Twenty-nine-years ago, Utqiaġvik was Barrow, Alaska, and winter ice was forming fast on this day. Words cannot really describe how different conditions now.
On Friday, you could have surfed the Arctic Ocean off the nation’s northern-most community as employees of the North Slope Borough, aided by local construction companies, fought to valiantly keep the old Eskimo village of 4,300 from being washed away.
For far beyond the distance the eye can see from the northern edge of the continent, the Arctic Ocean was open water. Gale force winds blowing from the northwest had the fetch to build seas to five feet more.
Those seas crashed upon the low sand beaches along Utqiaġvik’s north shore and threatened the community just behind. The residents of the North Slope Borough, a fiercely independent and self-sufficient bunch, fought back as best they could.
All day and through the night, heavy equipment pushed up gravel berms – the North Slope equivalent of the dikes of Holland – to hold back the seas.
Thanks to the billions of dollars from property taxes on the oil industry that have poured into borough coffers since just before oil began to flow from the Prudhoe Bay oil field 200 miles to the east in 1977, the residents of Utqiaġvik have been able to equip themselves to deal with disaster in ways the poor, weather-beaten residents of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico far to the south can only imagine.
“Our Public Works people made an amazing save. They’ve worked around the clock since Thursday night (and are still at it) piling hundreds of tons of gravel on the beach against the big seas, and dozing up berms along the coast to the NARL (Naval Arctic Research Labaratory) hangar area,” Craig George, a scientist from Utqiaġvik messaged on Saturday. “As a result we averted a major disaster. That’s my take. Looks like they sacrificed the beach road near Osaka to stage gravel and build a sea wall. ”
John Craighead George – Craig to friends – is a whale scientist and the son of the late and well-known author Jean Craighead George from New York. Now nearing 65, he has spent nearly all of his adult life on the North Slope of Alaska, and the changes he has witnessed there are significant.
“The sea ice is 400-500 miles north of Barrow,” he said. “Ice would have saved us. Remember the gray whale rescue started next week? And you remember what those conditions were like: Fully arctic conditions, frozen ocean with pressure ridges; minus-24F (Fahrenheit). Almost like a different planet in retrospect.
“No question that a big fall storm poses the biggest threat to our town.”
A different time
There was a lot of old ice floating off the nation’s farthest north community in 1988, and new ice was forming fast between the bergs when on Oct. 7, local hunter Roy Ahmaogak made a discovery that would in the days to come grab the attention of the world.
“Near Plover Point, just south of Point Barrow, he saw something quite unexpected,” Barrow photographer Bill Hess later wrote. “There was no open water now, but slush, locked in place between the shore and a high pressure ridge (of ice) that had formed a few miles out.
“Roy was surprised to see three gray whales, surfacing in three holes that they kept open in the slush. If they had been bowheads, the slush would not have bothered them. They would have sliced through it as if it were nothing.
“But gray whales do not have the same thick, tough, ice-breaking heads that bowheads do.”
Ahmaogak soon told others what he’d seen. Hess was among the first to get on a snowmachine and drive out from the city to take a look.
“The slush had yet to harden into ice,” Hess wrote. “It could not be walked on. Now, only two holes remained open, one a couple of hundred yards from shore, the other maybe 200 feet.
“The holes were empty when Billy (Adams) first pointed then out to me. Then, a snout rose into one, followed by that hollow, blast of a sound that a whale makes when it exhales.
“It was both wonderful and horrible to witness. Wonderful, because it is always wonderful to see a whale, and to hear the hollow, blasts of their breath. Horrible, because in those breaths I heard both their desire and desperation to live – and I did not believe they had much time left to live. Their deaths could potentially be drawn out and miserable, as the slush hardened and the ice slowly enclosed over and suffocated them to death.
The best thing, it seemed to be me, would be for skilled hunters to come and quickly put them out of their misery.”
That would have been the logical thing to do. The people of Utqiaġvik are and always have been whale hunters. But as people of the land and the sea, it is deeply ingrained in their ethic that ones does not kill animals just to kill animals, and they had no use for a gray whale.
The skin and the fat attached to it – the blubber – is no good. Thus the local people much prefer the bowhead whales. They decided to let these grays live in hopes they might yet escape the slush.
They did not and within days they were trapped in solid ice.
The great whale rescue
Five days after Ahmaogak made his discovery, Geoff Carroll, a Barrow-based biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, told Bruce Bartley, an Associated Press photographer in Anchorage, what was going on, and the rest is history.
Over the course of the next 16 days, an estimated $5.75 million would be spent trying to rescue two whales. The youngest of them had disappeared from the breathing holes in the ice – presumably dead because there were no other options – before the rescue began in earnest.
What happened to the two which disappeared after an ice breaker from the Soviet Union (now Russia) was called in to open a path to the sea was never known. Scientists on the scene refused to put radio tracking devices on the two surviving whales.
“Though (whale researcher Jim) Harvey meant to tag the whales, government officials decided the animals had suffered enough exhaustion and stress by the time they were near the open ocean,” Amy E. West would write in the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 2012 as the whale rescue was being made into a movie. “The tagging technology at the time used VHF transmitters, which required planes to track them within a 7- to 10-mile radius. Adding more strain to the animals may have resulted in adverse consequences.
“‘There was such a huge amount of interest in the whales that I didn’t want to be responsible for their death,’ Harvey said.”
What Harvey and Dave Withrow, whale experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, said privately to this reporter on the scene in Barrow at the time was that there was no way that a couple of whales that couldn’t navigate a little bit of slush were going to make it through miles of broken ice to open water in the Bering Strait.
No one, however, was about to say that pubicly. When it was announced the decision had been made to get the whales out of sight sans radio tags, it came as no surprise.
“The final irony is that the rescue may well have been for nothing, that the whales may never have made it to Mexico past the polar bears, killer whales and sharks waiting for them along the Pacific coast. The whales weren’t tagged, so we’ll never know,” Judith Adler Hennessee wrote in the New York Times in 1989. “It’s just as well.”
Hennessee was reviewing Tom Rose’s book about the event. The name of the book?
The great irony?
The book became the basis of the upbeat, save-the-whales movie “Big Miracle” in which “an animal-loving volunteer and a small-town news reporter are joined by a Native Alaskan boy to rally an entire community – and eventually rival world superpowers – to save a family of majestic gray whales trapped by rapidly forming ice in the Arctic Circle,” as the movie site IMDb.com put it.
At the peak of the rescue, Rose, a journalist for Japanese TV, estimated there were 150 journalists on the scene 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle along with the NOAA scientists, Greenpeace, oil company executives, the U.S. Army and eventually two Soviet icebreakers.
“…The U.S. military gave the rescue its best shot,” Greenpeace’s Campbell Plowden later wrote in Greenpeace’s version of what happened in Barrow. “It mustered a mammoth Chinook helicopter to drop a massive block of concrete on the ice, reel it back up on a cable and drop it again. The technique worked very well to break the ice, but it had one major flaw. It smashed the ice into pieces but the resulting holes were not clear enough for the whales to use them.”
Suffice to say, that ought to tell you all you need to know about the fate of the whales. When last seen, they had about 10 miles of water full of smashed ice between them and the open ocean.
These days there is no danger of whales getting caught in the ice off Utqiaġvik in early October. And there is no army of reporters on scene to cover the city’s fight for survival, though journalists do occasionally parachute in to report on climate change in a place “as remote as it gets.”
Cimate change is obvious here.
A 2016, peer-review study by scientists Mark Johnson and Hajo Eicken published in the journal Elementa , concluded that the freeze up that used to start in the Chukchi Sea just west of Barrow around October 1 now starts almost a month later.
“Big change and f-n fast” is how Craig George puts it in simple terms.
Projecting the past trends forward, Johnson and Eicken wrote that the “data presented here is for freeze-up to start on December 6 and end on December 13, 2030. Break-up start projects to April 19 and break-up end projects to June 10. These results indicate that by around 2030, the open water season between break-up end and freeze-up start, is from early June until early December, a range nearly twice the 1978-2013 mean range of 97 days.”
What this means for Barrow is nothing but trouble ahead. With inshore ice lacking, the community is hugely vulnerable to fall storms. NOAA tags the community 700 miles northwest of Anchorage as the frontline for climate change.
“Despite its remoteness, Barrow is a modern town: it has a variety of ethnic restaurants, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, hi-speed Internet access, even municipal bus service,” NOAA notes at Climate.gov.
“(But) there is nothing abstract or hypothetical about climate change at Barrow. Like almost every community across the Arctic, Barrow will somehow have to adapt to environmental changes in ways that may prove to be economically and culturally costly,”
A hundred years ago, faced with the problems of today, the residents of Barrow could and would have picked up and moved inland. That is no longer feasible. As NOAA notes, there’s been a lot of infrastructure built in Barrow – most of close to the sea.
The communities “Achilles Heel is the sewer lift station at the lowest part of town near the beach at Osaka restaurant,” Craig George observed. “If that lift station goes out, nearly the entire sewer system for Barrow goes with it.”
The sewer survived this time. The community held off the sea once more. How many times it will need to do that in the future, how many times it can do that, is unknown.
It was “pretty bad,” Craig George messaged on his I-phone from the scene at the time. “Road to the Point is gone. Low-lying areas in Barrow flooded, not sure what else. Power is still on in most places.
“(But) this will be an expensive storm to recover from. Another 20 knots (of wind) and we would have been devastated.”
And this time the world isn’t rushing in to help. There are plenty of problems elsewhere. On Tuesday, with the spotlight of the national media in tow, President Donald Trump heads for the territory of Puerto Rico where the damage in the wake of Hurricane Maria is now estimated to be $45 billion to $95 billion.
Utqiaġvik is, by contrast, a place that managed to save itself. This time.