Notes from the top of the World

I recently took a trip to Alaska, to learn about how climate change is affecting the people that live on the front lines of a warming world.  The following was originally posted on the website

When I told people I was going to Barrow, Alaska, folks fell into one of two categories: those who never heard of the place, or those who knew I was about to have quite an adventure. Having just returned from the northern-most permanent settlement in the U.S., I continue to reflect upon my time in that strange wind-whipped town. What climate change holds in store for Barrow remains to be seen, but nearly all I met agree: climate change is here.

The claim “I don’t believe in that Al Gore global warming stuff,” said by my Sarah-Palin-supporting flight-mate on the flight from Minneapolis to Anchorage, stuck in my head as my feet hit the tarmac at Barrow’s tiny airport. I wondered if this type of misunderstanding (or willful ignorance) was prevalent in a part of the world dependent on both modern oil and gas development and a healthy environment. While residents of Barrow benefit from a highly developed and impressively engineered energy infrastructure that keeps them warm during brutal winters (the rest of the year is pretty cold too!), centuries-old traditions such as hunting and whaling remain alive as well.

While taking breaks from North Slope Science Initiative (NSSI) meetings I met a number of native craftsmen who use baleen, walrus ivory, fur, and other wildlife-derived products to make just about anything a tourist could want to commemorate their time in the Arctic. I was struck by the consistency of their replies when I’d ask them if they’d seen changes in the environment since they were kids. Lists including melting permafrost, changes in sea ice, and new animals in the area rolled off their tongues as they detailed the odd shifts occurring around them. Nearly identical sentiments were shared with me by Barrow’s acting mayor, George Olemaun, during a nice chat we had in the Inupiat Heritage Center. To someone from the Lower 48 who gets his food from the grocery store and keeps it in the fridge, these changes might not seem like a bit deal. But in Barrow, they have huge implications. Melting sea ice increases the risk of injury and death while whaling. It also leaves polar bears with no place to go but shore—where they can pose a real threat to coastal communities. Locals carve out cellars from the permafrost to store food all year round. As the permafrost melts their food spoils. When George was young his father need only dig down about a foot before reaching permafrost; now it’s at least three feet, more often four. Long story short, don’t try to tell the village elders in Barrow that things aren’t changing—they see it every day.

This “traditional knowledge” was confirmed by the NSSI scientists giving presentations on high-tech research around sea ice melt, thawing permafrost, and other topics that despite their sleep-inducing names have huge implications for the people and the planet. The problem is, even the best science in the world isn’t enough to force Congress to pass a strong climate bill. The effects of inaction will certainly test communities like Barrow, already living in conditions that make my hometown of Buffalo, NY seem like a tropical resort.


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