Iñupiat Ice Cellar Mapping Project

Geography major, Kelsey Nyland, was awarded the GW Undergraduate Research Fellowship in April, 2012 to study the traditional ice cellars (Siġ-uaq) of the Iñupiat people in Barrow, Alaska.

Photos courtesy of Anna Klene

The indigenous people of the Alaskan Arctic, the Iñupiaq, refer to themselves as “the people of the whale.” Their society is oriented around the Bowhead whale, which they consider sacred, and hunt for subsistence.  Due to the large quantities of whale and other meats the Iñupiaq require large storage spaces.  An ice cellar (siġ-uaq) utilizes perennially frozen ground (permafrost) for natural refrigeration. The construction of an ice cellar consists of a shaft leading down to a room dug into the permafrost.  In recent decades, however, there have been reports of ice cellar failures, including instances of flooding, partial thawing and slumping of walls, and in some cases, complete collapse.  The structural failures of ice cellars can lead to a diminished traditional food supply, which can undermine indigenous subsistence and cultural practices.

Nyland traveled to Barrow, the northern most city in the US, in August to conduct her research with the GW Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) team.  While there Nyland worked in collaboration with the North Slope Borough’s Planning and Community Service GIS department to hold community meetings and individual interviews to gather indigenous knowledge of ice cellar locations.  In addition to a visual survey and work with aerial photos of the village she was able to create an excel database and shape file of ice cellar locations in Barrow available for download at the link below.


Photo courtesy of Jonathan Aiken

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Aiken