Arctic Changes Force Adaptation
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for the WCD
Sweeping change reshapes Arctic
by Craig Welch
Facing a fight for survival polar bears near the coast of the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have increased tenfold since 1992 -
most likely because they are stranded on land by receding ice, which
exposes them to disease and threats from grizzly bears and people.
The world's top polar-bear scientists predict that the worldwide
population, now at about 25,000, will fall by one-third in the next
35 to 50 years. Steve Ringman / Seattle Times
BARROW, ALASKA - The hunter rose each day last summer from his bunk
in a condemned wildlife lab, down the hall from where Inupiat
villagers carve whale meat on a band saw.
He slipped on hip waders and a furry white parka, slung a rifle over
his shoulders and trudged onto the Arctic tundra. Through icy fog
beneath a never-setting summer sun, Eric Seykora set out to earn the
nickname given him by Barrow scientists: "The Fox Killer."
Arctic foxes had been eating the eggs of rare ducks because their
usual supper, tiny, mouselike lemmings, were dwindling from the
So the government flew this former South Dakota hunting guide 330
miles north of the Arctic Circle and paid him to spend his summer
Ecological change is so scrambling Alaska's Arctic that the
government has hired gunslingers to recapture some balance.
But with national debate so focused on the future of the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge, which some in Congress last month again
tried and failed to open to oil drilling, a reality is only now being
noticed in the Lower 48: Arctic Alaska is already undergoing a
sprawling transformation, and life is fundamentally shifting in
almost every way.
The hunt for oil is moving to the ocean and across once-barren lands
the size of Midwestern states, including some as ecologically
valuable as ANWR.
Birds are disappearing. Pollution is arriving. And nothing is having
as much impact as climate change.
Migrating whales, the backbone of Alaska's Inupiat culture, now
arrive up to 45 days early, completely altering seasonal rhythms for
Inupiat who harpoon them. Winter ice roads are collapsing months
sooner than they did 35 years ago, prompting oil companies to ask the
government to build highways across easily scarred tundra.
Minute changes to plants and animals are unraveling intricate
And no one really knows how much stranger it's going to get.
"It's hard, at times, trying to comprehend what's going on out
there," said Eugene Brower, an Inupiat whaler and fire chief for the
North Slope Borough, the municipal government for Arctic
Alaska. "It's like we have no control over what's happening to us."
For now, the best chance to understand the future rests with a motley
band of respected scientists - adventurers and misfits, cowboys and
computer geeks, paid by governments, universities and noted
foundations - who flock each summer to a former Navy research lab
Life on the ice
They live and work in old wooden buildings or concrete-and-metal
Quonset huts, some surrounded by empty cages that once held wolves
used in hypothermia experiments.
Most are oblivious to the absurdity of their conditions. To erect a
tower to measure carbon dioxide coming off the Arctic Ocean, one
researcher carried 40-pound car batteries across a frozen island. To
measure greenhouse gas flowing to and from the earth, another
scientist actually built a lake on the tundra.
On a blustery morning last summer, University of Washington professor
Dick Moritz dragged a child's sled piled with scientific instruments
through slushy blue ponds on hard-packed ice a half-mile out to sea.
Behind him, graduate student Paul Hezel toted a shotgun, in the not-
unlikely event they encountered a polar bear.
Moritz and Hezel, of the UW's Polar Science Center, had been coming
here for a week to test hundreds of core samples drilled from the
ice. To them the Arctic's statistics were familiar.
Average annual temperatures in the Arctic have risen as much as 7
degrees Fahrenheit in 50 years - even more in Alaska - according to
the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a report by the eight nations
with land inside the Arctic Circle.
The amount of ice covering the ocean in late summer has shrunk 15 to
20 percent in three decades, and 2005 was the worst year ever. That
shrinking contributed to a rise of about 8 inches in sea level,
helping erode the shorelines of coastal towns such as Barrow. These
changes, scientists agree, can't simply be explained by weather
fluctuations. In fact, ice melt is now coming faster than some
computer models projected. And a thawing Arctic can actually speed up
warming across the globe.
Already, ice-dependent animals, such as ivory gulls that fish through
cracks in the ice, are struggling to find shelter and food. Walruses
that haul out to rest on the floes sometimes find themselves too far
from shore to feed on clams.
"If they don't have ice they must swim, but it takes energy to swim,
and life in the Arctic is about preserving energy," said Jesse Ford,
an Oregon State University ecology professor.
Inupiat, whose ancestors for thousands of years have camped on ice
while hunting whales, suddenly find themselves bewildered trying to
read the frozen sea.
The ice now is increasingly unpredictable, "freezing up later,
melting earlier, and generally confusing us," said Richard Glenn, a
geologist, ice expert, Inupiat whaling captain and board president of
the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, which offers logistic support
"The ice itself changes daily, which, in a way, keeps you alive. You
don't just look at how it looks today, but how it looked yesterday.
You have to keep a running inventory, or you'll end up floating away."
On the slab where Moritz and Hezel were working, it was the time of
year when the frozen sea, normally as stable as a wood floor, begins
to crack and separate, threatening to carry researchers to the no-
man's land of the Beaufort Sea.
They had cut the season so close that when colleagues radioed to
check on them, the pair lied rather than admit they were a half-mile
"They're concerned about us being out here," Moritz said, gently
placing a 3-foot-long tube of ice in a plastic tray. "Sometime -
today, tomorrow, next week - they're going to say we can't come at
all because the ice might start to move."
For now, Moritz and Hezel are trying to figure out the precise ways
the physical properties of ice affect how the sun's energy passes
through it. That way they can better predict how fast the ice may
disappear, and help other scientists gauge how the sea will adapt.
Solid ice reflects sunlight, while standing water absorbs it. If too
much ice melts, it may create what scientists call a feedback loop:
Sunlight will heat more water, increasing Arctic warming, which will
help melt more ice and accelerate the warming cycle.
Hezel fished another crystalline sample from the ice and flipped it
over in his gloved hand to reveal speckles of colored algae buried
"You have brown, but there's orange in here too, a totally different
kind of life," he said.
Recent exploration of the depths of the Beaufort Sea revealed a
surprising diversity despite frigid, dark conditions. In small
volumes of water, thousands of tiny plants and animals teem -
inchlong, shrimplike crustaceans, tiny worms and jellyfishlike
creatures the size and color of oranges.
Because no sunlight penetrates for most of the year, the organisms
feed only during short periods in summer, when sun and melting ice
produce algae, which is eaten by crustaceans. Crustaceans and tiny
sand-flealike creatures foraging beneath the ice feed Arctic cod,
which feed almost everything else, from ringed seals to seabirds.
But as ice cover retreats, Arctic cod move father out to sea to chase
crustaceans, making it difficult for other creatures to find food
closer to land. And as warming produces more sunlight, other species -
from salmon to warm-weather birds - are invading the Arctic.
"The entire food web of the upper ocean is changing, and that could
have disastrous impacts on many species," said Rolf Gradinger, an
oceanography professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Few have been harder hit than the Arctic's top predator.
As they collected ice samples, Moritz and Hezel stopped every few
minutes for a slow, 360-degree scan for the telltale cream-white fur
of a polar bear.
Days earlier, Hezel and another colleague had stepped off their
snowmobiles near a whale carcass, and turned to see a feeding bear.
They fired a warning shot, dumped their instruments and fled.
"It was pretty crazy," Hezel said. "And pretty scary."
Increased rain has been collapsing polar-bear dens, and shorter
summer-ice seasons have made it harder for the fearless omnivores to
While polar bears have adapted over thousands of years to life on the
ice, they are more often now found paddling through the ocean in
search of prey, or on land near shore gnawing on whales killed by
Last year at least four bears, likely more, appear to have drowned
while swimming between melting sheets of ice - an entirely new
The University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center shows
that the amount of ice on the Arctic Ocean during September is
declining 8 percent each year. And many computer models suggest there
won't be summer ice at all by century's end - if not sooner.
Those trends led scientists this year to predict that the polar-bear
population worldwide, now at about 25,000 - about 3,800 in Alaska -
will drop by a third in 35 to 50 years.
To survive, polar bears may have to learn to live on solid tundra,
which means competing with grizzly bears and people and exposing
themselves to new sources of disease.
But life on the tundra has trouble of its own.
Lessons from lemmings
Mat Seidensticker gunned the engine of his four-wheel all-terrain
vehicle and bombed down a muddy road into Barrow, waving to an
Inupiat grandmother walking with a baby on her back.
The 26-year-old owl biologist was on his way to check a nest for
snowy owls, the stark-white, toddler-sized puffs of feathers that
breed just outside Barrow, which in Inupiat is called Ukpeagvik,
or "place where snowy owls are hunted."
The owls help explain how small shifts in nature may be altering the
Barely a mile outside Barrow, Seidensticker pulled off the road and
tromped through a puddled field of lichen, moss and grassy plants
with triangular stems. There, the 6-foot-6 scientist suddenly dropped
to his hands and knees, chasing a tiny lemming that shot like a
bullet through the moss.
"Missed him!" Seidensticker shouted.
Seidensticker, with the Owl Research Institute of Montana, once
sifted through 4,000 bits of waste regurgitated by snowy owls to pick
apart the tiny skulls of rodents they ate. He discovered that 97
percent of their diet was lemmings, gerbil-sized critters that zip
along through tiny "runways" carved in the tundra.
"When you have lots of lemmings, you also have lots of owls," he
said. "We haven't had lots of either in a while."
Lemmings were so common in Barrow in the 1970s that they regularly
scampered over people's feet. A researcher once caught 700 in a
single day. And while lemming populations always fluctuate wildly,
scientists say today's peaks don't appear as high, or as frequent, as
they once were - a trend some scientists suspect is linked to global
In the wintertime, lemmings travel through pockets between the snow
and frozen ground, but mild snowfall and warm weather have been
collapsing those corridors. In summer, lemmings like moist, damp
tundra. But as the Arctic earth warms, it also dries out. Just last
summer, scientists noted that 125 Arctic lakes had drained into the
soil and disappeared.
Little transformations like those can signal big changes.
Shrubs are proliferating, as changes in temperature and moisture
alter plant species.
The nearest trees to Barrow are roughly 130 miles south, but warmer-
weather tree species such as spruce have advanced onto the tundra six
miles in a century. That adds to warming because forests absorb more
sun than meadows.
And while Arctic tundra itself accounts for roughly 8 percent of the
planet's land mass, it holds a quarter or more of the carbon stored
in the Earth. New evidence suggests melting permafrost may release
more of that carbon as greenhouse gas to the atmosphere - another way
the Arctic may accelerate global warming.
Still other scientists suggest all this new vegetation means more
plants will be there to convert greenhouse gases to oxygen.
Either way, the change is so basic some Natives are convinced they
can taste it in the meat of caribous and other animals that graze on
"It's like if you've been eating at McDonald's for 20 years, and then
suddenly you go to Burger King," said Leonard Lampe, a resident of
the Inupiat village of Nuiqsut, near the central Beaufort Sea
coast. "It tastes different, but you can't say how."
As frozen rivers break up sooner, they are interfering with some
wildlife migrations. Birds common to California or Connecticut now
skitter near the shores of the Beaufort Sea. Ring-neck ducks, rarely
seen in the Arctic before the mid-1980s, now number in the thousands
in just one area of north Alaska.
Such complex relationships have wildlife managers taking elaborate
Back on the tundra, Seidensticker crouched low in the soggy field as
a snowy owl circled in the distance, keeping an eye on a nest on a
mound in the grass.
Snowy owls will swoop down with outstretched talons to attack
anything that comes near their eggs. Some waterfowl - such as ducks
called Steller's eiders, which are protected by the Endangered
Species Act - tend to build their nests nearby because the owls keep
predators at bay.
"Whether it's a fox, a gull, or me, owls will dive-bomb you and hit
you and call loudly and do everything they can to keep you away,"
Seidensticker said, fingering a tear in his jacket from an earlier
But because fewer lemmings can also mean fewer owls to scare away
foxes, the "foxes are going around eating all the eiders' eggs they
want," said Nora Rojek, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist.
So this year the agency tried something new: It stole eggs from nests
and incubated them in a lab. And it hired a trio of fox killers,
including Seykora, to trap and shoot predators skulking around the
This summer, breeding success was unusually high.
"I don't know if it's a cause-and-effect relationship," said Brian
Person, a biologist with the municipal government of Northern
Alaska. "Was it because of fox removal? I don't know ... but it sure
* * *
Drilling in ANWR: The battle continues
Last year the United States again came close to opening a portion of
the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil
drilling. The battle is not over.
After failing last spring to approve drilling as part of an energy
bill, this fall Senate Republicans put the measure in a spending
package, but it was defeated in the House. Last month Sen. Ted
Stevens, R-Alaska, added drilling to a military-spending package, but
the provision, which had been approved in the House, was dropped
after a filibuster led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
The Bush administration says exploration would use environmentally
friendly technology, would be limited to 2,000 acres and could lead
to the country's greatest oil find in decades.
Opponents say the 2,000-acre figure doesn't account for pipelines,
gravel pits, pump stations and waste plants that would accompany the
oil development. And they say even a large oil find would meet a mere
fraction of the nation's needs while soiling the refuge.
The North Slope's Inupiat, who own some oil rights inside ANWR,
generally support drilling there, though many oppose offshore
drilling or oil exploration in other wildlife-rich areas.
The nearby Gwich'in Athabascans oppose drilling in ANWR because it is
a popular hunting ground for caribous, which are as central to their
culture as whaling is to the Inupiats.
In the 1990s, Congress approved ANWR drilling, but President Clinton
Stevens has vowed to continue pushing for drilling this year.
* * *
Pollution, reproduction and the food chain
The industrial world's pollution is riding to the Arctic on wind, on
ocean currents and in bird droppings.
Nursing mothers in Arctic Canada pass mercury from coal burning in
Asia to their children through breast milk. Pesticides and
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are causing reproductive problems in
Greenland's polar bears. Radiation from nuclear accidents and old
weapons tests has polluted reindeer in Arctic Russia.
Yet partly because Alaska has different sea and air-circulation
patterns, the U.S. Arctic appears to have avoided the worst of this -
for now, scientists say.
Instead, experts worry that Native Alaskans afraid of contamination
may replace eating healthy, vitamin-rich wildlife with junk food.
"How can you feel good about sharing a PCB sandwich with an elder?"
asked Alaska researcher Henry Huntington.
* * *
Birds help connect the global ecosystem
To understand how closely tied the Arctic is to the rest of the
world, consider this: Bird species that summer in Arctic Alaska are
disappearing because their winter homes elsewhere in the world are
threatened by development, pesticides, hunting and other problems.
Nearly 40 percent of migratory shorebird species that breed on
Alaska's Arctic Coast are believed to be declining, according to a
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report to be released next year.
Examples abound: Wetlands loss in South Korea is driving away
dunlins. On Delaware Bay in the United States, red knots have fewer
horseshoe-crab eggs to eat. In Argentina, overgrazing is ruining
winter habitat for sandpipers.
But it's a two-way street. So many millions of the world's birds
summer in Northern Alaska that government studies have concluded that
Arctic climate change, and perhaps even oil development, could alter
ecosystems across the globe.
* * *
Buried greenhouse gases
Carbon trapped in the tundra can be converted to greenhouse gases as
the Arctic thaws. And there may be significantly more of it than
anyone thought - in some cases 125 times more.
In the 1990s, scientists dug a few inches into the high Arctic tundra
and found billions of tons of carbon in the soil.
In December, after three years of research in Greenland, University
of Washington doctoral candidate Jennifer Horwath dug several feet
She found, in some areas, at least nine times more carbon. In others
she found 125 times more.
The discovery is significant because as permafrost melts, "that
carbon can be consumed by microbes and little bugs that turn it into
CO2 [carbon dioxide], which can travel to the atmosphere," Horwath
That, in turn, could rapidly increase global warming.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 Seattle Times
Steve Ringman: 206-464-8143 Seattle Times
Copyright � 2005 The Seattle Times Company
Monday, January 2, 2006
Oil drilling alters landscape, life for tiny Inupiat village
by Craig Welch
Seattle Times staff reporter
Caught up in the current of change Thomas Ahtuangaruak, whose father
helped settle the village of Nuiqsut three decades ago, races along a
channel of the Colville River on his way to a family member's fishing
cabin a few miles downstream from home. Many Nuiqsut residents
complain that expanding oil development is crowding them out of the
fishing and hunting grounds their parents used. STEVE RINGMAN / THE
NUIQSUT, Alaska - Thomas Ahtuangaruak ripped down the Colville River,
sucking an exceedingly damp cigarette and chewing on raw caribou fat
like it was gum.
The Arctic sun was weeks from setting, but Ahtuangaruak's aluminum
boat kicked up a spray so icy it burned.
The 36-year-old Inupiat and his friend Jonah Taleak were goofing off,
poking around Native fishing huts outside Nuiqsut, a remote village
in Alaska's Arctic, not far from the Beaufort Sea.
But when they whipped around a bend, the pair grew somber at a sight
they'd seen hundreds of times before.
Rising like a missile silo from the hopelessly flat coastal plain was
a monument to the best and worst of their future: an oil rig,
drilling a well for the ConocoPhillips Alpine Oil Field.
"Kind of hard to miss, isn't it?" Ahtuangaruak asked in a near
The hunt for energy is marching across the Arctic, and arguments are
raging over how oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
(ANWR) might alter life for Alaska's Natives. Some answers may lie
here, in the village of Nuiqsut, population 450, about 100 miles west
Despite oil drilling that the industry insists is the least intrusive
ever done, this community is already experiencing the mix of progress
and decay that comes from having oil in the backyard.
A thousand years of culture are clashing with the promise of
prosperity. And with oil development exploding all around, Nuiqsut's
internal struggle is bound to escalate.
Settled 30 years ago by Inupiat seeking a more traditional life of
hunting and bartering, this once-barren meadow is now ringed by
pipelines and well pads that some villagers blame for chasing off
Oil money has packed Nuiqsut's dirt streets with Dodge pickups.
Satellite dishes poke out like elephant ears from homes that only
recently got indoor plumbing. Yet now that offshore wells are pumping
crude from beneath the Arctic Ocean, even pro-oil Nuiqsut residents
worry that an oil spill on broken ice would devastate whales.
Winter ice roads built by oil companies open the village to the rest
of Alaska - and boost the flow of methamphetamine, marijuana and
liquor into a dry community.
Some Native villages "look at Nuiqsut and say, 'Oh my gosh, I hope
that doesn't happen here,' " said Sverre Pedersen, with the Alaska
Department of Fish and Game's division of subsistence.
Inupiat leaders in Barrow, however, maintain oil is progress.
"Nuiqsut talking about oil is like someone in the middle of a root
canal trying to evaluate the pros and cons of dentistry," said
Richard Glenn, vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.,
which holds subsurface rights to Alpine oil.
"The question is: Is it worth it?"
Fueled by oil
Stretching from the Bering Sea to the Canadian border and from the
crooked knobs of the Brooks Range across flatland tundra to the
coast, Alaska's North Slope is a treeless expanse the size of Idaho -
a place where roiling winds are so powerful they can reshape lakes.
Called "the world's largest municipality," the North Slope consists
of 7,000 residents in eight villages, including Nuiqsut
(pronounced "new-WICK-sit"), with tiny road systems that don't even
connect to one another.
Virtually everything on the North Slope is paid for by oil - all of
it, until recently, drawn from the 1,000-square-mile industrial zone
of Prudhoe Bay.
Property taxes on Prudhoe oil fields support the municipal
government. The $1.3-billion Native-owned company, Arctic Slope, gets
money from oil rights, runs a network of refining and construction
companies and pays dividends to Native residents. Each village has a
subsidiary corporation that also pays dividends, though not all
village residents are shareholders.
Still, life here remains a curious blend of ancient and modern.
Every year, Inupiat men disappear for weeks, paddling sealskin canoes
out to sea to harpoon bowhead whales and shoot them with torpedo-
shaped bombs. CB radios crackle from most homes as neighbors announce
birthdays or broadcast the arrival of daily airplane flights.
Children play outside long after midnight, soaking up summer's round-
the-clock sun. Hunters carry global-positioning systems but still
find their way by reading snowdrifts.
On this sunny summer day, Ahtuangaruak, who makes his living
delivering packages, tooled around Nuiqsut in his pickup, chain-
smoking in a T-shirt and bragging about the balmy weather.
"Could get up to 40 degrees," he said.
As he made his rounds, he spotted Mae Masuleak, a village elder,
shuffling up the dusty lane toward the plywood Post Office. He placed
a tiny stool on the ground to help her into the cab.
Ahtuangaruak's father and Masuleak were among 150 people who left
Barrow in 1973 after Congress approved a settlement allowing Alaskan
Natives to reclaim lost lands. They traveled 136 miles by snowmobile
in a place where temperatures can hit minus 56 Fahrenheit, reaching
the Colville River delta and settling on a bluff a few miles from the
For 18 months, they lived in white, wind-battered canvas tents. All
the while, a reminder of Western culture shined 60 miles away: lights
from newly developed Prudhoe Bay.
Through the years, oil development crept ever closer, bringing
people, planes and money, and an expanding industrial complex.
"When we first came here, there was just a dim little candlelight
from Prudhoe," Masuleak said. "Now we're like a little suburb,
surrounded by thousands of lights."
Oil already has transformed life here from pit toilets and dogsleds
to top-of-the-line Ski-Doo snowmobiles and flat-screen TVs. Today the
town's modular houses are built on stilts above the tundra to stay
dry through the summer thaw. They're set back from the street in
perfect alignment, like rainbow-colored military barracks. Powerboats
litter yards where bear furs dry on wood blocks. The air is abuzz
with the sound of all-terrain vehicles.
After pools of crude were discovered just eight miles downstream in
1996 - America's largest oil find in more than a decade - oil
companies promised, and largely delivered, the latest in
environmentally friendly oil development.
Drills tapped wells in dozens of directions underground from only a
handful of sites. Development initially disturbed little more than
100 acres. The oil was sent to Prudhoe Bay through a pipe 100 feet
beneath the Colville River, to avoid the risk of a spill in the water.
Oil executives told Congress and the public that Alpine was evidence
of oil companies "doing it right." Today, ConocoPhillips, the company
that operates the Alpine Oil Field, boasts that Alpine is "a model
for future North Slope developments because of its 'near-zero-impact'
But last year, villagers found out the federal government had
approved a massive expansion: five more drill sites, another
airstrip, two river bridges, a 65-acre gravel pit, 37 miles of new
pipeline and more than 25 miles of permanent roads - all in a
semicircle around Nuiqsut.
Oil has been discovered at other sites nearby. The Bureau of Land
Management has received applications to drill at least 19 test wells
west of Nuiqsut. And last spring, Shell Oil paid $44 million for the
right to hunt for oil along a wide offshore swath of the Arctic Ocean.
"You could say some people were a little unhappy," Ahtuangaruak said,
dropping Masuleak at the Nuiqsut Post Office.
The hunting life
A half-mile down the street, Leonard Lampe picked at the blood on his
fingers as he watched his mother-in-law hack at a caribou carcass
with a cleaver.
Rose Kaigelak carved heaps of meat from the bones of the two animals
Lampe had bagged the night before. Lampe, 38, a former Nuiqsut mayor,
loaded the steaks onto a tarp.
The legs and ribs would be boiled or barbecued, Lampe said. He picked
errant hairs off the small hunks of raw fat and popped them into his
"The tongue and heart, of course, we'll cut all up into pieces to
make soup," he said.
Inupiat hunt everything - from bearded seals and walruses to wild
muskoxen and geese.
They hunt because the top layer of brittle soil above the frozen
tundra won't grow corn or wheat or beans. They hunt because game meat
is nutritious. They hunt because a 12-ounce package of Oscar Mayer
deli ham at the AC Value Center grocery store costs $8, and a 3-pound
pack of hamburger patties runs $16.
Mostly, they hunt because they always have.
"My youngest son wakes up these days and wants frozen fish for
breakfast," said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Thomas Ahtuangaruak's
cousin. "So I'm trying to make sure at least two meals a day are
But so few caribous venture near town these days that Ahtuangaruak
calls those that do "the lost ones." The above-ground pipelines and
barge traffic on the river have blocked access to popular duck- and
goose-hunting grounds. The hundreds of helicopter and airplane
flights a season sometimes scare away birds. Nuiqsut whalers complain
that offshore oil exploration chases bowhead whales too far from
shore to hunt, and residents say the practice of burning off excess
gas at drill sites pollutes their air.
ConocoPhillips has paid tens of thousands of dollars in fines for
failures that led to turbines pumping too much carbon monoxide into
the air. And the company has spilled oil, mud and chemicals in or
near the Colville River.
"They're drilling in prime fishing areas," Lampe complained. "Where
they propose to build a bridge for a pipeline is a very hot area for
Arctic cisco [a type of whitefish]. Air pollution will eventually
fall out on birds, the waterfowl, pretty much everything that's
"The areas where my dad taught me to hunt, I had to let go of. I had
to learn whole new areas, and now those are going to change for my
ConocoPhillips says Alpine is comparatively quite small, occupying
only a fraction of the tundra outside Nuiqsut, and uses roads
sparingly. New pipelines will be high enough for caribous to pass
beneath, and the company has voluntarily reported air-pollution
violations. ConocoPhillips has even conducted studies into the effect
of noise on birds, concluding there have been "no significant impacts
to nesting success."
"ConocoPhillips is proud of its environmental record and the manner
in which Alpine was developed," the company said in a written
response to questions for this story. "Alpine continues to operate in
a manner which respects the subsistence way of life."
But Pedersen, with the game agency, said hunters are being crowded
into smaller and smaller areas.
"People are uncomfortable hunting in developed areas, have difficulty
getting there, or have concerns about them being polluted," he
said. "East of the Colville River was a big bird hunting area they're
not able to use anymore. Near the coast, man-made gravel islands are
being built for processing, and there's all this boat and plane
traffic and strangers all over the place."
Nuiqsut whaler Jonah Nukapigak fears the village is trading away its
For generations, Inupiat whalers hauled carcasses out on beaches
north of Nuiqsut. Then in 1993, a mechanic at a nearby Air Force
radar site was mauled by a polar bear.
Now oil companies help pay to barge the whales to a dock, where they
are boxed up, trucked to Prudhoe Bay, packed into airplanes and flown
back to Nuiqsut - in part so oil workers aren't threatened by bears
drawn by the carcasses.
Life here now depends on oil.
Bounty and poverty
As the weather chilled in the afternoon, Thomas Ahtuangaruak slid on
his jacket, a navy-blue windbreaker with a ConocoPhillips logo.
He had driven down the road to check on preparations for Isaac
Nukapigak's nalukataq - a village celebration of a successful whale
Nukapigak, Jonah's brother, was also elbow-deep in blood, carving
caribou for soup. In a tent in the dirt driveway, his mother-in-law
fried bread. Nukapigak's wife popped in and out of the house in
slacks and high heels.
As president of Nuiqsut's Native corporation, Nukapigak knows what
It helped build a teen center, a gymnasium, a health clinic, fire
station and a school. Oil executives at Alpine agreed to supply
Nuiqsut with natural gas to heat their homes.
The Native corporation owns surface rights to Alpine and profits
directly from drilling. A third of the villagers are shareholders,
and the corporation has paid out $6 million, divided among 200 of
them over five years.
Still, "not everyone here does as good as everyone else," said
Nukapigak, who makes $80,000 a year, twice the median income in the
Up to a third of the adults here don't have jobs. Most who do are
employed by the government.
Only a few dozen residents are employed by the oil fields. Others
have tried to get work there but failed drug tests - a problem some
contend is exacerbated by oil development.
While Nukapigak butchered his caribous, a woman raced by on a four-
wheeled ATV. She sat up straight in the saddle, but her eyes were
expressionless as she repeatedly circled the same two dusty blocks.
"Our social problems are real," Nukapigak said. "We have drugs, we've
Nuiqsut is one of 98 Alaskan communities since 1979 that have voted
to outlaw alcoholic beverages to combat high alcoholism rates.
But the same ice roads that now let villagers drive 465 miles to the
Sam's Club store in Fairbanks to stock up on peanut butter, cereal,
Hungry Man dinners and toilet paper also make it easier to import
drugs and alcohol, said Paul Carr, the former chief of the North
Slope police force.
In Nuiqsut on this nalukataq day, one elderly man rode around town
drinking bottle after bottle of Nyquil.
A government survey of school kids recently found elders were often
robbed by neighbors seeking drug money. Not long ago, a villager was
caught trying to smuggle in dozens of bottles of rum, which can fetch
up to $150 apiece.
"If you talk to the rest of Alaska, they'll tell you North Slope
folks are rich," Carr said.
But that's deceptive, he said. "Where there is disposable income, we
see a higher level of disorder. But there's poverty here, too."
Up the road from Isaac Nukapigak's home, his brother, Edward
Nukapigak, leaned on a cane, helping their mother sew floats onto
fish nets. His mother sat on the ground in a flower-print dress, and
pulled up ill-fitting socks.
"Do we look like millionaires?" Edward Nukapigak said.
As the nalukataq began, Thomas Ahtuangaruak sat in his pickup and
smoked cigarettes. Villagers and out-of-town guests gathered on a
softball field. One of Isaac Nukapigak's sisters was being tossed in
the air with a blanket held by family and friends, an amusement that
recalls days when hunters were thrown like this to spot whales.
But another of Nukapigak's siblings, Eli Nukapigak, a city councilman
and one of the village's best hunters, was fidgety.
He left the party and shuffled silently down a dirt road to town. He
climbed the steps of a community hall and entered a vast, empty
There, he pointed to detailed maps on the walls, showing the places
oil companies may want to put more oil rigs and pipelines across the
Sweat beaded on his brow.
"We won't be able to use these areas for the next 30 years," Eli
Nukapigak said quietly.
With hands on his hips, he stood there, considering his future.
* * *
Linking native knowledge to science
Arctic scientists increasingly use the observations of Native
Alaskans to guide research.
When Native Arctic fishermen said they feared that whitefish had
declined in the Colville River because of off-shore oil drilling or a
spill of contaminated mud, the federal Minerals Management Service
launched a study, to be completed next year.
When Natives reported that seal skins appeared more translucent, and
that they had seen more deformed fish, it helped prompt more research
into the contamination of Arctic estuaries.
Now the National Science Foundation funds workshops in Arctic
communities where residents suggest research topics.
* * *
Scars on the tundra
The outside world has left scars on the Arctic that can be difficult,
even impossible, to remove.
Roads and runways etched across the tundra 50 years ago are still
visible today - even when they haven't been used in decades.
The U.S. military abandoned strings of radar sites along the Arctic
coast after the Cold War, leaving behind contamination that has
leached into the Arctic Ocean.
Just the cleanup of sites in and around the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge involves thousands of pounds of contaminated soil, asbestos-
lined buildings and thousands of drums of oil, the banned pesticide
DDT, cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals.
* * *
Oil vs. whales
In Arctic Alaska, oil wells on the ocean have arrived. First came
BP's Northstar well, in 2001. Then this spring Shell paid $44 million
to explore millions of acres of the Beaufort Sea.
Geologists think the ocean off Arctic Alaska holds significantly more
oil than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But Inupiats worried about whales have fought for 25 years to block
Noise from oil exploration scatters whales for miles. "It's spooking
them," said George Ahmaogak, former North Slope Borough mayor.
Scientists say an oil spill in the fall, when new ice drifts and
mixes with heavy slush, would be tough to control. And the Army Corps
of Engineers once estimated the chance of a spill from one offshore
rig in the Arctic was high.
Yet ocean drilling is banned off much of the Lower 48's coastline,
and not where residents hunt whales for food, Ahmaogak fumed.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 Seattle Times
Steve Ringman: 206-464-8143 Seattle Times
Copyright � 2006 The Seattle Times Company
Sunday, January 1, 2006
Arctic Out of Balance: Further reading
Seattle Times reporter Craig Welch traveled to Alaska's North Slope
and conducted extensive interviews with native Alaskans, scientists,
state and federal officials and others. In addition, information was
gathered from dozens of government reports, peer-reviewed scientific
studies, journals and other sources. Some of those include:
Shrinking sea ice - National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of
Climate change, general (food-chain issues, vegetation, temperature) -
Arctic Climate Impact Assessment: http://www.amap.no/acia/
Climate change, general (wildlife, treelines, temperature) - Larry
Hinzman, et al: http://www.faculty.uaf.edu/fffsc/Chapin%
Melting ice roads - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:
Impact of melting ice on rate of climate change - National Science
Foundation: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/310/5748/657 -
Impact of melting ice on rate of climate change - University of
Washington Polar Science Center:
Decline of black guillemots - National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Decline of black guillemots - Friends of Cooper Island:
Disappearing tundra lakes - National Science Foundation:
New discoveries in Arctic Ocean - National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Beaufort Sea, climate change - National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Polar bear declines - International Polar Bear Specialists Group:
Polar bear drownings - Minerals Management Service:
Steller's eiders, biology - Lori Quackenbush, et al:
Storage of carbon in tundra - San Diego State University Global
Change Research Group: http://www.gcrg.sdsu.edu/index.php?tab=Research
Storage of carbon in tundra - National Science Foundation:
Storage of carbon in tundra - Jennifer Horwath, University of
Arctic pollution, general (mercury, PCBs, radiation) - Arctic
Monitoring and Assessment Programme: http://www.amap.no
Arctic pollution, ocean - National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Arctic pollution, mercury in snow - U.S. Army Cold Regions Research
and Engineering Laboratory:
Arctic pollution, transport by birds - Queen's University, Ontario,
Native science, general - Alaska Native Science Commission:
Impacts of oil in Arctic Alaska - National Research Council:
Arctic oil exploration - Bureau of Land Management, National
Petroleum Reserve pages: http://www.ak.blm.gov/npra.html
Arctic off-shore oil exploration - Minerals Management Service
North Slope government - North Slope Borough page: http://www.north-
Climate science, Barrow - Barrow Arctic Research Consortium:
Copyright � 2005 The Seattle Times Company
NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this
material is distributed to the WCD membership without profit, for
research and educational purposes only.
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