make sense that Sam would learn differently from most other students?

    "They didn't listen," says Jeremy, standing at his kitchen table in Seattle and picking through a box of old progress reports from the time. "They told us: 'You need to go back to Alaska. Go back to the village.' It was terrible."

    "I remember one teacher told me I wouldn't go to college," Sam adds from the couch. He's 18 now, lanky in a baseball cap with a fish pattern on the front. "Who says that to a child? Like, if another kid says, 'Your shoes suck,' you can just tell them, 'Well, your shoes suck, too.' But you can't deflect like that when an adult is mean to you."

    As hurtful as it was for Sam, that period was even more destructive for Rene. As she continued to advocate for her son, she felt something change in how the school viewed her as a teacher. She felt that her parenting and her teaching were being belittled, as if she and her son had less of a right to be at the school than others did.

    "It went right to how my mother would treat me," she says. "I was left with nothing, and I couldn't stop it. I couldn't mentally say 'I'm not that.'"

    Rene Schimmel's mental health spiraled downward. In 2014, the Schimmels and the Seattle Public School District settled a lawsuit related to Rene's teaching, the details of which are confidential. Asked for comment, a district spokesperson said that Rene had resigned in November 2011 and that school administrators from the time no longer worked for the district.

    But the effects of Sam's elementary school years didn't go away. Rene and her son reacted very differently to the pain of feeling like they didn't belong. He bounced back. She did not.

    Freedom to learn

    In sixth grade, Sam's parents transferred him to Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, a private independent day school that gave him a scholarship. Alana Bell was assigned to be his mentor that year, 2006, and her first memory of Sam is a class field trip to do a beach cleanup.

    "As soon as we arrived, he was just gone," she laughs. She spent the entire afternoon trying to make sure she could still see him, while she supervised dozens of other kids who were tentatively moving along the beach. "I'll always have this image of him, this little dude with this shaggy hair and this walking stick. So happy, so curious, and there was this notion that he could handle it, whatever it was."

    Sam was still different from his classmates. The other boys liked television, comics, soccer and tennis. Sam liked fishing, hunting and sport shooting — in fact, he was on his way to winning back-to-back state shooting championships in the two states he split his time between, Washington and Alaska. Plus, his new school attracted a lot of richer families, so, in addition to being the only Alaska Native student at the school, there was a socioeconomic gap between him and a lot of his peers.

    But Seattle Academy was different from his previous school in some key ways. It was more flexible, both about behavior and about how he learned. Sam hadn't liked reading very much, but he discovered he loved audiobooks and started listening to everything he could get his hands on. He was assigned to a teacher who helped him keep his assignments organized. He learned that he loved to debate.

    There were still some bumps. At least once (accounts vary), Sam caught a pigeon and set it loose in the teacher's lounge at school, but he didn't get in big trouble.

    As Sam made his way through middle school into high school, Jeremy saw new skills emerging in his son.

    "He was terrible at handwriting" in elementary school, remembers Jeremy, which masked Sam's skill as a writer. "But now he's able to get his thoughts [out]. He verbalizes, that's what he does, and he's a beautiful writer. His writing is very direct, raw and alive."

    As Sam got older, he started to use his writing and speaking skills to work on things he believed in. His sense of identity and connection with Gambell and the city of Kenai, where his mother went to high school, had only grown stronger as he matured. He saw some of his cousins struggling with alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts, and he heard from his family in Gambell about how climate change made it difficult to pass down hunting traditions and to catch enough food to survive.

    "I see that, among my peers, I am much less likely to fall prey to alcoholism and much less likely to be suicidal as a result of being brought up in the laps of my elders, listening to stories and being engaged on a cultural level," Sam explains. "What I've seen is that when youth are not culturally engaged, you see higher rates of incarceration, higher rates of suicide, higher rates of alcoholism, higher rates of drug abuse — all these evils that come in and take the place of culture. We're talking about my cousins and my family members."

    In the past four years, Sam has become something of an all-star when it comes to advocating for Alaska Native youth. He was a youth delegate to the Tribal Nations Conference, a Center for Native American Youth awardee, a youth representative at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference and a member of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker's climate team. This spring, he interned for Alaska's congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.

    Sam has turned into exactly the kind of person his parents hoped they would raise.

    "Oh god, 'proud' isn't even the word," gushes his middle school mentor, Alana Bell. "I'm just so honored and blessed to see a kid evolve in the way that he has."

    "In a lot of ways, Sam is a unicorn," says Stacie Cone, an adviser at Sam's school who has worked with him throughout high school. "There's no one like him. And that's really cool. Everyone loves a unicorn."

    "But," she continues, "the thing about unicorns is, there's only one. I think it's lonely, in a lot of ways, to be different."

    Lingering trauma

    As Sam has flourished, his mother has struggled. When she resigned from her teaching job, she fell apart. "I didn't get out of bed for days on end. I didn't shower. I didn't eat," she says. "I thought about suicide a lot. Like, every day."

    Her marriage collapsed. Rock bottom was last year. Sam had won an award for being a Native Youth Leader, and he was supposed to travel to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony.

    A few days before, Rene nearly killed herself. Sam was in the back of the car doing chest compressions on his mom on the way to the hospital. Neither of them wants to talk about the details — it's private and painful, and they're both trying to figure out what their relationship will look like going forward. Rene says she is more stable now. She is teaching again, at an elementary school south of Seattle, and loves her job. Sam is spending the summer in Alaska, guiding with his dad.

    Sam traces his mother's pain back to the same forces that his cousins are dealing with today in Alaska: cultural isolation and intergenerational trauma.

    "Her parents' generation were all sent off to boarding schools," Sam explains. He is talking, of course, about his grandmother, Constance Oozevaseuk.

    "Nothing was put in the place of where culture was. I think some of that trauma was passed onto my mother. I'm not as deeply affected as she was, of course. But I am affected by it, because she wasn't able to be a mother for a portion of my childhood, because she had to take care of herself."

    Rene agrees, although the fact of her family's traumatization doesn't make it any easier to deal with the guilt she feels over breaking down. "I wish I had been stronger," she says. "We tried the best we could. I'm so proud of him."

    She and Jeremy both say they think Sam has drawn strength from the challenges he has faced. "He has this rock-solid sense of who he is and what he believes," says Jeremy. "That's never changed."

    Sam says his cultural identity — formed during all those hours hunting and fishing with his family — is something to fall back on when things get difficult, a source of resilience.

    "You're sitting in a seal blind, you're talking to your uncles, you're telling stories — you're disseminating culture, is what's going on," he explains. "It's not only hunting, it's passing down traditions, stories and ways of life that would otherwise not have a chance to be passed down."

    So, will he be able to pass down the same traditions to his children?

    Sam grins, looking like the teenager he still is. "Well, I don't have any kids," he says. "That's, like, a really existential question."

    But he keeps turning it over in the back of his head, and a few minutes later, he circles back to the question. "I think having children must be really rewarding, and probably really scary," he says. "I hope I'm able to be the one who stops the passing down of my family's traumas. But I don't know. We can only hope."

    NPR researcher Katie Daugert contributed to this report.

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    Basketball hoop near boats buried in the winter snow. Shishmaref is just a few dozen miles below the Arctic Circle, and in the depths of winter the sun rises close to noon.

    Cordelia Kellie showing off her seal skin gloves, purchased at a dance festival and made by a woman from Shishmaref.
    Seal meat drying on a rack in front of a pile of caribou antlers outside a home in Shishmaref, Alaska. The community relies on subsistence hunting, including both terrestrial and marine mammals, alongside birds, fish, and wild vegetation.
    Percy Nayokpuk behind the counter at the Nayokpuk General Store, which his father opened in 1960.
    Splatter kicked off the fleshing saws from the hides onto the wall that wasn't cleaned up in time before the tannery closed for the season in early January.
    Shishmaref Tannery from the outside. A small wind turbine beside it adds supplemental power, which slightly lessens high fuel costs keeping the building warm during the short three-month seasons it is operating.
    Boats buried in snow toward the edge of the lagoon at sunrise.
    Basketball hoop near boats buried in the winter snow. Shishmaref is just a few dozen miles below the Arctic Circle, and in the depths of winter the sun rises close to noon.
    Basketball hoop near boats buried in the winter snow. Shishmaref is just a few dozen miles below the Arctic Circle, and in the depths of winter the sun rises close to noon.
    Zachariah Hughes / Alaska Public Media

    Sealskin used to be a luxury item across the U.S. and Europe, a mid-century status symbol featured in ritzy fashion shows.

    For decades, fur merchants would trade cash for full pelts, buying stacks of them at a time from Alaska Native hunters. Then in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act put an end to that. Under the law, wildlife products from sea mammals have to be artistically modified before they can be bought or sold among non-native people. The market for raw walrus tusks, strips of whale baleen, and full seal hides went away overnight, replaced with a highly regulated marketplace for crafted goods.

    But in the tiny town of Shishmaref, with a population of just over 600, a small business is changing that: a seal tannery.

    Glittering and gray

    Finished sealskin is a dark gray flecked with black, sleek and shimmering in a way that makes it look almost animated. To the touch, it's both soft and firm, like the outer hairs on a German shepherd. It is used in thick outer garments like hats, mittens, and boots because of its prowess as insulation from cold, which many say is still unmatched by industrially produced fabrics.

    Cordelia Kellie is Inupiaq, with family roots in far northern Alaska. She works reviving indigenous language and culture, a job that takes her to small Arctic communities across the state. And when she goes, she brings the pair of sealskin gloves ringed at the wrist with black beaver fur that she bought from a woman at a dance festival.

    "I asked her where she got the seal, because often times when you ask that question it can come from a father, or an uncle, or a cousin," Kellie recalls. "She said, 'I killed it!'"

    In Alaska and across other parts of the circumpolar north, sealskin is showing up in more places: barrettes, keychains, even high-heeled shoes and lingerie.

    Kellie says there is a sartorial politics at play, because the distinctive mottled sheen signals indigenous heritage. "It definitely communicates that you're likely from the northern part of the state," she says.

    Where Crocs won't cut it

    In the northern Alaska town of Shishmaref Percy Nayokpuk, owner of the Nayokpuk General Store, will sell you sealskin house slippers for a few hundred dollars.

    "This is good slippers for up north, I tell you," Nayokpuk says, holding up a gray slip-on shoe accented with blue beadwork. "Don't get no Crocs if you're gonna live around here, get a pair of these."

    There are several of them lined up casually on a shelf, mostly on the chance a visitor will buy a pair. Generally, sealskin garments are sold at shops and galleries in Alaska's bigger communities, as well as at large craft fairs. There's also a robust marketplace on Facebook.

    Across Alaska, Shishmaref has a reputation for having some of the finest traditional crafts, everything from sealskin hats to carved walrus ivory jewelry. The notoriety is due in part to an innovative business strategy the community's leaders set up to leverage local talent.

    In the 1980s, Shishmaref's governing council helped establish the local tannery as a link between indigenous hunters and potential fur customers. The original business tanned a wide variety of hides, and in addition to selling finished pelts back to customers it also employed locals to sew garments sold out of stores and showrooms all over the state.

    Tony Weyiouanna took over managing the tannery in 1991, and says for years the business was an economic engine, handling hides from across the state and bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of which stayed in Shishmaref.

    "It made an impact," Weyiouanna says at his office in Nome, the hub town for small communities like Shishmaref in the Bering Strait Region.

    But it was never an easy business to keep running. Weyiouanna left the tannery in 1995, and wasn't keeping tabs more than a decade later when things got rocky.

    Re-open for business

    In October, the Shishmaref Tannery re-opened for an abbreviated season. By most measures, it was a success. The business handed about 850 seals, and made back just about all the money the local governing council put in to re-starting it, according to manager Dennis Sinnok.

    "They come in and drop the seals off here," Sinnok says during a tour of the tannery building. Though its been cleared of equipment and washed down, he's standing in front of work tables and large brining tanks where pelts soak after they've been invoiced.

    "These are fleshing machines," Sinnok explains nonchalantly of what look like several circular saws. "It fleshes the fat right off of the seal."

    Currently, this is the only business of its kind in Alaska. And this past season there was so much pent up demand for tanning services that Sinnok had to set limits on how many hides each family can bring in. It was capped at 10.

    Part of Sinnok's job is keeping operations from growing too big. The short season, family limits, and a service that is limited almost exclusively to seal hides, all of them are measures to keep the tannery from over-committing. And that is due in part to how hard it remains running a business in rural Alaska. There's a lack of basic infrastructure, and sky-high costs for things like food and fuel. Most buildings in Shishmaref lack indoor plumbing. At the general store, a gallon of drinking water costs $11 dollars.

    Sinnok hauls water for the hides to brine using a tank attached to his four wheeler, schlepping back and forth between the tannery and a nearby spigot.

    In spite of the challenges, though, Sinnok is optimistic the business can survive.

    "Hopefully somebody can see what I see," Sinnok says. Even if he's not in charge of operations, he wants the tannery to stay in business "to keep people sewing. Ya know, keeping the tradition going: making crafts out of seal."

    Sinook's hope is to connect the town's indigenous heritage to its economic future.

    Copyright 2018 Alaska Public Media. To see more, visit Alaska Public Media.
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