Climate change and offshore drilling pose dual threats to Barrow, Alaska

Jamie Williams, right, listens to Inupiat Community President George Edwardson describe the threats that offshore drilling poses to the community of Barrow, Alaska, and how the issue has caused divisions in the town.

Photos: Tim Woody

Barrow is the northernmost community in the United States, and a place where Alaska Native culture and the oil industry overlap like nowhere else.

Barrow enjoys relatively modern facilities and infrastructure funded with oil and gas revenue – most homes are heated with natural gas. But Barrow's 4,400 residents are mostly Inupiat Eskimos who live at the edge of the continent and depend on Alaska’s wildlands and the Arctic Ocean to support their subsistence way of life. The community is not connected by road to any other populated area, so all supplies are delivered by water or air.


To lose healthy, sustainable populations of fish, bowhead whales and caribou would be a devastating blow to Barrow and the Inupiat culture that has thrived here for thousands of years.


It is residents of communities like Barrow that The Wilderness Society looks to for guidance and partnership in our efforts to protect the Arctic, because no one has more at stake than they do as a result of oil drilling and climate change.


What I experienced

We met with elders and tribal leaders who told us powerful stories of how their way of life is changing. Climate change becomes much more real when you listen to stories of how the ice is moving farther offshore every summer, and how Alaska Natives now hunt smaller whales than in the past so that they can pull them onto the quickly thinning ice without breaking it. There are also stories of how coastal erosion and the rising sea have left the community at the water’s edge and how ice cellars – where the Inupiat store whale meat from the spring and fall hunts – are beginning to thaw.


But what they are most concerned about is the prospect of drilling in the Arctic Ocean and what will happen if new roads, pipelines and oil rigs invade the surrounding wild country. They fear such development will negatively affect the migration of the bowhead whales that are the lifeblood of Barrow and its whaling culture.


They also fear that an oil spill would forever alter one of the richest and most intact marine ecosystems in the world. They fear onshore development would cut off their access to the Central Arctic Caribou Herd, just as development in the Prudhoe Bay area made it more difficult for some Natives to hunt the Porcupine Caribou Herd.


Most of all, they worry about how the new drilling proposals have divided their community.


As Inupiat Community President George Edwardson said of his people: “You have to be one to survive in the Arctic.” For a community that is so defined by helping each other, division is life-threatening. So they asked us to help them make their voices heard in Washington.


What is at stake?

Strong relationships with local residents are critical to our success in the Arctic. Their expertise and vision for a sustainable future for the Arctic’s people and wildlife makes them vital partners. Understanding their needs and concerns makes The Wilderness Society a more effective advocate for Arctic conservation.


The fight for the future of the Arctic can’t happen just in boardrooms or the halls of Congress. It starts here, on the ground, with the people who know the Arctic best.


See also: 

10 Facts about Barrow, Alaska

Living among Arctic caribou at Alaska’s Teshekpuk Lake

10 reasons to protect Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake


Photo (above right): Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a community health practitioner and former mayor of Nuiqsut, Alaska, has spent her career dealing with the social and health problems that oil development and related pollution have caused in North Slope communities. Credit: Tim Woody