Spacious, wood-lined chambers lie beneath the ground. People dug these hand-built cellars 10 to 12 feet deep into the permafrost under far-north villages in Alaska. Permafrost is the layer of underground soil that has been completely frozen for at least two years. The cellars act as natural refrigerators. Villagers rely on ice cellars to preserve and age whale and walrus meat to perfection. But lately, cellars face a thaw threat.
Food preservation has been a challenge for a very long time. To survive, people used God-given scientific principles to figure out how to store food safely. In tropical climates, people made food last by drying it. Rubbing salt into meat slows its decay in most zones. In cold climates, freezing food worked for safekeeping. Over time, people learned to can vegetables, freeze-dry fruit, and dehydrate meat to preserve it. Even cultures without electricity could make their harvest last for an entire year. Leviticus 26:10 says, “You shall eat old store long kept, and you shall clear out the old to make way for the new.”
But many old underground cellars are growing unreliable because conditions are changing. Pooling water and threatening mold could spoil aging meat. “I’m worried,” says Gordon Brower. The whaling captain lives in Utqiaġvik, Alaska (pronounced oot—kay-agh—vik). His family has two ice cellars. One passed its centennial not too long ago. Recently, Brower discovered water sitting in both cellars. That told him that something is affecting their inside temperatures. Brower was able to save his meat—for now. He is storing it outside under a tarp. The weather is cold enough to keep it from spoiling while he makes changes to his cellars.
This isn’t the first time ice cellars have failed. According to a cellar study published in 2017, an early 1900s account described a cellar developing mold. Others collapsed or flooded. Different factors affect the reliability of ice cellars. The air temperature, land development, and modern life adaptations have impacts underground. For example, some Utqiaġvik residents build sheds on top of their cellar entrances. This keeps them free from snow. But it also inadvertently warms the soil beneath the cellars—causing risk of spoilage inside.
The village of Kaktovik built a community ice cellar in 2013. It used traditional designs and contemporary technology. The cellar uses tube-like refrigeration devices that cool the ground by transferring heat outside. It doesn’t hold meat yet, but it will soon. Residents hope the new chamber will mimic the old process of aging meat. “There’s nothing that tastes better than ice cellar food,” says another whaling captain, George Kaleak, Sr.