Typically in early November Barrow residents say the Chukchi Sea is full of ice chunks. Lately, however, the ocean is wide open in the fall.
Those on the North Slope live in an ever-changing world, one that’s shrinking and expanding at the same time.
“Spring time whaling has become a little bit more unpredictable as the ice cover becomes more active,” said Richard Glenn, a geologist and former whaling captain. “Fall time, the open water season for hunting whales used to be a half-ice and half-open ocean event. Now it's become more and more open ocean.”
North Slope residents see and feel, first-hand, what scientists like Anne Jensen have begun to study.
“The broader climate change, we don't actually have a great picture for north Alaska yet,” said Jensen, an anthropological archaeologist and senior scientist with UIC Science who’s studying ancient climate change. “They don’t know what it was like in the past. They only recently started studying it.”
Jensen said she is looking for “an exact picture of what exactly climate has done,” in part by examining remains of marine mammals, which “incorporate a lot of old carbon into their tissue; walrus often in particular, because they eat clams and they pick up an awful lot of old carbon in their shells.”
According to Jensen’s research people do alter their environment, “even if they’re living a subsistence lifestyle and are fairly highly mobile.”
“We’re looking at how people lived, what they ate, how their houses were made, the kinds of tools they had, how they could carry out their hunting and how that may have changed through time,” Jensen said. “(We’re also studying) when the climate or environment changed, how they responded to that.”
The effects of a changing climate are felt most acutely in the Arctic.
“We want to try to limit climate change or global warming to 2 degrees centigrade,” said Jim Gamble, executive director of Aleut International Association, a permanent participant in Arctic Council.
Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum established in 1996, comprised of the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, Russia and six non-governmental or indigenous organizations, including Aleut International Association.
“That two degrees centigrade globally will actually be seven degrees centigrade in the Arctic,” Gamble said. “The arctic warms faster than the rest of the planet.”
Rick Steiner, a conservation biologist who has also worked in the Arctic believes Alaska is ground zero for climate change.
“We have food security issues, health issues, mental health issues, infrastructure problems, airports, ports, and roads, all being affected by climate change,” Steiner said. “Climate change is the elephant in the living room in Alaska right now that very few people seem to be talking about, particularly the (Gov. Sean) Parnell administration.”
Steiner believes the state has “abandoned” the commitment it made during Gov. Sarah Palin’s administration to make climate change a priority.
Back in 2007, the governor’s office formed a climate change subcabinet. The group issued hundreds of pages of recommendations on how to address problems caused by climate change.
The group also recommended educating the public about the cause and effects of climate change.
“The cabinet did a lot of very good work,” but the state didn't follow through on the group’s findings, Steiner said. “It's only on paper and the cabinet has not met in the last 2, 3, 4 years. After Gov. Parnell took over, this whole effort has become defunct.”
Commissioner Larry Hartig heads up the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
“I think he's either misinformed or at least needs to do more homework,” Hartig said of Steiner’s claim. “The subcabinet largely fulfilled what it was originally set out to do, but the coordination that needs to be done now is more at the agency level.”
Hartig was appointed DEC commissioner seven years ago and was around from the beginning.
“From the creation of that subcabinet under Gov. Palin, through its development and its expansion, I would call it, under the Parnell administration,” Hartig said.
Hartig emphasized climate change infuses the work of DEC and all state departments.
“I don't show up here in the morning at the department of environmental conservation, saying I'm going to spend the next two hours working on climate change,” Hartig said. “I'll come here and I'll be working on marine transportation safety, and as part of that, one of the considerations I have to think of is climate change – a warming environment, less sea ice, more economic activity because now these areas are more accessible.”
The commissioner said the climate change subcabinet no longer meets because its recommendations are being implemented in coordinating spill response and prevention with Canada and the Coast Guard and in providing clean drinking water for villages.
“So all these other factors have to come in with climate change as a layer over it, and that's what all the agencies are dealing with,” Hartig said.
Steiner, however, said he wants proof the state is doing more.
Meanwhile, in Barrow, Glenn and others living along Alaska’s north coast search for answers of their own as they struggle to stay the course and navigate the changing waters.
“There's something about the world of western science that looks for prediction and maybe even blame more than observation, so my goal is always to understand first and then try to interpret later,” Glenn said. “So far, that’s where I’m staying.”