Notes from the Arctic: Frozen Adventures at the Frontier

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[Gordon Bauer, ERG graduate student]

The northern lights outside Barrow. Photo credit: Ori Chafe.

A few weeks ago, ERG Professor Margaret Torn sent a cryptic department-wide email inquiring if anyone would like to assist in ecological research in northern Alaska as part of the Next Generation Emerging Ecosystems – Arctic project. I thought for a few moments about how disruptive and inconvenient this would be: two days lost in transit, foregone work time with deadlines fast approaching, and evenings spent alone in an icy wasteland. Then I thought about opportunities that only come once in a lifetime, and impulsively sent out an emphatic yes. One thing led to another, and then suddenly I found myself in a taxi to the airport at 4am, bound for Barrow, Alaska on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

“The sea has given us so many gifts…it can have my body.” My main motivation for going to the Arctic was the physical place: I wanted to experience the icy landscape extending as far as the eye can see, the northern sun low in the sky, and the chance to see polar bears, arctic foxes, and the aurora borealis. I was not disappointed. On our second night in Barrow, we laid in a snowbank for over an hour with approximately 50 layers of clothing to protect against the polar wind, staring in awe as giant green ghosts danced across the sky. At one point an arctic fox scampered by, pausing to ponder what we were doing there. On the third day it snowed, and the Arctic Ocean turned into a giant slushie, the waves barely strong enough to break.

The work itself was a refreshing break from the office: every morning, we snowmobiled out to a field site in the tundra in the pre-dawn 10am light, dismantled frozen monitoring equipment for a few hours, and then transported it to a warehouse via sled as the sun set around 3pm. For the past five years, this equipment has been used to take incredibly detailed measurements of the arctic ecosystem and the evolving interactions between the ecosystem and climate. Among other things, an eddy flux tower measures carbon dioxide and methane released from the melting permafrost, while an elevated tram system measures changes in flora and energy balance along a 40-meter cross section. The monitoring station is dismantled for the winter every November, and set up again in the spring.

Ori Chafe (right) and Stan Wulschlegger take sensors off the eddy flux tower, as ERGie Richard Barnes (left) looks on.

Richard packs up equipment for the winter.

The daily commute.

Ori (left) and Richard enjoy some Arctic pumpkin pie.

However, what I found most fascinating and inspiring about Barrow was not the science nor the landscape, but the community itself. A hub of Inupiaq culture and one of the few places in North America with active whale hunting (bowhead whales serve as a crucial source of food for the community), Barrow feels at once foreign and utterly American. On our second night in Barrow, I drove into town with Richard Barnes—my ERG companion on the trip—to take in the sights. In many ways, Barrow looks like any other small American town, with a few key differences. The wooden homes are all on stilts to maintain stability during permafrost melt, and outside the mayor’s office on the main street sits a bowhead whale skull the size of a small car.

Richard admiring the lawn decoration outside the Barrow mayor’s office.

The Arctic Hotel in Barrow.

When Brussel sprouts are $6.99/lb, vegetarianism isn’t the most practical option.

“When someone says they support 'America first,' you have to wonder, does the America they are talking about include Barrow, Alaska?” Sadly, that arctic environment is changing rapidly, and it isn’t clear how much longer Barrow will continue to exist in its current location. As the sea ice melts earlier in the spring and takes longer to form in the fall, the waves have more time to erode the land. The flooding has become a serious problem. Already, residents have had to relocate some ancestral grave sites, and many fishing cabins outside of town have been swept away. Within the next 20 years, it is possible that all of Barrow will have to move. But in the face of inevitable destruction, we also saw signs of resilience. When we talked about the need to relocate graves, one woman we met said, “The sea has given us so many gifts…it can have my body.” She spoke with excitement about relocating to a village in the mountains.

My visit to Barrow was a strong reminder of the diversity of this crazy country we call home, and of the fragility of life at the frontier. When someone says they support “America first,” you have to wonder, does the America they are talking about include Barrow, Alaska? If so, supporting America first means supporting a diversity of cultures and world views. It means supporting not just a way of life associated with coal mining, but one associated with whaling, frozen tundra, and polar ice caps as well. Perhaps above all, supporting America first means doing all we can to stop climate change.

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