Sweeping change reshapes Arctic
The hunter rose each day last summer from his bunk in a condemned wildlife lab, down the hall from where Inupiat villagers carve whale meat...
Seattle Times staff reporter
First of two parts
BARROW, Alaska — The hunter rose each day last summer from his bunk in a condemned wildlife lab, down the hall from where Inupiat villagers carve whale meat on a band saw.
He slipped on hip waders and a furry white parka, slung a rifle over his shoulders and trudged onto the Arctic tundra. Through icy fog beneath a never-setting summer sun, Eric Seykora set out to earn the nickname given him by Barrow scientists: "The Fox Killer."
Arctic foxes had been eating the eggs of rare ducks because their usual supper, tiny, mouselike lemmings, were dwindling from the drying tundra.
So the government flew this former South Dakota hunting guide 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle and paid him to spend his summer shooting foxes.
Ecological change is so scrambling Alaska's Arctic that the government has hired gunslingers to recapture some balance.
But with national debate so focused on the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which some in Congress last month again tried and failed to open to oil drilling, a reality is only now being noticed in the Lower 48: Arctic Alaska is already undergoing a sprawling transformation, and life is fundamentally shifting in almost every way.
The hunt for oil is moving to the ocean and across once-barren lands the size of Midwestern states, including some as ecologically valuable as ANWR.
Oil, gas and wildlife
on Alaska's North Slope
Interactive map shows the expanding reach of petroleum development and its overlap with wildlife areas.
Birds are disappearing. Pollution is arriving.
And nothing is having as much impact as climate change.
Migrating whales, the backbone of Alaska's Inupiat culture, now arrive up to 45 days early, completely altering seasonal rhythms for Inupiat who harpoon them. Winter ice roads are collapsing months sooner than they did 35 years ago, prompting oil companies to ask the government to build highways across easily scarred tundra.
Minute changes to plants and animals are unraveling intricate biological webs.
And no one really knows how much stranger it's going to get.
"It's hard, at times, trying to comprehend what's going on out there," said Eugene Brower, an Inupiat whaler and fire chief for the North Slope Borough, the municipal government for Arctic Alaska. "It's like we have no control over what's happening to us."
For now, the best chance to understand the future rests with a motley band of respected scientists — adventurers and misfits, cowboys and computer geeks, paid by governments, universities and noted foundations — who flock each summer to a former Navy research lab outside Barrow.
Life on the ice
They live and work in old wooden buildings or concrete-and-metal Quonset huts, some surrounded by empty cages that once held wolves used in hypothermia experiments.
Most are oblivious to the absurdity of their conditions. To erect a tower to measure carbon dioxide coming off the Arctic Ocean, one researcher carried 40-pound car batteries across a frozen island. To measure greenhouse gas flowing to and from the earth, another scientist actually built a lake on the tundra.
Last year the United States again came close to opening a portion of the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. The battle is not over.
After failing last spring to approve drilling as part of an energy bill, this fall Senate Republicans put the measure in a spending package, but it was defeated in the House. Last month Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, added drilling to a military-spending package, but the provision, which had been approved in the House, was dropped after a filibuster led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
The Bush administration says exploration would use environmentally friendly technology, would be limited to 2,000 acres and could lead to the country's greatest oil find in decades.
Opponents say the 2,000-acre figure doesn't account for pipelines, gravel pits, pump stations and waste plants that would accompany the oil development. And they say even a large oil find would meet a mere fraction of the nation's needs while soiling the refuge.
The North Slope's Inupiat, who own some oil rights inside ANWR, generally support drilling there, though many oppose offshore drilling or oil exploration in other wildlife-rich areas.
The nearby Gwich'in Athabascans oppose drilling in ANWR because it is a popular hunting ground for caribous, which are as central to their culture as whaling is to the Inupiats.
In the 1990s, Congress approved ANWR drilling, but President Clinton vetoed it.
Stevens has vowed to continue pushing for drilling this year.
On a blustery morning last summer, University of Washington professor Dick Moritz dragged a child's sled piled with scientific instruments through slushy blue ponds on hard-packed ice a half-mile out to sea. Behind him, graduate student Paul Hezel toted a shotgun, in the not-unlikely event they encountered a polar bear.
Moritz and Hezel, of the UW's Polar Science Center, had been coming here for a week to test hundreds of core samples drilled from the ice. To them the Arctic's statistics were familiar.
Average annual temperatures in the Arctic have risen as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit in 50 years — even more in Alaska — according to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a report by the eight nations with land inside the Arctic Circle.
The amount of ice covering the ocean in late summer has shrunk 15 to 20 percent in three decades, and 2005 was the worst year ever. Melting ice and warming in the Arctic contributed to a rise of about 8 inches in sea level, helping erode the shorelines of coastal towns such as Barrow. These changes, scientists agree, can't simply be explained by weather fluctuations. In fact, ice melt is now coming faster than some computer models projected. And a thawing Arctic can actually speed up warming across the globe.
Already, ice-dependent animals, such as ivory gulls that fish through cracks in the ice, are struggling to find shelter and food. Walruses that haul out to rest on the floes sometimes find themselves too far from shore to feed on clams.
"If they don't have ice they must swim, but it takes energy to swim, and life in the Arctic is about preserving energy," said Jesse Ford, an Oregon State University ecology professor.
Inupiat, whose ancestors for thousands of years have camped on ice while hunting whales, suddenly find themselves bewildered trying to read the frozen sea.
The ice now is increasingly unpredictable, "freezing up later, melting earlier, and generally confusing us," said Richard Glenn, a geologist, ice expert, Inupiat whaling captain and board president of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, which offers logistic support for scientists.
"The ice itself changes daily, which, in a way, keeps you alive. You don't just look at how it looks today, but how it looked yesterday. You have to keep a running inventory, or you'll end up floating away."
On the slab where Moritz and Hezel were working, it was the time of year when the frozen sea, normally as stable as a wood floor, begins to crack and separate, threatening to carry researchers to the no-man's land of the Beaufort Sea.
They had cut the season so close that when colleagues radioed to check on them, the pair lied rather than admit they were a half-mile from shore.
"They're concerned about us being out here," Moritz said, gently placing a 3-foot-long tube of ice in a plastic tray. "Sometime — today, tomorrow, next week — they're going to say we can't come at all because the ice might start to move."
For now, Moritz and Hezel are trying to figure out the precise ways the physical properties of ice affect how the sun's energy passes through it. That way they can better predict how fast the ice may disappear, and help other scientists gauge how the sea will adapt.
Solid ice reflects sunlight, while standing water absorbs it. If too much ice melts, it may create what scientists call a feedback loop: Sunlight will heat more water, increasing Arctic warming, which will help melt more ice and accelerate the warming cycle.
Hezel fished another crystalline sample from the ice and flipped it over in his gloved hand to reveal speckles of colored algae buried inside.
The industrial world's pollution is riding to the Arctic on wind, on ocean currents and in bird droppings.
Nursing mothers in Arctic Canada pass mercury from coal burning in Asia to their children through breast milk. Pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are causing reproductive problems in Greenland's polar bears. Radiation from nuclear accidents and old weapons tests has polluted reindeer in Arctic Russia.
Yet partly because Alaska has different sea and air-circulation patterns, the U.S. Arctic appears to have avoided the worst of this — for now, scientists say.
Instead, experts worry that Native Alaskans afraid of contamination may replace eating healthy, vitamin-rich wildlife with junk food.
"How can you feel good about sharing a PCB sandwich with an elder?" asked Alaska researcher Henry Huntington.
"You have brown, but there's orange in here too, a totally different kind of life," he said.
Recent exploration of the depths of the Beaufort Sea revealed a surprising diversity despite frigid, dark conditions. In small volumes of water, thousands of tiny plants and animals teem — inchlong, shrimplike crustaceans, tiny worms and jellyfishlike creatures the size and color of oranges.
Because no sunlight penetrates for most of the year, the organisms feed only during short periods in summer, when sun and melting ice produce algae, which is eaten by crustaceans. Crustaceans and tiny sand-flealike creatures foraging beneath the ice feed Arctic cod, which feed almost everything else, from ringed seals to seabirds.
But as ice cover retreats, Arctic cod move father out to sea to chase crustaceans, making it difficult for other creatures to find food closer to land. And as warming produces more sunlight, other species — from salmon to warm-weather birds — are invading the Arctic.
"The entire food web of the upper ocean is changing, and that could have disastrous impacts on many species," said Rolf Gradinger, an oceanography professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Few have been harder hit than the Arctic's top predator.
As they collected ice samples, Moritz and Hezel stopped every few minutes for a slow, 360-degree scan for the telltale cream-white fur of a polar bear.
Days earlier, Hezel and another colleague had stepped off their snowmobiles near a whale carcass, and turned to see a feeding bear. They fired a warning shot, dumped their instruments and fled.
"It was pretty crazy," Hezel said. "And pretty scary."
Increased rain has been collapsing polar-bear dens, and shorter summer-ice seasons have made it harder for the fearless omnivores to find food.
While polar bears have adapted over thousands of years to life on the ice, they are more often now found paddling through the ocean in search of prey, or on land near shore gnawing on whales killed by Inupiat.
To understand how closely tied the Arctic is to the rest of the world, consider this: Bird species that summer in Arctic Alaska are disappearing because their winter homes elsewhere in the world are threatened by development, pesticides, hunting and other problems.
Nearly 40 percent of migratory shorebird species that breed on Alaska's Arctic Coast are believed to be declining, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report to be released next year.
Examples abound: Wetlands loss in South Korea is driving away dunlins. On Delaware Bay in the United States, red knots have fewer horseshoe-crab eggs to eat. In Argentina, overgrazing is ruining winter habitat for sandpipers.
But it's a two-way street. So many millions of the world's birds summer in Northern Alaska that government studies have concluded that Arctic climate change, and perhaps even oil development, could alter ecosystems across the globe.
Last year at least four bears, likely more, appear to have drowned while swimming between melting sheets of ice — an entirely new phenomenon.
The University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center shows that the amount of ice on the Arctic Ocean during September is declining 8 percent per decade. And many computer models suggest there won't be summer ice at all by century's end — if not sooner.
Those trends led scientists this year to predict that the polar-bear population worldwide, now at about 25,000 — about 3,800 in Alaska — will drop by a third in 35 to 50 years.
To survive, polar bears may have to learn to live on solid tundra, which means competing with grizzly bears and people and exposing themselves to new sources of disease.
But life on the tundra has trouble of its own.
Lessons from lemmings
Mat Seidensticker gunned the engine of his four-wheel all-terrain vehicle and bombed down a muddy road into Barrow, waving to an Inupiat grandmother walking with a baby on her back.
The 26-year-old owl biologist was on his way to check a nest for snowy owls, the stark-white, toddler-sized puffs of feathers that breed just outside Barrow, which in Inupiat is called Ukpeagvik, or "place where snowy owls are hunted."
The owls help explain how small shifts in nature may be altering the entire ecosystem.
Barely a mile outside Barrow, Seidensticker pulled off the road and tromped through a puddled field of lichen, moss and grassy plants with triangular stems. There, the 6-foot-6 scientist suddenly dropped to his hands and knees, chasing a tiny lemming that shot like a bullet through the moss.
"Missed him!" Seidensticker shouted.
Seidensticker, with the Owl Research Institute of Montana, once sifted through 4,000 bits of waste regurgitated by snowy owls to pick apart the tiny skulls of rodents they ate. He discovered that 97 percent of their diet was lemmings, gerbil-sized critters that zip along through tiny "runways" carved in the tundra.
"When you have lots of lemmings, you also have lots of owls," he said. "We haven't had lots of either in a while."
Carbon trapped in the tundra can be converted to greenhouse gases as the Arctic thaws. And there may be significantly more of it than anyone thought — in some cases 125 times more.
In the 1990s, scientists dug a few inches into the high Arctic tundra and found billions of tons of carbon in the soil.
In December, after three years of research in Greenland, University of Washington doctoral candidate Jennifer Horwath dug several feet deeper.
She found, in some areas, at least nine times more carbon. In others she found 125 times more.
The discovery is significant because as permafrost melts, "that carbon can be consumed by microbes and little bugs that turn it into CO2 [carbon dioxide], which can travel to the atmosphere," Horwath said.
That, in turn, could rapidly increase global warming.
Lemmings were so common in Barrow in the 1970s that they regularly scampered over people's feet. A researcher once caught 700 in a single day. And while lemming populations always fluctuate wildly, scientists say today's peaks don't appear as high, or as frequent, as they once were — a trend some scientists suspect is linked to global warming.
In the wintertime, lemmings travel through pockets between the snow and frozen ground, but mild snowfall and warm weather have been collapsing those corridors. In summer, lemmings like moist, damp tundra. But as the Arctic earth warms, it also dries out. Just last summer, scientists noted that 125 Arctic lakes had drained into the soil and disappeared.
Little transformations like those can signal big changes.
Shrubs are proliferating, as changes in temperature and moisture alter plant species.
The nearest trees to Barrow are roughly 130 miles south, but warmer-weather tree species such as spruce have advanced onto the tundra six miles in a century. That adds to warming because forests absorb more sun than meadows.
And while Arctic tundra itself accounts for roughly 8 percent of the planet's land mass, it holds a quarter or more of the carbon stored in the Earth. New evidence suggests melting permafrost may release more of that carbon as greenhouse gas to the atmosphere — another way the Arctic may accelerate global warming.
Still other scientists suggest all this new vegetation means more plants will be there to convert greenhouse gases to oxygen.
Either way, the change is so basic some Natives are convinced they can taste it in the meat of caribous and other animals that graze on tundra plants.
"It's like if you've been eating at McDonald's for 20 years, and then suddenly you go to Burger King," said Leonard Lampe, a resident of the Inupiat village of Nuiqsut, near the central Beaufort Sea coast. "It tastes different, but you can't say how."
As frozen rivers break up sooner, they are interfering with some wildlife migrations. Birds common to California or Connecticut now skitter near the shores of the Beaufort Sea. Ring-neck ducks, rarely seen in the Arctic before the mid-1980s, now number in the thousands in just one area of north Alaska.
Such complex relationships have wildlife managers taking elaborate measures.
Back on the tundra, Seidensticker crouched low in the soggy field as a snowy owl circled in the distance, keeping an eye on a nest on a mound in the grass.
Snowy owls will swoop down with outstretched talons to attack anything that comes near their eggs. Some waterfowl — such as ducks called Steller's eiders, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act — tend to build their nests nearby because the owls keep predators at bay.
"Whether it's a fox, a gull, or me, owls will dive-bomb you and hit you and call loudly and do everything they can to keep you away," Seidensticker said, fingering a tear in his jacket from an earlier owl encounter.
But because fewer lemmings can also mean fewer owls to scare away foxes, the "foxes are going around eating all the eiders' eggs they want," said Nora Rojek, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist.
So this year the agency tried something new: It stole eggs from nests and incubated them in a lab. And it hired a trio of fox killers, including Seykora, to trap and shoot predators skulking around the eiders.
This summer, breeding success was unusually high.
"I don't know if it's a cause-and-effect relationship," said Brian Person, a biologist with the municipal government of Northern Alaska. "Was it because of fox removal? I don't know ... but it sure was weird."
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Information in this article, originally published January 1, 2006, was corrected January 4, 2006. The University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center shows that the amount of ice on the Arctic Ocean during September is declining 8 percent per decade. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the amount of ice is declining 8 percent per year.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.