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Melting Ice, Warming Waters Could Erode Way of Life for Alaska’s North Slope

September 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
More than 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Alaska’s North Slope is ground zero for global climate change. NewsHour producer April Brown reports the melting ice has opened up opportunity for shipping and other development – industry that could be catastrophic for the way of life of residents.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to a town that’s been called Ground Zero for climate change. Even as residents of Barrow, Alaska, cope with changing weather patterns and melting sea ice, many are determined to keep their traditional way of life.

NewsHour’s April Brown reports part three of our series Arctic Thaw.

APRIL BROWN: It’s a day of fishing out in the Arctic Ocean for brothers Brower and Jack Frantz. They are checking on nets they have recently set near the shoreline of Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of America that sits more than 300 miles above the Arctic Circle. Today’s catch is seen as a moderate success.

The brothers were born and raised in nearby Barrow, Alaska, one of eight villages in the North Slope borough, an area that sprawls across more than 90,000 square miles and that for most of the year can only be reached by plane, or, depending on the sea ice, ship.

Nearly 5,000 people call Barrow home. Roughly half are native Inupiat Eskimos. For Brower and Jack, today is simply another day at the office. They are often in search of walrus, seals and, when the season is right twice a year, they go for the biggest prize of them all, bowhead whales.

The marine mammal that has been at the center of Inupiat culture for generations. All of their catch will later be shared with their family and friends.

BROWER FRANTZ, fisherman: I guess that you could say it’s a certain standing within your community. You provide for your community. You assist others with providing for your community. It’s like a job. You have a job and you need workers while you catch a walrus or a whale or a seal. And they — they don’t get paid with money. They get paid with the shares from these animals. It’s a great bounty.

APRIL BROWN: It’s part of a subsistence tradition that has been handed down over centuries and includes hunting land animals and birds as well.

MICHAEL DONOVAN, Barrow, Alaska: This is our garden, our grocery store. You know, you can pretty much off the land.

APRIL BROWN: This lifestyle can be traced back to 400 A.D., when the first humans settled around present-day Barrow, but Michael Donovan worries that, because of rising temperatures and melting sea ice, future generations may not be able to live the same way.

MICHAEL DONOVAN: Yes, it’s definitely changing a lot, and it’s kind of hard to say if our younger generations will be able to do what we do.

APRIL BROWN: Donovan grew up in Barrow. He uses his local knowledge to help with logistics and acts as a polar bear guard for a company that provides field support for scientists working in the area, among them, Ignatius Rigor, a climatologist at the University of Washington’s Polar Ice Center.

He is in Barrow to check on buoys deployed across the Arctic Ocean that measure surface air temperature and air pressure. Like many scientists studying changes in the region, Rigor has been coming to the Arctic for years.

IGNATIUS RIGOR, University of Washington’s Polar Ice Center: This is the front line of global climate change. You know, basically before the planet can heat up, you have to — just like your glass of water, before it can get warm, you have to get rid of the ice. And so we are seeing the ice disappear and we are seeing the Arctic Ocean start to warm up.

APRIL BROWN: Average winter temperatures have risen sharply in the Arctic over the past few decades. And Rigor, an expert on sea ice, says the result has had major consequences.

IGNATIUS RIGOR: This ice is melting away dramatically. Each summer, we have lost more than half of the ice cover that we typically have. And we have lost a lot of the thickness of sea ice.

And so, taken together, the total volume of sea ice is down to less than 40 percent of what it used to be.

APRIL BROWN: For centuries, what’s known as multi-year ice, or the accumulation of sea ice from one year to the next, has been crucial to life here.

It provides whaling captains like Harry Brower the peace of mind to know that his crew can stand on thick ice while hunting whales, something Inupiats still have special permission to do. But in the past few years, Brower says he’s seen mostly stretches of small, shallow ice that are extremely dangerous for hunters, and because of the conditions, the community has struggled to reach its annual quota.

HARRY BROWER, whaling captain: Last spring was very poor. We didn’t even harvest one for Barrow throughout the whole migratory season.

APRIL BROWN: Poor whaling seasons have also hurt other communities along the North Slope, where the cost of living is roughly 275 percent higher than it is for Americans in the Lower 48. Residents routinely pay more than $10 for a gallon of milk.

HARRY BROWER: That becomes a food shortage in a sense, if you think about, you know, one whale providing for a whole community.

APRIL BROWN: Arctic archaeologist Anne Jensen also points to another consequence of sea ice melting: coastal erosion. Sea ice offers Barrow shores protection. And now that it’s starting to disappear, waves have begun washing away Inupiat artifacts that are thousands of years old, taking with them a past that Jensen says could provide clues for the future.

ANNE JENSEN, Arctic archaeologist: When we lose archaeological sites, we not only lose information about people’s heritage and the past, but if you have a site that’s what they called stratified, so you have layers, you can actually see how things changed through time, how people’s subsistence changed.

But if the sites fall in the water before you excavate them, then it’s like burning libraries.

APRIL BROWN: Even though the melting sea ice is changing the way a lot of residents here on the North Slope of Alaska go about their traditions, it’s also bringing economic opportunities.

Sea routes once blocked by layers of impenetrable ice have recently begun opening, and many corporations are eying ways to push further into the resource-rich Arctic. Oil and gas companies already operating in the region pay taxes that finance the North Slope boroughs’ $350 million annual budget.

ANTHONY EDWARDSEN, Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation: Without that support of the industry, we won’t have anything. It’s — our people got to have jobs.

APRIL BROWN: Anthony Edwardsen is the president of the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation that promotes economic growth in the North Slope.

Oil was discovered in nearby Prudhoe Bay in the 1960s and has transformed an area that at the time was largely without electricity, running water and modern schools.

ANTHONY EDWARDSEN: I strongly believe when it comes to the industry, we benefit, as long as it’s divided among us in an equal way.

APRIL BROWN: Today, the North Slope produces as much as one-fifth of the nation’s oil. But despite the economic upside of melting sea ice in the Arctic, Ignatius Rigor says Inupiats remain divided on further offshore development that could threaten their traditional lifestyle.

IGNATIUS RIGOR: The local populations are torn because they realize that there is a bounty off their coast that could really improve their lifestyle, but those bounties also could be catastrophic for their way of life. And if an accident happens, you know, there goes subsistence hunting and whaling.

APRIL BROWN: Michael Donovan says that if the choice were left up to him, it would be an easy one.

MICHAEL DONOVAN: Even if they paid me a million dollars or $100 million, I wouldn’t trade this lifestyle for anything in the world.

APRIL BROWN: The people of Alaska’s North Slope are likely to face a range of climate decisions soon, as scientists predict that the Arctic is warming nearly twice as fast as any place on the planet.

GWEN IFILL: An amazing story.