En route to Barrow, the Alaska Airlines flight stopped briefly at Deadhorse Junction. With my nose pressed to the window as the plane came gently down, I caught a glimpse of a vast, flat, white expanse of ice, with what looked like broken chunks scattered and pushed together to form pressure ridges. That was my first glimpse of the Arctic Ocean.
Deadhorse Junction in the Prudhoe Bay oilfield lies in one of the centers of oil and gas onshore drilling. Judging from the passengers who got on the flight, this was man’s country – large men, all white as far as I could tell, with the Alyeska pipeline logo embroidered on their shirts. The airport was a large metal shed; the men walked to the plane across the snow, up a ladder and in, greeting each other.
We got to Barrow barely an hour later. It was a flat, endless expanse of snow so bright it hurt the eyes, punctuated by the roofs of houses. As we landed I saw metal buildings and sheds; definitely a border outpost feel to the town. The one-room airport was packed; it took me some time to go past the desks and people, and find the small area where baggage was delivered. This, too, was crowded. There were a knot of people in coastguard uniforms talking earnestly with a large Iñupiaq man; there were natives and white people. No other people of color, and certainly no Asian Indians, a new experience for me! It took a while for the luggage to come. When it did, I called the hotel where I was staying, barely two blocks away. The temperature was a relatively temperate 13 degrees F, but a breeze was blowing. Not a day for a walk with heavy luggage. I was relieved when the taxi came and delivered me to the small inn. In the lobby I found myself face to face with a poster warning of polar bears. I was greeted with a friendly smile from the receptionist, who turned out to be Thai. Settling down into my room, which included kitchenette facilities, I pondered my situation. Here I was in a remote place where I knew nobody. I hadn’t heard back from the people I’d contacted. I’d been advised that Barrow was the kind of place where it is best to go see what happens, especially since I wasn’t part of any kind of official delegation. This is very similar to the go-with-the-flow, let’s-go-there-and-see-what-happens attitude I am familiar with in India. I just had to get into the spirit of adventure.
I did have one contact who had promised me a tour of the NOAA observatory, the northernmost meteorological observatory in the US. So as soon as I was settled in, I called Marty, and he generously arranged for his fellow technician, Shannon, to pick me up after lunch. Her truck lurched over the frozen ground (nearly all the roads were covered with packed ice) and her beautiful dog, an Alaskan Malamute, shared the seat as we left the town and headed along the coast. There was the frozen ocean, an endless expanse stretching as far as eye could see, the chunks of ice pushed up into ridges of varying sizes. The road went along it, past the old Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, now space for other offices, and wound into the tundra. We passed the ARM facility that the friendly geophysicist from Fairbanks had so kindly told me about, and there, further ahead, was the NOAA observatory. It was a small building, surrounded by instrument stations, above which rose a tower. Everything was white, from the ground to the overcast sky. Everything, except…
“Look, caribou!” Shannon said, and I could see in the distance a few animals. This was the time when the females were pregnant and hunting was off-limits. They had been hanging around not far from the station, she explained. We went down some icy metal stairs into the building, which appeared at first sight to be half-buried in snow. Shannon’s dog bounded off into the tundra.
Inside it was warm, and I was greeted warmly by Marty. Thankfully it was a slow day for them, so they could spend some tome showing me around. We went to the roof first, where I saw rooftop apparatus for measuring albedo, the Dobson facility a little further on, with its white dome, for stratospheric ozone, as well as instrumentation for local measurements of methane outgassing. Inside the facility I saw instruments and monitors presenting data in real time. It was truly amazing. Air was pulled in from the outside, and carbon dioxide levels and other measurements (methane, aerosols) taken. I saw one of the monitors recording CO2 levels – 410 ppm at this moment in time. Depending on which way the wind blew, the number was different – if the wind blew from the town, it was generally higher. At this moment the wind was coming from over the sea. For someone with a theoretical physics background, it was a real treat to see how the measurements were made, and have the instrumentation explained. I was like a kid in a candy store! I made copious and hopefully intelligible notes, including notes to look up this or that instrument. The aethelometer was particularly fascinating.
Later Marty took me to see the station for measuring stratospheric ozone. We entered the small room below a telescope-dome type roof, where a 100-year-old instrument, wrapped in a thermal clothing, was still going strong. It caught the light from the sun and made measurements of UV radiation in various frequencies, which gave an idea of the health of the ozone layer. Coming back in, we were greeted by Sal, a cheerful young biologist who also did instrumentation – we had a wonderful conversation about his travels in the Laccadives and his concern about how climate change was affecting marine ecosystems.
I was struck by the competence and intelligence of these young people, and their generosity and enthusiasm in sharing their work with me. They dropped me off at the offices of the Department of Wildlife Management, which adjoins Ilisagvik college, a two-year tribal college. Here, after some waiting (the coast guard contingent I’d seen at the airport were here) I was lucky enough to be introduced to some of the scientists who work here. Learning about how biodiversity is affected by climate change was one of my aims, but another thing I was keen to learn about was the partnership between the Inupiat community and the scientific one. I spoke to Craig, Todd, Andy and Brian for a while (it was nearly the end of the day) and arranged to chat more the next day. I had corresponded with Craig some months ago, and had discovered that his late mother was the famous children’s writer Jean George. Jean George’s books were a major formative influence on me from mid-teens onward – along with Gerald Durrell’s books, they validated and deepened how I thought about non-human beings. In particular, Jean George’s books impressed upon me an early fascinating with the Arctic (Julie of the Wolves and Water Sky), and validated what we teens (engaged in environmental work in Delhi in the 1980s) were finding out about environment and people – that local people were often the best caretakers of the land, and that the model of conservation that sets up a false dichotomy between the welfare of people and nature is doomed to fail.
I got a ride back to the hotel with Brian and Todd, two biologists with stories to tell about polar bear sightings. The scientists are on call for polar bears who wander close to or into town, and have the unenviable job of scaring away these dangerous animals. I returned to my hotel with my head buzzing with information and excitement. There was so much to learn, from the science end all the way to Iñupiaq customs and culture. My room was much too warm – I had to open the window a little to let the sub-freezing air inside, since there were no temperature controls in the room. The North Slope borough, sitting as it does on the US National Petroleum reserve which has made this community quite well off, provides residents with abundant natural gas for warming their homes.
Outside, the light was still almost unbearably bright. It would stay that way for nearly 24 hours. I was able to photograph an interesting optical phenomenon from the warmth of the hotel lobby – a sun pillar, sometime around 10 pm. A tower of red-gold light rose vertically from where the sun was setting behind a building. Another phenomenon to look up and learn about! I was almost too excited to sleep. I had to draw the curtains so that I could pretend it was dark, but the white light glowed through the cloth. Somehow, I slept.
Second Day in Barrow:
Today was so packed that I can only summarize it as bullet points.
- Morning – wild foods breakfast at the Department of Wildlife Management, where Craig had generously invited me to meet the people who worked there. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and perhaps amused by my peculiar resume. I met Craig’s wife, who works on animal health issues, and a number of his other colleagues. And there was quite a spread! Apart from salmon, there were various kinds of meat, and pie. Although I don’t eat meat (except for a little fish), I decided to have a small amount of bowhead whale meat in honor of the great animal. It was hunted by local hunters, part of a thousands-year tradition centered around respect for the whale – an entirely different situation than, say, a commercial fishery or animal-torturing factory farm. It tasted very interesting, with a soft, consistent texture unlike anything I’d tried before. I was introduced to a number of scientists, including Iñupiaq whalers and hunters whose detailed knowledge of the animals in the region is crucial.
- Two of the people I met, both Iñupiaq, Mike and Billy, generously offered to take me on a drive along the ocean shore. (Billy turned out to be the large, genial guy I’d seen at the airport shepherding the coastguard contingent). In that half-hour I learned more about ice, whaling, Inupiat customs and attitudes toward the whale and toward oil and gas, than I could have imagined. We stopped at a point where the Chukchi Sea meets a lagoon from the Beaufort sea, and a spit of land goes northward toward the tower that is Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the US. All was white and still, and very cold. Now that it was pointed out to me, I could see the difference between the land ice and the sea ice. Billy pointed out multiyear ice, hard and thick. The sea ice had been getting thinner, and less safe for hunters – hunting camps on the ice have been known to separate from the shore and go adrift. It took longer for the ice to build back after the summer melt, and it happened later in the year. On our return we stopped so I could photograph polar bear tracks going over the ice. As we drove back toward the office, Billy spoke eloquently about what the whaling tradition meant to the Inupiat. “We were the first conservationists,” he said. He told me about how a landed whale was shared with the entire community, and how it fed people right into the thick of winter. I was lucky indeed to meet one of the great whalers of Barrow.
- My luck held, because not long after, I was able to meet with Taqulik, who heads the Wildlife office. She gave me a brief history of how the Iñupiat people had achieved self-determination and control over their resources, after over a century of exploitation. It seemed that Inupiat learned quite quickly how to function well in the corporate world, more so than others expected, and they made good investments that could, perhaps, see them through even if the oil economy shifted or collapsed due to climate change considerations. The Inuit Circumpolar Council, the coalition of native peoples that ring the Arctic Circle from Alaska all the way east through Greenland and Russia and back, started here in Barrow. It is a permanent member of the Arctic Council, with full voting rights. I asked about offshore oil and gas development, and about the ranges of opinions I’d read about, from the vehemently opposed to the enthusiastic. Her answer was diplomatic, essentially that whatever changes decision-makers were pushing, the Iñupiat people would make sure that they had a seat at the table and a say in the matter.
- I spoke at greater length to Craig about the changes that climate was bringing to the Arctic. Interestingly nobody I spoke with here doubts that climate change is real and anthropogenic. The effects are so obvious, and so divergent from all the changes that have occurred in ancestral memory, that it makes no sense to deny it. Craig is doing some fascinating work on the thermoregulatory mechanism in bowhead whales. It turns out that the thick layer of blubber under the skin is more a fuel source than a warming blanket. Perhaps concerns about the Bowhead’s survival in warmer waters may be premature, because it appears to have a very low metabolism and thus may not end up suffering from overheating. Craig and his team, with the permission of the whalers, get to take various measurements of landed whales after a hunt, and this enables him to calculate its likely metabolic rate. They can live probably 200 years or so. I realized later that Craig had been unduly modest – I learned from another source that he was the one to make the first determinations of bowhead age. We talked also about the other animals that are crucial to the Iñupiat people, such as caribou, polar bear, and seal. His general impression is that many arctic large animals may be more adaptable than we think, but each has its vulnerabilities. If they are hit in their Achilles tendon, as it were, then they can suffer a catastrophic collapse. One real danger to bowheads is the increasing number of killer whales moving into now warmer Arctic waters from the Atlantic. Earlier, the cold and the ice were barriers to these pack hunters. Craig showed me a picture of bowheads with scars from killer whale encounters. Knowing that bowheads have such a long lifetime, and that they are intelligent and highly social creatures with a vast sonography, I was moved to ask him “what do you think they think about, all that time, all those years?” We speculated on that unanswerable question for a while.
- From a lunchtime conversation I learned from Andy, whose work focuses on seals, how seals are likely to be affected by the changing ice conditions. The prevailing hypothesis is that that the ocean water is starting to freeze later in the year, so that when snow falls, it does so on liquid water and immediately melts. What would happen normally is that the snow would fall on sea ice, and allow for seals to build dens for their pups and keep safe from polar bears. Under the new conditions it is less likely that the seals can safeguard their pups from polar bears. From the discussion I got the impression that sometimes environmental organizations are a little too quick to list a species as endangered or threatened, and that even now native knowledge is not necessarily taken seriously. I’d already got the impression from my conversation with Taqulik that hunting quotas allowed for the Inupiat are a little too small. It is ironical that the Inupiat were the ones who have been whaling for generations without causing whale populations to collapse, while whalers from New England dispatched thousands of whales in a year. Later I read of how the Iñupiaq estimate of the actual number of bowheads was validated by scientists (Craig being a major force) in the early 2000s, who accomplished this feat by learning how the Iñupiaq lived, worked and whaled on the ice.
- I managed to obtain a last-minute appointment with Linda, an assistant professor who teaches biology and chemistry at the tribal college, which adjoins the building in which the Department of Wildlife Management is housed. Linda is very interested in climate change education and this semester just completed teaching a new course on climate change in the Arctic, the very topic that brings me here! The wonderful thing about teaching such a course right here is that you can take your students out on the ice and show them what’s happening. Many people here are concerned about the changes they see, and climate denialism is not at all big, since the evidence is right in front of you. But to teach the whys and hows, and to connect climate change with lifestyle, is a whole other matter. Although Iñupiaq children are very much about respecting their elders and their traditions (whenever anyone said “the elders,” they did so with a great deal of reverence) the signs of consumerist culture are here too.
- I got some interesting books from the college bookstore – one on climate change in the Arctic (a journalistic account, not a textbook, alas, but still interesting), and a couple of others on Eskimo stories and narratives. I also got a DVD about Barrow!
- Later in the evening I got to have dinner with Todd and his wife Barbara, who also works with Wildlife as a contractor. They live in a charming house in the great expanse of tundra. Like most houses here, the house is on stilts so as to allow for the thawing of the ground in the summer. In their charming home we consumed a marvelous meal of rice-and-vegetables and salmon, and talked about everything from climate change to mystery novels. Todd and Barbara are multidisciplinary thinkers with backgrounds in the sciences and the arts and humanities, so it was a rich conversation. Todd has worked on freeze-resistant and free-avoiding insects for his thesis, which is a fascinating but little explored area. He also helps drive away polar bears from habited areas. Barbara works with aerial photographs to count whales and has begun to discern individuals from their markings and scars. With her close study, she is seeing distinctive features that a casual observer would miss. I admired Barbara’s paintings, talked to their gorgeous dog, an affectionate boxer with a tendency to climb into laps despite her considerable size, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Later Craig skied over and the conversation went to climate change and oil and gas, from which I learned a great deal. We talked about music, and literature, and the need to dream new dreams for the future. Craig and his sister have recently edited and completed Jean George’s newest children’s book, which is just out. It truly was a marvelous evening.
Third day in Barrow
- I went to a talk at the Barrow Arctic Science Center, which is the closest thing to a ‘normal’ building I’ve seen here, although it is out on the tundra topped by what looks like a telescope dome. It was a talk about archeological discoveries in the region, given by the archeologist herself. Some interesting stand-outs:
- The burial grounds and ancient whaling sites around Point Barrow, called Nunuk, are quite old, dating from 200 AD and 800 AD.
- It is really difficult to carbon-date remains of marine creatures because of the fact that they eat so much other carbon in the form of shellfish, and it becomes really difficult to calibrate the measurements. Carbon dating is a lot more complicated than I thought.
- The archeological explorations are carried out at the behest of the Native corporation, and therefore are done with a combination of science, community participation (many of the field assistants are high school or college students, some of which go on to study archeology), and respect for the remains. After casts are taken, remains are reburied. This collaboration between science and community is something I see here again and again, in different contexts.
- During the discussion there was a remark from someone in the audience to the effect that if offshore oil drilling came to Barrow (I believe there are already exploratory leases in the area), then local experts invested in the community would be needed to make sure that the pipeline went around ancestral burial sites, since if it was left to the oil companies they wouldn’t care.
- I hired a taxi for one last drive so I could take a few last pictures and a short video. I’ve been feeling really quite tired today after non-stop meetings, great excitement and difficulty sleeping due to the persistence of light. So for much of the time I’ve been consolidating my notes. On to Anchorage tomorrow!
Looking back at my notes from Barrow, I see that in my haste to jot down details of important meetings and impressions, I have somehow failed to convey the feel of the place. Now, months after the trip, memory conjures up the white expanse, the sub-freezing breeze, the ice roads. Sea ice covers the Arctic Ocean as far as eye can see – this will melt back soon, and in fact during the time I am visiting, in April, there are already trails being made for the whaling season. The tundra is extraordinary in its icy vastness, so white it obscures topography, except where a few square silhouettes of houses stand starkly out, boxy in their simplicity. The environment is too harsh and resources too dear for extravagance in architecture and lifestyle. I see people on four-wheelers traversing the roads, their faces ringed by fur hoods. Not all of them have snow goggles and I wonder if their eyes are specially adapted to the hurtful brightness. Extraordinary though the geography is to me, this is home to its 4000 inhabitants. I am remembering a young Iñupiaq administrative assistant at the college when I was on a quest for Linda, asking me with innocent curiosity where I was from. She had never come across a name like mine before, or anyone who looked like me. I told her, and she said how she had once ‘gone south’ on a field trip to Washington DC. How was it? I asked, and she smiled and shook her head. “It was weird!” she said. And suddenly I was disoriented, displaced from my coordinate system, seeing Washington DC from her eyes (or as close as I could get to her perspective). After the tundra, all those trees! And the people, and the buildings! It must indeed have been strange. Back in the house of myself, I remember how strange it was to see a huge hotel – it looked like a multi-layer cake – coming up on the Arctic shore in Barrow. This was the steroid version of a popular tourist hotel that had burned down the year before. By any standards it was enormous, a wedding-cake at the edge of a frozen sea.
I have many regrets. If I had come later in the year, if I had spent more time, I would have interviewed more people, perhaps been able to go out over the ice, or been able to visit the Heritage center (I had no idea it would be closed on a weekend) which I saw from the outside en route to the Barrow Arctic Science Center. Still, those few days in Barrow are disproportionate in their importance, in their persistence in my memory. I saw the world anew from a place near the top of the world.
Anchorage, although tame in comparison to Barrow, was marvelous in other ways. I met with Henry and his delightful family and spent an afternoon at their house outside the main city. Henry, who is an anthropologist, was the reason for my coming to Alaska. I had contacted him out of the blue during a very different project about a year before . Reading an abstract of a paper about how he and a team of Iñupiaq had gone to a Himalayan valley in Nepal to speak of common issues with climate change, I had dashed off an email to him, to which he promptly replied with a copy of the full paper. Since then we had corresponded regularly and he had connected me with multiple interesting and knowledgeable people. When I won a program award from the American Association of Colleges and Universities to develop a real-world-based interdisciplinary case study for undergraduate education, I immediately contacted him. I told him how much I wanted to go to the Arctic – I’d been thinking of Russia, because the first oil rig in Russian waters had just started pumping oil off the Arctic seabed, and I was also considering Baffin Island, where his friend Shari, an invaluable and generous source of information on my earlier project, was located. But there were prohibitive logistic or financial barriers to these, so Henry convinced me that Alaska was the logical choice. Not only that, he was able to introduce me to vast numbers of people in Fairbanks and Barrow. So I was finally here at his doorstep. During the ensuing meal, and mile-long walk, we had a long conversation that ranged widely from education and particle physics and veterinary adventures with polar bears to his own work. It was a fitting almost-end to my short sojourn in Alaska.
Later from my hotel room I called an association of Alaskan oil and gas companies. I wanted to know how they saw the situation of drilling for oil and gas in the context of climate change. The secretary connected me with their PR person, who was out. I left a message, but I never heard back.
The last day I met with a legendary figure, Edna MacLean, Inupiaq educator and leader, who is currently engaged in preserving the language Iñupiaq. She picked me up from my hotel and we ate lunch at a Thai restaurant. Like so many people I’d met in Alaska, she was generous. She gave me something unique – the perspective of an Inupiaq elder who had one foot in both worlds. In the plane on the way to Anchorage from Barrow, I had sat next to an elder, who had told me about the ice melting back too fast every spring, and how thin it had become. His English was not fluent, and I had not wanted to tire him, so I restrained my questions. I had very much wanted to speak with an Iñupiaq elder, but at the same time I was respectful of what people in Barrow had told me: that Barrow natives were sometimes exhausted by the influx and endless questions of outsiders, whether anthropologists or scientists. It seemed that (with the tourist economy perhaps not very strong yet) nosy academics were the largest group of outsiders to descend on Barrow. As its location was essentially a ringside seat for observing climate change, these numbers would only increase. So it was very special for me to be able to meet one of the elders of Barrow who was also an intellectual and a community leader, and to speak with her for two hours. I learned about the history of the college, the changes that the Iñupiat people had to contend with over the generations, the difficult balance between tradition and modernity, the terrible environmental dangers that the Arctic faced, dangers that threatened Iñupiaq identity and what remained of the traditional way to life. I learned about the extraordinary specificity of the language, so beautifully adapted to an environment where being able to express a complex thought quickly or describe some aspect of one’s surroundings with economy and precision could make the difference between life and death.
I managed to squeeze in a trip to local glaciers with a small sightseeing company before I left Anchorage. I had seen glaciers from the air; I now wanted a closer look. A small group of tourists and I set out in a van toward the Chugach National Forest, on a road that ran with the ocean on one side and shaggy, forested hills on the other. Ahead of us, mirage-like, rose the snow peaks. We stopped at one point to get a look from across the water at the great tongues of the glaciers atop the distant mountains. En route we turned off to visit a ski resort (a bizarre experience for me, not having been to one before). Later we stopped for an unforgettable hour or so at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation center where we got to see bears and moose and other animals up close (as in two feet away, with a fence between us). Finally we were able to stand at the feet of the mountains we had seen from a distance only a few hours ago, staring up in awe at the glaciers. I would see them again from the air, leaving Alaska.
The man who drove the van and owned the sightseeing company was retired from the oil business. He had been involved in the Alyeska pipeline in some way, I think. He spoke with withering scorn about ‘those environmentalists’ who had tried to get the pipeline stopped. They had said, he told us, that the caribou would die out, but the caribou liked the pipeline, he insisted. They used it like a scratching post. This man knew many of the animals at the Alaska Wildlife center by name and personality, and it was clear he cared about them. I had heard in Barrow that local people there didn’t like environmentalists either, although there the reason offered was that environmentalists cared only for animals, not people. I had picked up on the resentment that some felt toward the restrictive hunting quotas. The Iñupiaq specialized knowledge of their environment, including their estimate of animal populations, had only recently been given importance. Later on when I read more about the role of the oil industry in Alaska and the complex relationship that the Iñupiaq natives have with it, I realized that some of the things left unsaid, or said between the lines, had to do with the divisive and contentious issues around whaling and traditions on the one hand, and the need for economic prosperity on the other. Remembering my own experience in India, where the environment group I had a small role in birthing, Kalpavriksh, was based on the notion that local people are generally the best protectors of the environment, I thought about how false that dichotomy is, between environment and economy. That big environmental groups, at least in the US, could be elitist, blind to native knowledge and rights, was certainly conceivable, but it was a model of environmentalism that was, for me, rife with contradictions and discomforts. Ultimately environment and social justice are two sides of the same coin – environmental degradation and social injustice have the same roots, result from the same superstructure or model of exploitation, plunder and profit. It is a tragedy of our times that our dominant economic system works on the basis of environmental destruction, and in doing so, creates this false and dangerous dichotomy. Sadly it also seems to create the impression that it is the only viable model.
So ended my short Alaskan sojourn. In the months that followed I would do prodigious amounts of reading about Iñupiaq history and culture, sea ice geophysics, the oil and gas industry, whale migratory routes, the potential for renewables in Alaska, and so on. My case study project would go through two expert reviewers, a stringent peer review process, a total of eight revisions. Even as I taught my classes and went about life in Massachusetts, including a winter that reminded me, in its cold fury, of the great snow-covered lands at the top of the world (at that time suffering unusual warm conditions) I would remember the great tundra, the polar bear skull I held in my hands, the mellow sunlight that struck the snow covered land at midnight. Months later I still catch myself, in the middle of some mundane task, thinking about a conversation, or a face, or a scene from my little odyssey up north. Somewhere under the ice, the bowhead whales are singing.
Note: All photos in this blog post are copyrighted by me.