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

A Trip to the Arctic, Where Shrinking Ice Is Creating Bigger Concerns

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Barrow, Alaska, monument made of whale bones dedicated to lost sailors

In Barrow, Alaska, stands a monument constructed of bowhead whale bones and dedicated to lost sailors. (NOAA).

It was my first trip to Barrow, Alaska, and I was excited at the possibility of seeing a polar bear for the first time outside of a zoo. Unfortunately I did not get a glimpse of a bear, but as I am telling my friends back in Seattle, perhaps a bear saw me.

In early November, I returned to the Arctic, this time to the northern hub of Barrow (get out your map of Alaska and go straight to the top). Although this was a new destination for me, I came to Barrow with the same intentions when first visiting the Arctic in the city of Kotzebue, Alaska, this spring: to discuss oil spill response and restoration issues with the residents of the North Slope Borough.

As a result of climate change, the Arctic environment is changing rapidly, and the retreat of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean opens new doors for human activity in the region by creating new paths to places previously inaccessible. The all-but-certain increases in ship traffic and offshore oil and gas exploration are setting up a situation where the likelihood of oil spills increases drastically. It was under these circumstances that I found myself sitting in the locally famous Pepe’s North of the Border Mexican restaurant in Barrow on a night in November. I was chatting with my fellow NOAA colleagues and University of New Hampshire Coastal Response Research Center staff about the workshop starting the next morning.

The goals of this two-day workshop revolved around community involvement in responding to oil spills and in assessing and restoring resulting damages to natural resources. The workshop also included discussions about how to integrate local community and traditional knowledge into our new Arctic planning and response tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (Arctic ERMA®). Most importantly, the workshop was an opportunity to enhance relationships between local communities and government agencies.

Directional sign in Barrow, Alaska.

A sign in town points out the remoteness of Barrow, Alaska, from the rest of the world. (NOAA)

During the course of the meeting, community members from Barrow expressed their concerns about oil spill response capabilities and how a spill would affect their subsistence lifestyle.  As this was only the second time my feet had ever walked above the Arctic Circle, I was humbled to hear whaling captains and other residents speak about the remarkably unique natural resources of the Arctic.

During meeting breaks I spoke with several residents who commented on a video playing in the lobby of the meeting center. The video showed numerous local walrus and whale hunts. The residents pointed out features of the ice and how they always had to be prepared at a moment’s notice to deal with the changing ice conditions.

How can we restore environments injured by spilled oil in an amazing setting like this—vast, remote, and mostly undeveloped? While there are no easy answers, we must work together now so we are better prepared if an oil spill occurs and we need to restore the environment.

For NOAA and other government personnel to figure out how much an oil spill has hurt Arctic marine environments and then fix them, we will require the help of local residents who hold generations of knowledge about the landscape. Workshops like these can be an introduction to each other, but we really look forward to sustaining these relationships.

Want to hear more about the challenge of Arctic oil spill response and restoration from the perspectives of Arctic residents? Recently a workshop report from our spring meeting in Kotzebue [PDF] has been released. Staff from our office also just returned from Kotzebue where they attended a meeting about a great new project to map subsistence use of natural resources (e.g., hunting, fishing, etc.) in the Northwest Arctic Borough.

UPDATED 3/29/2013: The workshop report and presentations from the Barrow workshop are now available.

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 “A Trip to the Arctic, Where Shrinking Ice Is Creating Bigger Concerns

  1. Hi Joe, Great story! I have seen a similiar Bowhead whale monument in the Canadian Arctic. Lets hope that the world will come to the aid of the Arctic environment is looking to protect it! Keep up the good work, it needs people like you. If your interested, I have posted some of my pics and stories, from my month long trip off Baffin Island, filming Bowhead whales at: http://frametoframe.ca/destinations/arctic-expedition/photo-essay-search-arctic-bowhead-whales

  2. Thanks for your enthusiasm for the Arctic’s natural resources (and nice photos)!

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