Savoonga, Saint Lawrence Island

Savoonga, Saint Lawrence Island

by | Apr 29, 2023

Savoonga is a Siberian Yupik community situated on the north flank of the Kookooligit Mountains at Savoonga Point on the north coast of Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, about 164 miles (265 km) southwest of Nome and 39 miles (63 km) east of Gambell, Alaska. Saint Lawrence Island is 100 miles (160 km) long in an east-west direction and from 9 miles (15 km) to 34 miles (55 km) wide in a north-south direction. The east end of the island consists largely of a wave-cut platform, which has been elevated as much as 100 feet (30 m) above sea level. Isolated upland areas are composed largely of granitic plutons that rise as much as 1,800 feet (550 m) above the wave-cut platform. The central part of the island is dominated by the Kookooligit Mountains that extend over 210,040 acres (85,000 ha) and rise to an elevation of 2,066 feet (630 m). The mountain range consists of basalt that developed during the Quaternary from a shield volcano capped with over 100 smaller volcanic cones. Large parts of Saint Lawrence Island are covered by unconsolidated sediments composed mostly of modern beach and bar deposits that fringe the coastlines and former beach and bar deposits that mantle elevated wave-cut platforms. Glacial drift deposited by an ice sheet that originated from the Chukotka Mountains on the Chukotka Peninsula of Siberia is exposed along parts of the north coast of the island.

Archaeologists recognize two major cultural traditions of the Arctic in the past 5,000 years. The first was the Paleo-Inuit tradition, which is widely understood to represent an expansion of Siberian hunting and gathering peoples into the Chukotka Peninsula of eastern Siberia, across the Bering Strait and into Alaska, and eventually colonizing the Eastern Arctic including the coasts of Greenland about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. The second was the Neo-Inuit tradition which emerged in the central and western Bering Strait about 2,000 years ago as the Okvik/Old Bering Sea culture. The archaeological record suggests that the first occupation of Saint Lawrence Island was around 2,000 to 2,500 years ago by people of the Okvik culture. Prehistoric and early historic human occupation of Saint Lawrence Island was characterized by periods of abandonment and reoccupation. Human skeletons show evidence of famine, and occupation may have been dependent on food availability. Travel to and from the Siberian mainland, only 58 miles (93 km) away, was common so the island was likely used as a hunting base, and occupation sites were re-used periodically rather than permanently occupied. The first European to visit the island was Vitus Bering on Saint Lawrence’s Day, August 10, 1728.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the island had a population of about 4,000 people inhabiting numerous villages. Between 1878 and 1880, a famine devastated the island’s population and most people migrated away. In 1900, reindeer were introduced on the island and by 1917, the herd had grown to over 10,000 animals. A reindeer camp was established near present-day Savoonga in 1916. The village of Savoonga was established near the camp in the 1930s. In 1971, Savoonga became the joint owner of Saint Lawrence Island along with Gambell, the island’s only other community. The local economy consists mostly of subsistence hunting for walrus, seals, fish, and bowhead whales. The island’s abundance of marine mammals and seabirds is due largely to the influence of the Anadyr Current, an ocean current that brings cold, nutrient-rich water to the surface from the deep waters of the Bering Sea shelf edge. The island has no trees, and the only woody plant is the Arctic willow that grows to no more than 1 foot (30 cm) high. Most people on Saint Lawrence Island speak Siberian Yupik. Today there are daily flights from Nome to Savoonga Airport, weather permitting. Read more here and here. Explore more of Savoonga and Saint Lawrence Island here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (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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