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Northwest Passage update: Barrow science

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Cameron Dueck

Silent Sound is at anchor in Barrow, Alaska, America’s most northerly point
and one of the front lines of the battle between oil companies and citizens
concerned about the side effects of oil and gas exploration.

Barrow is the administrative centre of the North Slope Borough, which of
course includes the Prudhoe oil and gas facility and other North Slope
fields. Exploration has become the bread and butter of this area, but with
it have come a whole host of worries that Barrow scientists are trying to

Heightening the concerns for residents is the fact that a large percentage
of the Inuit living here remain subsistence hunters, and they rely on the
animals and land around them for food.

“The mayor is opposed to some of this further development, but it is in
federal waters, and it is coming. What we’re trying to do is get more
science done,” said Karla Kolash, special assistant to the mayor of the
North Slope Borough. “We don’t think and oil spill can be cleaned up in
these weather and ice conditions up here.”

Bowhead whale and caribou populations are two of the more important species
for local hunters, and in both cases there is concern that exploration
activity affects their migratory habits.

Oil and gas exploration is ramping up in Canada, and Alaskans say that
communities across the border could learn something from their experiences.

“Stay involved, do what you can to be in the decisions making process,”
Kolash said. Our fear is that one day they’ll just run right over us.”

Scientists here are increasingly combining traditional science and knowledge
gathered from hunters and elders and combining this with scientific facts to
get a fuller picture of the wildlife.

At the Ilisagvik College, sitting on a windswept spit of land that protects
a shallow lagoon just north of town, much of the work focuses on wildlife
research and preservation and finding out how modern human activity affects
the Arctic environment. Even as they study the negative effects of oil
exploration, funds that come in from selling these exploration rights are an
important source of funding for their research.

Cyd Hanns is a research assistant who spends much of her time looking at
contaminant levels, a concern in the Arctic because ocean currents deposit
pollutants in the North.

“We’ve begun testing in particular the parts of the animals that people here
eat,” Hanns said.

« Tom Arnbom, Northeast Passage day 10: Richness and diversity | Northeast Passage: First report from Neil Hamilton »

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