(Previous post written April 6 2016)
Unalaska Island is a part of the Aleutian Islands, a line of volcanic islands that arc westward towards Russia from the end of the Alaskan Peninsula . The Aleutians are an incredible place, one that a geographer like myself appreciates in its entirety, past, present and its future. As one author noted, “The story of the Aleutians, its people and its wildlife, is one of tremendous change (Alaska Geographic, 22(2); 1995).” There have been a great number of books and articles published about this place that speak to the stories of the first peoples who called this land their home, industries, legacies of war, natural wonders and livelihoods. One thing is clear from my time out in Unalaska: there is a strong sense of community amongst those that have called it home. The Aleutian Islands effectively separate the waters of the North Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea, a sub polar basin that lies between the most eastern and western points of the European continent and the North American continent, respectively. This oceanic separation between these two great terrigenous domains is of course a contemporary, fleeting event in the eyes of geologic time. Between ten and twenty-five thousand years ago, both of these land masses were connected by a “land bridge”, Beringia, which now constitutes the continental shelf of both Russia and Alaska. Now, the jagged, irregular peaks of this now submerged land bridge are all that is left, emerging alone now above the broiling, rushing waves of the Bering Sea and the North Pacific.
On a cold winter day in February, my DeHavilland dual prop plane from Anchorage descended from its cruising altitude amongst the puffy clouds as it approached Unalaska Island. From my window seat I could see that the surface of the vast ocean below was slightly choppy, with white bubbly and sloshy blobs of water darting to and fro. The color of the water was a shade I had seen before many times on my research cruises across this sea: a marbled green-gray, a shade that morphs from emerald in the right light at one point in the day to a dull mercury like gray at another. From my vantage point, I catch my first sight of the peaks that jut out from the ocean. No matter if it’s foggy or clear, whenever I see these peaks of the islands that make up the eastern Aleutians, the phrase “dragon’s teeth” pops into my head. Because to my eye, the undulating rolling saddle backs that link sharp, jagged volcanic peaks of these islands perfectly resemble to my mind the teeth of a long dead dragon. There’s a suddenness to their being. It’s as if every time I see them, they just erupted out of the water, cutting the surface with their steep slopes. Of course, this is a ridiculous notion on my part, as they have been a mountain range for millions of years, and have been inhabited by indigenous peoples for millennia. And, in a time of lower ocean levels, probably most resembled a giant curved ridge of mountains that were at the southern end of a large flat expansive grassland. So my observation of their stark shape is not to imply some kind of misplaced sense of “discovery”, but more to illustrate their absolute verticality which lays in direct contrast to the relative "flatness" of the vast ocean that surrounds them.
To my eye, this stark change in the “sea scape” serves as an absolute boundary between not only land and sea, but also for the two oceanic domains that this island chain separates: The Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. Out here, it’s the ocean that is in control. The water is where the weather comes from; the storms that roll in here almost appear to be carried by the waves as if on a boat. The shapes of the islands in their teeth like appearance to my eyes could metaphorically be likened to just that- teeth that are aggressively trying to carve out an existence from the riches of the surrounding seas. It’s a location on the globe that is an ideal stop along one of the longest maritime trading routes on the planet, as well as at the gates of one of the most productive fisheries in the world as well. There’s a community nestled into the sides of these towering mountains that is vibrant and thriving, making the most out every opportunity. And as much as its thriving maritime industry connects this place to economies on either sides of the Pacific realm, the community is separated across vast distances and from full technological connectivity from the rest of the world. It’s a site of intersection of land, sea, atmosphere, ice, flora, fauna and human societies as well as a site of boundaries between each of these realms.
Sea ice is a vital component of the marine ecosystem of the Bering Sea. Its presence (and absence) serving as an ever- shifting edge to where and when fleets travel to find desirable commercially viable species. The ice edge itself has. Its changing physicality impacts a variety of socio-cultural processes in ocean-space. By this I mean to say that sea ice influences, changes, and impacts the various ways in which humans use, go through, transit and even conceptualize movement in ocean areas with sea ice. Sea ice, as an entity in ocean-space, has connections the extraction of non-living resources, the vitality and propagation of those resources in the marine environment, maritime activity, subsistence hunting activities, and search and rescue operations.
All of these systems are likewise connected to law as well. To date, no internationally agreed upon legal regime for sea ice exists. This is problematic in light of the impact sea ice has on the governing of marine spaces; even more so in the case of increasing (and also uncertain) seasonal sea ice in the Bering Sea. The management of fisheries resources in the Bering Sea is carried out through various levels of governance (international, federal, state and local) at seasons that coincide with the seasonal onset, persistence and break up of sea ice. Sea ice has a presence in this system, as well as a relationship between the rules that govern this space, however latent that they may be. Through my work and collaborative efforts with other researchers, community leaders and policy makers alike, I hope to contribute a more nuanced way of thinking about space, place, borders and material natures of the more than human in this ever shifting environment. Engaging critically with the relationship between the marine environment and various levels of law is a vital task for trying to formulate responses to the challenges that climate change presents for our state, and the world community. I look forward to exploring these connections within the Bering Sea through my work as a ge(ocean)grapher, and one that I am very excited to begin here on this incredible island.