TOPICS > Science

In Alaska, Melting Ice Could Erode Way of Life

BY Mike Fritz  September 17, 2013 at 12:32 PM EST

In the distance, a sign welcomes visitors to Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States. Photo by April Brown/PBS NewsHour

BARROW, Alaska — A sign at the edge of town perched between two giant whale jawbones welcomes visitors to the “Top of the World.”

At 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, life has never been easy for those brave enough to call Barrow home. It is America’s northernmost town and for much of the year can only be reached by plane.

During the summer months, the sun never sets. And in winter, when temperatures regularly plunge to -30 F, the sun never rises. Trees don’t grow at this latitude, and four-wheel-drive ATV’s or trucks are a must-have to travel the town’s many unpaved roads.

The cost of living in Barrow is 278 percent higher than the average cost to live in the continental United States, according to the North Slope Borough Planning Department. That’s because most goods and services in the region must be shipped by barge from Anchorage. Residents are accustomed to spending $10 for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread at either of the two local grocery stores.

This report is part of a three-part series airing on the NewsHour broadcast this week on the unexpected consequences of climate change. 

Despite the everyday challenges of life in Barrow, archaeologists can trace human existence in the region back to at least A.D. 400. The population currently hovers around 5,000 and about half of the residents are native Inupiat Eskimo, indigenous people who have survived these harsh conditions for centuries by relying upon subsistence hunting and whaling.

“[The Arctic] is our garden, our grocery store,” said Barrow native Michael Donovan, “You can pretty much live off the land.”

Donovan works for UMIAQ, a company that has made a niche for itself by helping scientists like Ignatius Rigor, a climatologist at the University of Washington, conduct research in the Arctic, an inhospitable region that recent studies have concluded is warming twice as fast as any place on the planet.

Rigor, an expert on sea ice, has been coming to Barrow for years. He says that because average winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen sharply over the last few decades, the total volume of sea ice is down to less than 40 percent of what it was in the 1980s.

The new reality of diminishing ice cover on the Arctic Ocean has meant warmer water temperatures and an increase in coastal erosion, and it’s keeping Rigor in Barrow for longer stretches to study the environmental changes. That means the relationships he’s built with locals, like Donovan, are crucial to how effectively he can do his job.

On this day, Donovan plans to guide Rigor out towards Point Barrow, near the very tip of North America. Strapping a loaded shotgun to the front of his muddy ATV, Donovan lights a cigarette and skims the horizon for any signs of danger. One of the main threats here are polar bears. When the two have gone as far as land will take them, Rigor snaps pictures of the ocean, and Donovan builds a fire as they discuss what the ice has been doing lately.

Rigor says the local knowledge that Donovan provides gives him a better picture of what’s happening on the ocean.

“These guys have lived on sea ice their whole lives,” Rigor says. “So it’s been a joy to learn some of what they know.”

Multi-year ice, or the accumulation of ice from one year to the next, has always been pivotal to life in Barrow. These ice layers provide both a water source and a safe standing surface for whale hunters.

Inupiats have been granted special permission from the International Whaling Commission to hunt a designated number of bowhead whales every year. But as ice has disappeared and thinned, Barrow hunters have struggled to reach their annual quota, which was set at 22 bowheads in 2013.

“Normally we just sit on the edge of the ice and wait for the bowheads,” Donovan said, “but now with the ice conditions we’ve been having the last few years, it’s pretty hard to harvest the bowhead out on the sea ice.”

Rigor calls the area “the frontline of global climate change,” and he hopes that the rest of the world will draw lessons from how Inupiats lives are already changing as a result of rising temperatures. And the Arctic could expect even more disturbance as oil and gas companies consider pushing further into the resource-rich region.

“I think that’s one of the scariest things that I see as I spend more time up here,” Rigor said, “I see how much the local communities depend on food from whaling, salmon fishing and hunting.”

Meanwhile, Donovan also fears that the subsistence lifestyle he’s learned from his ancestors is at risk.

“It‘s kind of hard to say if our younger generations will be able to do what we do,” he said.