Northeast Cape, Saint Lawrence Island

Northeast Cape, Saint Lawrence Island

by | Mar 11, 2022

Northeast Cape is a headland formed by the Kinipaghulghat Mountains at the far eastern end of Saint Lawrence Island, between Kangighsak Point to the west and Cape Seevooka to the east on the north coast of the island and Apavawook Cape on the south coast, about 133 miles (214 km) southwest of Nome and 96 miles (155 km) east-southeast of Gambell, Alaska. The Yup’ik name for the mountains was first reported in 1932 by Otto W. Geist of the University of Alaska. Saint Lawrence Island is in the Bering Sea about 130 miles (210 km) southwest of the Seward Peninsula in Alaska and 40 miles (65 km) southeast of the Chukotsky Peninsula in Siberia, Russia. In 1728, Danish Captain Vitus Bering was employed by Russia and visited and named the island on August 10 or Saint Lawrence’s Day. The island is roughly 1,279,997 acres (517,997 ha) in area, and about two-thirds of the island is a tundra-covered wave-cut platform that has been elevated locally as much as 200 feet (61 m) above sea level. The remainder consists of isolated groups of barren talus and rubble-covered mountains most of which have cores of granitic rock that rise sharply 1,000-2,000 feet (305-610 m) above the wave-cut platform. The Kinipaghulghat Mountains are an igneous intrusion of about 41,600 acres (16,835 ha) with a summit elevation of 1820 feet (555 m) that represents one of seven plutons on the island. The plutonic rocks are about 120-101 million years old, or from the Middle Cretaceous on the geological time scale,  and are primarily composed of quartz monzonite, granodiorite, and monzonite with several other minor components. The island is thought to be one of the last exposed portions of the land bridge that once joined Asia with North America during the Pleistocene period and was historically called Sivuqaq by the Yup’ik people. The archaeological record suggests that the first human inhabitants occupied the island around 2,000 to 2,500 years ago. Prehistorical and early historical occupations of Saint Lawrence Island were never permanent, with periods of abandonment and reoccupation depending on resource availability and changes in weather patterns. Travel to and from the mainland was common during calm weather, so the island was used as a hunting base, and occupation sites were re-used periodically rather than permanently occupied.

Western contact with Saint Lawrence Island began with the Russian explorations of Bering in 1728, followed by Kobelev in 1779, Billings in 1791, and Kotzebue in 1816. In the mid 19th century, there were about 4,000 Central Alaskan Yup’ik and Siberian Yupik who subsisted by hunting walruses and whales and by fishing and lived in several villages and many seasonal hunting camps including around the Kinipaghulghat Mountains on Northeast Cape. Intensive interaction with the American commercial whaling fleet occurred throughout the second half of the 19th century when dozens of vessels stopped each year to exchange firearms, whaling guns, iron tools, cloth, hardtack, beads, and liquor for walrus ivory, baleen, furs, and clothing. Archaeological collections from the ancient village of Kukulek, near present-day Savoonga, indicate the great extent to which the Yup’ik had come to rely on imported iron tools by the late 1870s. In addition to bringing new implements, foods, alcohol, and diseases, the whaling fleet slaughtered massive numbers of the whales and walruses that were critical to the Yup’ik subsistence economy, probably leading to the acute famine in 1878-1880. The famine caused many to starve and many others to leave, decimating the island’s population. Evidence of this and earlier famines show in human skeletons excavated from archaeological sites at Gambell and Savoonga between 1931-1935 by Otto W. Geist. In 1880, Captain Michael A. Healy on the revenue cutter USS Bear visited the island and estimated that out of 700 inhabitants, 500 were found dead of starvation. Reports of the day put the blame on traders’ supplying the people with liquor causing ‘neglect in laying up their usual supply of provisions’. In 1894, a Presbyterian mission and school were established on the island headed by Vene C. Gambell after whom the ancient village of Sivuqaq was renamed. Reindeer were introduced on the island in 1900 in an attempt to bolster the economy. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established a reindeer reservation on the island. The reindeer herd grew to about 10,000 animals by 1917 and they are a source of subsistence meat to this day. Gambell is by far the oldest village, having been occupied for the entire human history of the island. Savoonga was founded in 1911-1912.

The area surrounding Northeast Cape and the Kinipaghulghat Mountains has been a traditional seasonal hunting camp for several Yup’ik families for centuries. In 1951-1953, the U.S. Air Force built the Northeast Cape Air Force Station that consisted of an Aircraft Control and Warning radar site, a U.S. Air Force Security Service listening post, and a White Alice Communications System that operated until 1969 to provide early warning of an attack by the Soviet Union, and was abandoned in 1974. The station, as with others of its type, was divided into two areas. The upper site at the summit of the Kinipaghulghat Mountains housed the radar towers, backup generators, communications sites, and remote crew quarters. The lower operations area at the base of the mountain consisted of 25 buildings and miscellaneous support structures located near the coast and a beach landing, along with a gravel airstrip for shipment of personnel and essential supplies. An aerial tramway connected the base facility with the summit radars. Northeast Cape Air Force Station was very expensive to maintain and was deactivated on 30 September 1969. After the station’s closure, the buildings, radars, and communications antennas sat derelict and abandoned. U.S. defense sites include properties previously owned, leased, possessed, or operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. The majority of the sites were created during the Cold War era. The larger bases required the development and maintenance of extensive infrastructure and often, complete communities were created and maintained including living quarters, roads, runways, communication equipment, surveillance, electrical generation, fuel storage, recreation, airfields, and solid and human waste management facilities. There are approximately 600 formerly used defense sites in Alaska, many in proximity to Native communities and traditional fishing and hunting grounds. Chlorinated and non-chlorinated solvents, herbicides and pesticides, trace metals, containers of human wastes, chemical warfare agents, unexploded ordnance, and other toxic materials were not only used during active site operations but were left behind when the posts were abandoned. Because of the remote locations of many of the Alaskan defense sites, the government policy on remediation relied heavily on natural attenuation, long-term monitoring, and institutional controls including fences and signs to minimize or prevent humans and animals from coming in contact with contaminants or explosive materials. After the Northeast Cape Air Force Station was abandoned in the 1970s, many people started to experience health problems including high rates of cancer and other diseases, possibly due to chemical exposure around the site. In 1998, Operation Clean Sweep demolished the facility and remediated the land to its previous state. Read more here and here. Explore more of Northeast Cape and Saint Lawrence Island here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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