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Fall 2002

Uncertainty and daily life on the North Slope

by Zhenya Gallon

What if the whales don’t come back? What if the birds don’t summer here anymore? Can my house withstand another storm surge? These questions are far from academic to the residents of Barrow, Alaska. The delicate balance among ocean, sea ice, land, and air is shifting with climate change, and nowhere is this as evident as in the Arctic. The uncertainty accompanying those shifts has an impact on community planning for everything from when to begin the spring hunt for bowhead whales to where to locate new utility lines and expand the airport in Barrow.
Glenn Sheehan.

Climate variability and change are nothing new to Barrow residents, both the Native Alaskan majority and nonnatives who make their life together above the Arctic Circle. But the community’s ability to adapt is challenged by the buildup of modern infrastructure over the last 30 years.

“The Inupiat people are some of the most technologically oriented people in the world,” says Glenn Sheehan, executive director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium and co–principal investigator on a five-year project assessing climate variability and vulnerability in and around Barrow. Supported by NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, BASC is a community-based organization providing logistical support and educational outreach opportunities to Arctic researchers. As coastal erosion accelerates, permafrost thaws, and sea ice patterns change, “it’s very important to people who live here in the American Arctic to know with a little more certainty what is happening and what the causes might be,” he says.

Helping people make more informed decisions in response to climate uncertainties is a key goal of the $2.5 million, NSF- funded Integrated Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Variability on the Alaskan North Slope Coastal Region. One year into the project, members of the multidisciplinary team from the University of Colorado (CU) and NCAR returned for a second visit this past August to work with Barrow co-investigators, gather data from local experience, and listen to the concerns of a community on the front lines of climate change.

For NCAR investigator Linda Mearns, the interactions with local stakeholders were invaluable. And, she says, “seeing the environment was very important because it made clear to me how very delicate it is.” With NCAR co-investigators she’s applying extreme value theory “to see if we can come up with more robust estimates of trends in extreme winds,” using data from the last 50 to 70 years. Her part of the team is now tackling results from climate model runs relevant to the region using mutiple scenarios developed for the last report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Everyone here is aware of their environment,” noted principal investigator Amanda Lynch (CU) during a visit by the research team to a Barrow High School physics class. Students from native and nonnative families were concerned about the safety of their homes and the future of whaling, but they also asked about the global impacts of climate change, whether they could do anything about it, and what it’s like to be a scientist.

The team met with local government officials—many of them leaders in the Inupiat community—as well as local National Weather Service staff challenged by the dearth of instruments between them and Siberia. The dynamic climatology Lynch’s team has developed for the area should improve understanding and help train incoming forecasters.

Team members (left to right) Scott Peckham, Jason Vogel, Ronald Brunner (CU), and Linda Mearns (NCAR) on the beach at Barrow. (Photos by
Zhenya Gallon.)

Team members are also looking at the relationships among sea ice, flooding, and erosion. One group is modeling the potential for an artificial obstruction along Barrow’s shores to reduce ocean current strength and hence coastal erosion. CU political scientist Ronald Brunner heads an effort to examine policy decisions in light of shifting environmental stresses. (For the full roster of participants and projects, see “On the Web,” below.)

With four more years to work with the community, the team is hopeful about making a difference. The Barrow trip has already made a difference to Melinda Koslow, a CU undergraduate majoring in meteorology and one of five student assistants. The experience, she says, “got me more interested in the project, because now I know we’re doing something that actually affects people.”

Sheehan hopes upcoming IT infrastructure and a planned $35 million facility with new labs and lodging will attract a new crop of scientists to Barrow, including people who’ve never considered doing research in the Arctic before. “Come on up,” he says.

On the Web:

Participants and project details

Barrow Arctic Science Consortium

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Thursday, October 17, 2002 11:59 AM