Coastal Post Online

May 2001

A Different Kind of Snow; Alaska Warming

By Jim Scanlon

It was very cold April 1st when I got off the plane at Barrow, 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle. An icy wind blew across the runway driving long wispy, almost parallel, white lines of snow along the ground at shoe top level, like some kind of theatrical effect. With wind chill the temperature was close to minus 40 degrees. I was told it had been minus 80 F just a few weeks before. I often heard that it had been a mild winter.

Barrow is the most northerly town on the North American continent and Point Barrow, a narrow sand spit just a few miles outside of town, is the farthest point north. Around the hemisphere there are a few settlements further north: Svalbard a island in the Norwegian Sea, a few on Greenland, and on Canadian Arctic Islands. But only Barrow is accessible to normal travelers, and easy to get to. Very quickly I began to deeply appreciate the heavy Air Force flight jacket lent to me by a friend who hadn't worn it since Vietnam It was stained with paint, but no blood and the hood was trimmed with matted coyote fur which made me look like a seasoned northerner.

The plane was an old, modified 737 which carried mostly cargo and about 20 passengers in the back. The tiny airport waiting room was crowded with Inupiat, the indigenous people of the north, with lots of children. The air route is Barrow's only connection with the outside world except for the barges that creep north through the Bering Strait and along the northern shores of the Chuckchi and Beauford Seas when the ice pulls back a bit from the land in July and August.

I knew from NASA satellite images that there was no Arctic Ozone Hole this spring, but decided to go north anyway, to look around in preparation for future trips as arctic ozone deteriorates. I traveled many times south, to Patagonia, at the extreme southern tip of South America to observe the effects of ozone depletion. The furthest south you can get without spending huge amounts of money or having a governmental connection, is 55S. Going to Barrow takes you 72N, much closer to the pole. This was my first trip north.

Originally, I intended to go to Prudhoe Bay, but could not get a reservation in the small hotel that serves the work camp there---too many workers. This was before the announcement of a visit by the new Republican Secretary of the Interior, a few senators and a group of their media vassals on a so called fact finding mission to the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge. They came and went on a blitz visit to Kactovic, a town of 240 Inuit. I'm sure the fact finders saw much the same flat, white, frozen nothing that I saw. No roads to speak of, few houses, no MacMucktuck or BlubberMacNuggets and definitely not the best time to stroll and see the sights! I'm sure the oil barons wanted the refuge to be seen at it's worst.

The Anchorage Daily News shamelessly promoted oil drilling. The Fairbanks Daily News and Miner was less enthusiastic. President Bush was quoted saying, "... if we can't get the energy we need... [from the Wildlife Refuge]...we will talk to the Canadians," seeming to speak above it all, above the Americans, the Canadians and whoever. The oil business is above it all and owes no loyalty to any place or people.

I stayed at the site of the former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) now owned by Ukpeaqvik Inupiat Corporation, a small squat building covered with snow now visited in winter by scientists and a few Japanese tourists photographing the northern lights or looking for polar bears. In the few brief months of summer, when the sun never sets and insects hatch, and millions of birds arrive to nest everywhere on the soggy, water soaked tundra, bird watchers flock to the north slope.

Leaving the warmth of the NARL Hotel a scientist coming in said to the scientist leaving ahead of me, "Watch out for the bear."

"What bear?" I said stopping him.

"Oh you don't have to worry. There was a big female hanging around and they shot her yesterday. The cub is still around somewhere." How big the cub was, I didn't find out and walked out onto the ice a little uneasy with just my Swiss Army Knife.

The ice was out there about 100 yards in front of the Hotel. Snow drifts were beautifully sculptured by the wind on ice stretching out over the pole to Scandinavia on the other side of the top of the world--- not really very far "as the crow flies". In fact, with the break up of the Soviet Union and the thaw in the Cold War, United and Continental Airlines have now started flying from New York to Hong Kong over the pole, saving time and fuel from not having to buck headwinds. The number of flights now are quite modest, but are expected to increase into the hundreds and then thousands over the next five years. There is little or no concern for damage to the stratosphere (which is lower at the poles) and what effect this will have on ozone and ultraviolet levels and who knows what else?

For now it seems clear from the squiggly lines produced by the spectroradiometers at Barrow, Nome and Saint Paul's Island in the Bering Sea, that surface levels of ultraviolet radiation have not changed much over the last ten years as they have over and near Antarctica. Ultraviolet levels in the Arctic are projected to double over the next twenty years and with so many people living around the Arctic, and so much snow and ice to reflect and intensify, any increase will be a serious problem.

The squiggly lines that measure the reflection of light at Barrow clearly show that snow is melting earlier year after year. The records of snow melt and records of the first egg of the Guillemot birds coincide. These birds will not lay their eggs until snow cover is minimal. Less snow cover means more heat absorbed and less reflected into space. That is, a different, warmer world. At first thought this doesn't really sound like a bad thing in a place so cold, but with less snow and ice, there are fewer seals and the walrus have to swim further to eat. The plankton abundance changes, fish don't prosper and birds starve ....everything changes!

The Arctic Ice Cap is thinning---very little doubt about it!. Over the past twenty years, it has thinned on average 40%. The measurements taken from dedicated voyages of US and British nuclear submarines over the past ten years are precise, and about as good as technology permits. They prove beyond any doubt that policy makers pay little, or no attention to scientific reports.

Analysis of satellite data by Norwegian scientists show that on the average Arctic Ice has decreased 6% over the past decade. Such changes will eventually drastically change the climate system of the hemisphere-exactly how is anyone's guess. If the ice keeps getting thinner it will go, and if the ice goes so will the white ice bear of the ice pack, and the bearded seal will go too, just as the buffalo and the wolves disappeared from the Great Plains.

About 3,000 people live in Barrow, descendants of hunters from Siberia, who gradually moved across the flat, frozen tundra, arriving in Greenland about 4,500 years ago. Under the political settlement reached with the US government in the 80s, native corporations comprising Alaska's indigenous peoples were formed. These native peoples have fared better than Native Americans in the lower, contiguous 48 states. Oil revenues from beneath the tundra at Prudhoe Bay have brought prosperity but, as these revenues dwindle, new fields will have to be opened. Think of it as a kind of Capitalist Socialism or maybe mass bribery. But which ever way you look at it, it is better than starving on the reservation.

Unlike other native peoples, the Inupiat, although disrupted by contact with intruders and missionaries from temperate latitudes, still cling to their hunting traditions. Cooperative whale hunting and sharing the catch maintain the structure and cohesion of the village from Siberia to Greenland. The shore of the frozen sea is littered with the massive skeletal jaw bones of bowhead whales which grow to sixty feet. Some of these mammals, estimated to be 200 years old, have been found to contain stone harpoon heads in old wounds. Somehow a diet of frozen whale fat and meat dipped in warmed seal oil allows the Inupiat to live active lives where others, eating healthy temperate zone food, die from malnutrition and scurvy.

From the outside Inupiat look prosperous, happy and well dressed. Most wear heavy parkas with hoods trimmed with wolf fur. The women's' parkas are longer, more colorful, and fringed at the bottom with another kind of fur. Many drive new SUVs and young men speed recklessly on snow machines along the edge of the sea.

But their newspapers show that the native peoples of the north are under great stress from alcoholism, family violence, despair and suicide. A friend, a very practical man who has lived in Barrow for many years told me that things are better for the Inupiat. "It's not so bad now," he said. "It was much worse when I came here." Money may help a little.

What did I learn during my visit to Barrow? Well I learned another kind of cold. It's a different cold than I had known before. It's different from the worst cold I experienced in upstate New York or on the Bolivian Altiplano. I wonder about the cold of December's total darkness.

The Arctic is different! It requires a different mentality. I visited the Climate Monitoring and Diagnostic Laboratory out on the tundra at the end of a road cut through deep snow drifts. There were two trucks parked in front of a solitary building with long electrical extension cords to heat the motors to keep their oil from turning to wax.

There were no paths, and no apparent way to get into the building. How did the occupants get in? I stood there puzzled. I didn't want to slog through the drifts and get snow down into my boots but there was no other way possible. How could whoever drove the trucks have gotten into the building without leaving a trail in the snow?

Finally I plunged into the snow drifts and found to my amazement that the snow completely supported my weight. My footsteps made a scrunching sound on top of the snow as if I were walking on styrofoam. My boots left no foot prints!

There are supposedly 64 or maybe it's 24 different Inuit words for snow. However many there really are, I discovered a new kind of snow. Maybe you know this kind of snow, but I didn't, and it was like a new dimension to experience. A reminder of the danger lurking in assumptions, knowledge and experience. The trip was worth it for that,



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