For centuries, the bounty of the Arctic Ocean has sustained the people of the North Slope.
“Everything on land and on shore is what our culture is based on,” said Ethel Patkotak, the North Slope Borough’s attorney. “People talk about subsistence way of life. It's not a way of life; it's what forms our core.”
Lately, borough residents have seen the view from the shoreline change.
“The waters would be choked with ice,” said Glenn Sheehan, an anthropologist who also heads up Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, a nonprofit established 18 years ago to bridge the gap between scientists and community members. “You don't see that in the summer, really, any more.”
With that open water come opportunities and challenges.
“The Arctic is the next frontier,” said Capt. Ed Page, who heads up Marine Exchange of Alaska, a non-profit organization that tracks ships.
“I'd spent some 30 years in the Coast Guard, and over the years I got involved in search-and-rescue cases, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Glacier Bay oil spill and many other incidents,” Page said. “I realized that if we track vessels and knew where they were a lot of lives would be saved; a lot of incidents would be avoided.”
So far this year, 65 vessels have sailed through the waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas—up from years past, but Page said maritime experts don’t know exactly how much more because the technology is new.
Ships from Asia and the Lower 48 have also begun to use the Northwest Passage as a shortcut.
“We're kind of surprised (about) some of the vessels we see up there,” Page said.
Patkotak said Barrow residents have seen two cruise ships this summer.
Sylvia Stevens, a wildlife lecturer, was on one of the ships that went “up the Greenland coast, came through Canada and over the top.”
Stevens said the trip was her 13th Northwest passage trip.
“I've seen a lot of changes over the years,” Stevens said.
Seeing cruise ships and passengers docking is new for residents of Barrow. It’s also a cause for concern.
“We have so little control up here,” said Patkotak. “We are helpless to do little more than react. There is so much focus on what the oil and gas industry is doing that little attention is being paid to other areas that we think are capable of generating more damage to our marine resources and the subsistence resources we rely on.
The Coast Guard does not patrol the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas year-round, so incident response falls heavily on the North Slope borough.
“We are the only active responders up here in this region,” said Pat Patterson, chief pilot of the borough’s search and rescue department. “The Brooks range to the south is a barrier for aircraft coming in, so we do stand alone, and we're proud of what we've done in the past.”
About 30 members make up the borough’s search and rescue team, which covers 93,000 square miles -- a “very big area to cover,” Patterson said.
An emergency at sea, however, would stretch the borough’s resources. None of the department’s aircraft can hoist someone up, and the farthest the medevac helicopters can fly without running out of fuel is 150 miles.
“We're assuming ships have their own doctors,” Patkotak said.
But what about the expectation that search and rescue will respond to every call?
“We can't,” Patkotak said. “If bad weather is complicating a situation up there, we're not going to say, ‘Go thee forth and die in the good fight.’ We're just not.”
Due to its central location, Barrow would have to be command central for major incidents.
“There has to be more advance preparation for a potential spill,” Sheehan said. “The longer there's open water, the more opportunity there is for a problem.”
Sheehan said he has a cost-effective solution for preparing for a potential disaster: using abandoned Navy and Air Force hangars.
“They don't need heat, they don't need light, and you could just put them chock-block full of spill response equipment,” Sheehan said, adding that the conference room of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation could serve as a coordination center for emergencies.
“Barrow has the best communications on the North Slope,” Sheehan said. “There are more opportunities to prepare and respond from here.”
City and borough officials said preparation should involve federal and state cooperation.
Ready or not, major change is on the northern horizon. The residents of Barrow will feel the effects first.