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Dec. 19, 2012

Measuring Ice: Doing Science in Barrow

by Joel N. Shurkin

Click to enlarge images
Hut 171 reeks. There has been another septic tank “incident,” common in Barrow because septic tanks have to be drained regularly and that requires both competence and luck. One or the other ran out, and the tank and the toilet in hut 171 backed up. The mess has been cleaned up, but the aroma lingers. Where else would you put four graduate students and an unproductive journalist?

We are at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC), the Iñupiat corporation-run science center that does research on the Arctic Ocean coast of the U.S., and—along with the Iñupiat in Siberia—in Russia. We are several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, 1,200 miles from the North Pole, all of it ice-covered Arctic Ocean—in other words: the End of the World, Northern Division. Point Barrow, a few miles north of the town, is the northern tip of the American continents. Except for some Canadian islands, all the Americas are behind you when you stand there. We have come to measure the ice. When you do research into climate change, you often wind up in places like this.

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Barrow’s airport is likely the only airport in the world named after victims of an air crash who were killed trying to land there: Wiley Post and Will Rogers, who died in 1935. When you fly in now you are likely to come in an Alaska Airlines 737-400 Combi, unique to Alaska. The front half is cargo (no windows) and the back half, passengers, usually Eskimos  (“Eskimo” is considered a pejorative in Canada, but not in Alaska) or oil field workers coming or going to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay east of town. A bulkhead separates the cargo from the passengers. Out the window at dusk, it is grey-brown. No lights. There is nothing down there.

The oil workers get off at Deadhorse, the airport nearest the oil fields. The Eskimos continue on the twenty-minute flight to Post-Rogers. From there, many travel to their villages and settlements on snow machines or all terrain vehicles (ATVs). Barrow sits on the coast where the part of the Arctic Ocean called the Chukchi Sea meets the Beaufort. It has several distinctions besides really terrible weather. It is one of the two or three northernmost communities in the world with more than 2,000 people. It is the largest Eskimo settlement in the world, Eskimos not being inclined toward settlements, and is called Ukpeagvik in Iñupiat.

Barrow is part of the North Slope Borough (county), the largest municipality in the world (86,000 acres with only 8,000 people, most of whom live in or around Barrow). Sixty-five percent of the population is Iñupiat. The Iñupiat have lived there for 1,500 years. While winter temperatures don’t get as cold as they get in Fairbanks, 500 miles south, the position between the two parts of the Arctic Ocean produces fierce winds that can drive the wind-chill numbers down to ninety degrees below zero (“negative ninety” to Alaskans), where any exposed skin freezes almost instantly and unprotected noses and ears can fall off. It is essentially like living through a Martian summer.

Barrow is surrounded on three sides by ocean and, to the South, flat tundra. There probably isn’t a tree within 300 miles. Most of the year, the ground is covered with snow and, combined with the frozen water at the shore, the predominant colors are white and grey. You cannot tell where ground ends and the ocean begins. In the brief summer when everything turns to and is covered by mud, the primary color changes to brown. In mid-November, the sun goes down for three months. In mid-June, it comes up for three months. That doesn’t mean it is always either dark or light; in both seasons much of the time is in an eerie brown-pink twilight. Winter darkness helps account for high rates of suicide and alcoholism. Barrow can be very depressing.
 
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Permafrost underlies all Barrow, the reason all buildings are on stilts. If you built a house directly on the ground, heat from the house would thaw the permafrost and the house would sink, sag, or tilt. That is happening in Fairbanks, where all buildings are not elevated. Utilities in the older section of town are in heated tunnels, with all the liquids constantly in motion to keep them from freezing. The tubes are called “utilidors,” as in utility corridors. Some are elevated, square wooden tubes on stilts that cross over the ground and streets. In the newer parts of town, sewage and water are stored in outdoor tanks. The sewage, hopefully, is removed daily before it freezes. Sometimes the “honey bucket” men are new to the job and instead of sucking the sewage out, they blast it back into the house, which is likely what happened in hut 171. Water also is replenished daily. Most of the homes are heated with natural gas from the nearby North Slope gas fields, an advantage over most Alaskan rural communities that have to rely on expensive, stored heating oil in the winter.

The schools in Alaska tend to be better funded than schools elsewhere, the result of oil revenues, and the ones in Barrow are no exception. They serve as community centers as well as schools. The local high school has a swimming pool open to the community, and thanks the gift of a woman in Florida, the Barrow Whalers, the high school football team, plays on a blue artificial turf field, which has to be plowed before every practice or game. Alcohol is banned, as in many Eskimo communities, but it is smuggled in regularly. A Barrow police officer told me that there were several dozen police in Barrow but if they managed to stop the smuggling of alcohol, they would only need three or four. Sober Iñupiat are a peaceful lot. Marijuana is abundant as it is in all of Alaska, most of it home grown indoors where federal authorities are unlikely to find it. It is likely the largest cash crop in the state. Owning small quantities of marijuana is legal in Alaska, a matter of personal privacy according to the state supreme court in this most-libertarian of American states.

Much of the population still depends on subsistence hunting to get through the year, even those men with steady jobs. It is part of the culture.

Nothing comes easily in Barrow. Like most of the towns and villages in Alaska, there are no roads in or out of town. Indeed, Juneau, the state capital, is the only capital in America inaccessible by highway. Hence, everything in Barrow that does not come from fish or marine mammals is shipped in, either by ocean barge in the summer, or by air the rest of the time; everything from cars ($3,000 for shipping in C-130s) to cans of soup (almost $3 or Campbell’s condensed in the native-owned small supermarket) to construction material.
 
Eating out is expensive, and few choices. The best restaurant may be the one owned by a Korean woman, who legend has it, immigrated to Seattle and made a wrong turn. There also is the world’s most northern Mexican restaurant, not owned by a Mexican.

It is sometimes possible to drive into Barrow in the winter, but it requires taking one of the most dangerous journeys on the planet. A single road links Fairbanks to the oil fields, the Haul Road, technically known as the Dalton Highway. It is a narrow two-lane, mostly gravel road used to haul equipment and supplies to Prudhoe Bay—when it is open, which is not often outside the brief summer. Daring tourists are allowed on the Dalton but very few rental car agencies will let you take their cars on the road, and you really need to know what you are doing and be well-supplied with emergency gear. Kiss your windshield goodbye: Every vehicle is followed by a cloud of flying gravel. Part of the ride is a hair-raising journey through the Brooks Range. Trucks and cars that make it to Prudhoe Bay, can drive to Barrow in convoys in the winter. Part of the ride is over the snow-covered beach, but much of it is an ice highway over the frozen Beaufort Sea. This is not done very often, and as the climate warms, it becomes even more dangerous

Then there are the bears. Barrow lives with polar bears. Almost no one leaves town without a rifle. Every school bus is followed by a police car. Sometimes the locals have to kill a bear that gets too close to people, which is perfectly legal. The bears are as dangerous as they are beautiful. On a previous visit, a guide, Daniel Lum, described how a bear pursued his justifiably hysterical wife into their house. He chased the bear away, firing shots over its head. The bears usually congregate on the snow north of town, just beyond the end of the road where the Eskimos butcher the bowhead whales they harvest. The bears will spend months picking the bones clean. They also will wander down the beach into town, which is lined with houses. Visitors are warned—seriously—to watch out for bears whenever they go near the beach. If you see one, you are instructed to back away slowly—never, ever run. Attacks are rare, but the danger is real.
 
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The idea that polar bears are an endangered species that needs protection from climate change is viewed differently in Barrow than it is in, say, Washington, D.C.

Climate change in Barrow has so far affected the dead as well as the living. The Eskimo cemetery at Barrow Point has been moved twice as the burial site now is flooded regularly. The families of the deceased and buried have had to dig up their ancestors and bury them anew, only to have to do it again when the new burial site floods. They likely will have to repeat the process a few more times. But, the threat to the living  is real. The culture and survival of the Iñupiat—and the bears—depends on the ice.

“We are the hyperboreans,” says one Iñupiat elder. “We live on the ice and snow. If we don’t have the ice and snow who are, we?”

We came here to do science.
 
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NEXT: Onto the ice.
 
From The Tides of Newtok, text and photographs copyright 2012 by Joel N. Shurkin. All rights reserved.

 

About Joel N. Shurkin

Joel N. Shurkin is a Baltimore-based writer. He is author of nine books and taught journalism at Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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