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Scientists have been descending on the Alaska city of Barrow since 1973. This monument made of whale bones is to lost sailors. (Associated Press)

Barrow, Alaska: Ground Zero for Climate Change

Scientists converge on the northernmost city in the United States to study global warming's dramatic consequences

In a third study relating to bowheads, Kate Stafford, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, had come to Barrow to service the hydrophones, or undersea microphones, she’d put in the water a year before. She was monitoring sounds—from waves, marine mammals, the breaking of ice and the passing of ships.

“Marine mammals use sound to communicate and navigate,” she said. “When the water is covered with ice it’s pretty quiet down there. During spring breakup it gets noisy. If the ice becomes thinner in winters or goes away, it may become more difficult for animals to communicate.”

Shell Oil representatives, in town for hearings on proposed exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea, are also interested in bowheads. Shell’s attempts to drill in the Beaufort Sea were blocked by a court injunction in 2007, when a coalition of environmentalists, native groups and the North Slope Borough filed suit. The coalition cited the effects on marine mammals, particularly bowhead whales, from the drilling. (The company has approval from the Interior Department to drill this coming summer, but environmental and native groups are challenging the plan.)

Concerns about whales go to the heart of the relationship between scientists and Barrow residents. In 1977, the International Whaling Commission, citing studies showing that bowheads were an endangered species, banned Eskimo whaling on the North Slope. But Barrow residents said they had seen plenty of bowheads, and their protests led to new research on whales’ population. The ban was replaced by a quota after six months.

Richard Glenn is a whaler and businessman, and vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), a for-profit organization owned by Inupiat shareholders. Along with other community leaders, Glenn helped found BASC, which offers scientists laboratory space, cellphones, a support staff and an environment where researchers often end up collaborating on studies.“This is a town of ice experts,” Glenn told me. “Our job is to have a running inventory of conditions. Put that together with science and the cultural differences disappear. It becomes like two good mechanics talking about a car.”

Back in 1973 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency responsible for predicting changes in the earth’s environment, selected Barrow as one of five key spots on the globe to make atmospheric baseline studies. “We wanted places that were far removed from large industrial sources of gases yet not so remote that they’re impossible to get to,” said Dan Endres, who ran the agency’s Barrow facility for 25 years until 2009.

Today, sensors in NOAA’s Barrow observatory—basically a set of trailer-like buildings filled with scientific equipment, perched on pilings over tundra—sniff the air for ozone, carbon dioxide, other gases and pollution, some of which comes from Chinese factories thousands of miles away. In summer, carbon dioxide is absorbed by boreal forests in Russia and Canada. In autumn, the vegetation dies and the carbon dioxide is released back into the air. This oscillation is the largest fluctuation on earth and has been likened to the planet breathing.

Inside one trailer, John Dacey, a Woods Hole biologist, was installing equipment to measure dimethyl sulfide, a gas scientists use to track the formation of particles called aerosols in the atmosphere. “Much like ice or snow, aerosols can reflect the sun’s heat back to space,” said NOAA research scientist Anne Jefferson. In other cases, “like a dark ocean surface, they can absorb the sun’s heat.” Jefferson was calibrating instruments for monitoring clouds and aerosols, part of a study of the role these factors play in warming and cooling.

Based on research undertaken at Barrow, we now know that the yearly average of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased in the Arctic by 16 percent between 1974 and 2008 and that methane increased an average of 5 percent between 1987 and 2008, according to Russ Schnell, deputy director of NOAA’s global monitoring division. The snow melts about nine days earlier in the year than it did in the 1970s.

Snow and ice help explain why “a small change in the temperature in the Arctic can produce greater changes than in lower latitudes,” said Endres. Snow reflects sunlight; once it melts, more energy is absorbed by the earth, melting even more snow. “Whatever is going to happen in the rest of the world happens first and to the greatest extent in the Arctic,” said Endres. “The Arctic is the mirror of the world.”

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