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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

Building Relationships out on the Ice in Kotzebue, Alaska

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Overlook of shoreline of Kotzebue, Alaska.

Overlook of Kotzebue, Alaska. Credit: Elspeth Hilton.

I could read reports and attend meetings until I’m blue in the face, but until I made my first trip above the Arctic Circle to the village of Kotzebue, located on Alaska’s northwest coast, I couldn’t fully appreciate the challenges of dealing with an oil spill in Arctic conditions. Last week, however, I finally was able to see some of those challenges first hand.

The purpose of this trip up north was to attend a workshop on involving the community not only when responding to oil spills but also when measuring and restoring the resulting damage to natural resources. Due to the prospect of increased ship traffic and offshore oil drilling in Arctic regions, the risk of an oil spill in Arctic waters is growing.

As a result, Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough sponsored this workshop to discuss oil spill response and restoration issues. NOAA attended along with several other state and federal agencies, and the Coastal Response and Research Center facilitated the meeting. The workshop also included discussions about how to integrate local community knowledge into the newly released Arctic Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), an online mapping tool that integrates different types of environmental information for decision makers during disasters.

A classic building on the Kotzebue waterfront.

A classic building on the Kotzebue waterfront. Credit: Elspeth Hilton.

Located 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Kotzebue is a hub of travel for this area of Alaska, allowing participants from eleven villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough to attend this workshop. During the course of the meeting, community members from Kotzebue and surrounding villages expressed concerns about oil spill response capabilities and how a spill would affect their subsistence lifestyle.

These initial discussions are extremely useful in NOAA’s efforts to broaden our understanding of how people are so closely tied to and dependent on natural resources in the Arctic—and how we would be able to evaluate those connections in case an oil spill interfered with them. The most important goal of the workshop that we were able to achieve was to enhance relationships and the knowledge exchange between local Alaskan communities and government agencies.

I’m not sure of the best way to explain how important this is, but I’ll give it a shot. When we first arrived in Kotzebue, we spent a good amount of time looking out over the vast sea ice; it was the first time I had ever seen this thick layer of ice frozen over the Arctic Ocean. We saw snowmobilers and skiers speed across it, and we observed numerous small groups ice fishing on it. Two days later, the first layer of snow on the ice had firmed up, enabling us to walk out onto it without sinking up to our knees in snow.

The big question was, How safe was the ice? (Because this was my first trip to the Arctic and I only know Seattle’s mild winters, I was justifiably apprehensive about it.) We could see some cracks in the ice, but two days ago it was being heavily used. Even though there was no one out on the ice at the time, eventually we figured that it was safe.

The author venturing out onto the ice.

I finally venture out onto the ice in Kotzebue. Credit: Elspeth Hilton.

Very timidly, we walked out onto the sea ice, but no issues arose except cold fingers. What we needed and desired, however, was guidance from the locals who knew the ice. Those who live in this amazing corner of the world know the status of the ice and would have been able to direct us if there were any safety problems.

I think this experience, although on a very small scale, can be compared to the objectives of this workshop.  One of the central goals was to start building relationships between those who know the local environments with those emergency responders and restoration experts who will need their guidance and expertise if an oil spill does occur.

Author: Joe Inslee

Joe Inslee is a policy/outreach analyst with NOAA’s Assessment and Restoration Division. His work helps raise the visibility of the critical scientific work his office conducts after a hazardous release.

2 thoughts on “Building Relationships out on the Ice in Kotzebue, Alaska

  1. drilling and more people are the worst thing that could happen up here in kotzebue. this place is very fragile and as we have seen from off-shore oil spills can and do happen. Gas and oil up here are more expensive than anywhere and we have a huge pipeline running right through the state. there is absolutely no benifit to the people of this region to put this area in jeopardy in order to make oil companies more money at the expense of the environment.

    • A huge pipeline that is of no benefit to the people of the region only as long as you don’t count your PFDs, education funding for schools, state funding of your airport, PCE funding, etc… Whether we like it or not, oil exploration and production is a mainstay of the state economy and provides the funding to allow rural villages to survive. A large offshore oil spill in the arctic would be catastrophic to Inupiat culture, but lack of oil money would also mean the effective end of the Inupiat villages. How many rural villages would survive without the benefits to the state of oil revenue? It’s a difficult balancing act, to both preserve a subsistence way of life and fund services to rural areas.

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