AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Arctic Solstice

Copyright 2006 AXIS Performance Advisors

Arctic Solstice

Alaska Shedding Daylight on Issues that Affect Us All

By Darcy Hitchcock

I just returned from a Summer Solstice trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a trip sponsored by The Nature Conservancy. This article summarizes what I learned. I have also put together a presentation and slide show. Let me know if you’d like to schedule a presentation. I’ll begin with a couple terse ah-ha’s and lead into a longer discussion of issues that relate to climate change and the controversy over drilling. While I normally avoid political issues, for I don’t want to alienate chunks of our population, it was impossible not to touch on some touchy issues. Maybe I’ve become crotchety from sleep deprivation, the sun stubbornly shining at midnight, illuminating my orange tent like a plastic pumpkin. But I leave it up to you to decide what to think and do.

Don’t call it ANWR.

Brooks RangeBefore I even arrived, I had been corrected. Don’t call the Refuge ANWR, I was told. ANWR sounds disrespectful somehow, turning the place into a thing, something inanimate, like XKE or PC or DVD. Something ultimately disposable. It’s The Refuge or Arctic Refuge, if you want to conserve syllables.

Why did we buy Alaska from the Russians?

Alaska had long been populated by Inuit (Eskimo) and Athabascan (Indian) peoples. So it must have come as a great surprise when the United States arranged to purchase Alaska from the Soviets who had been decimating the seal populations off their coast. The odd boundary with a straight line that doesn’t finish its trajectory but instead shaves off a southerly section of what should have been Canada is a legacy of this decision. For those of you who have read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, you will recognize this as the inevitable result of a clash between Takers and Leavers.

The Exxon Valdez saga continues.

Nan Eagleson led our trip. She and her husband were involved in a pounding (fish) operation out of Prince William Sound and Nan was executive director of a small environmental group there. So she had a front row seat to the disaster. She helped to write a book chronicling the delayed response to the disaster: boom, skimmers, and the trained personnel which were supposed to have been there all along but  which, in reality, did not exist; losing four days of calm weather while waiting for the Soviet Union to send booms to contain the spill; lack of personal protective gear for those working on the clean up. However, most Americans don’t know that the saga continues.

Many people involved in fishing and tourism lost their livelihood but one entire native village had to be relocated and still has not been compensated. Dr. Rikki Ott exposes the ongoing health problems in her book, Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. When Exxon decided to spray the beaches with hot chemicals, they volatilized benzene and other extremely hazardous toxins into the air. The clean up crews should have been wearing respirators but now, decades later, many of them have serious respiratory problems. But like the tobacco companies, Exxon Mobil’s strategy seems to be to hide out in courts, trying to avoid responsibility. That must be why their CEO was paid $49 million in cash and restricted stock last year and then got a $98 million lump-sum pension payment.

And now the hydrocarbons are working their way up the food chain. A small clam, at the base of the food web, filters water, sucking in the pollution. Nan believes that many species won’t recover during our lifetimes, but because of the lack of baseline data, it will be hard to prove. I visited Prince William Sound a couple years ago and the water looked clear but curiously devoid of organisms. So think about this when you decide where to fill up your car.

The Coastal Plain of wet tundra is as important as the Refuge.

The Nature Conservancy has done a thorough analysis of the Arctic portion of Alaska, called an ecoregional assessment, and they have determined that the Arctic wet tundra, of which Alaska has about 30%, is critical habitat (go to www.nature.org/Alaska to view the entire assessment).  If you look at a map, precious little of this is protected within the boundaries of the Arctic Refuge so they are working to protect other key areas such as the Teshekpuk Lake area where the caribou go for relief from mosquitoes and where many migratory birds stop. This spongy and marshy area, water atop frozen ground, is home to a wide variety of plants and animals. The Arctic tern flies all the way from Antarctica to summer here, the ultimate snow bird, an efficient white flying machine.

Melting sea ice is affecting more than just the polar bears.

Signs of climate change are everywhere. Nan has been going to the Refuge for the Summer Solstice for each of the last five years. While this time period is perhaps not statistically significant, her anecdotal observations are haunting. Several times a day, she would remark about some change. The flowers were further along than she expected. We should have been able to walk across the ice on a lake inlet yet the lake was completely thawed. The thawing permafrost was causing erosion along the bay. The sea ice had receded, taking certain species out of our view.

Cover of TIME Magazine

Cover of TIME Magazine

All these changes are complex and interdependent. You have probably seen the haunting Time Magazine cover with a polar bear standing precariously on an ice floe, surrounded by water. While they are classified as a marine mammal, they cannot tread water forever. The ice melts first next to land and recedes toward the pole, breaking into chunks. But the females must get to land to den, to raise their cubs. Scientists are now finding drowned polar bears.

“The retreat of the Arctic ice pack is one of the consequences of the rapid warming of the western Arctic region over the past 30-40 years, and the retreat in the 1998 summer season has been extreme, with the ice edge at least 150 nautical miles north of Point Barrow, Alaska, when the ice edge is more normally at or at most a few tens of miles from Barrow.” (Source: Greenpeace)

However, polar bears are not the only species affected. Certain organisms live at the edge of the ice so species dependent upon them for food are being affected. Back in the 1970’s George Divorky thought he was studying the Black Guillemot, a striking bird, but instead discovered he was studying global warming. For as the ice sheets drew back, the birds’ commute extended. Their chicks starved or were eaten before the parents could return. This species is now locally extinct on Cooper Island, where Divorky studied them.

Similarly, the walruses depend on thick ice to support their prodigious weight as they raise their young. Thinning ice may even affect tourism. While we were in the Arctic, a number of bird species had moved too far off shore to view.

The Refuge is also biologically important, to people as well as other species.

From the US Fish and Wildlife Department’s own studies, the importance of the Refuge is obvious. Most people think of caribou, the reindeer’s wild cousin, upon which the Gwich’in people depend. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) map shows the calving grounds.

pchbirthsites2005

For obvious reasons, the Gwich’in people have fought drilling in the refuge, in an attempt to protect their culture and livelihood. Instead, Gale Norton, while head of the Department of the Interior, told them,

The needs and future of the Gwich’in people “must be weighed against the future of all of America’s children and their need to have heat in their homes and jobs in a prosperous economy.” (Source: Caribou Rising)

Nan believes that the caribou, an ungulate and member of the deer family, is likely more resilient than other species that are even more at risk. Consider the polar bears, already threatened by thinning ice and the accumulation of toxic chemicals. The FWS map shows their den sites.

polarbearmap

The oil companies talk about doing their work in the winter to lessen their impacts, but making a racket through seismic studies, drilling, or even truck traffic could roust a mother bear from her den, disrupting the complex biological processes that allow her to not eat or drink for months while nursing her cubs.

Another FWS map shows trails associated with seismic studies, a complex grid leaving no stone unrattled.

It’s hard to believe that the bugs in Alaska make it worth the trip for birds, but many make the trip. The FWS map below shows some of the species that migrate here from the United States. This doesn’t include birds that migrate from South America, Asia, Africa, Australia or the Arctic tern that travels all the way from Antarctica and back.

The Refuge is host to a wide number of species. We saw Arctic foxes and a myriad of wildflowers.

Arcticflowers

Hikers who dropped by our camp to swim, yes, swim, in the Arctic Ocean, reportedly saw wolves, bears, Dall sheep and perhaps even a lynx. The Brooks Range, stands in majestic splendor, a geologically ancient mass of rock slowly slammed into the Continental plate.

So it came as quite a shock to hear how Alaska’s own Senator, Ted Stevens, describes the Refuge:

“I defy anyone to say that that [Arctic Refuge] is a beautiful place that has to be preserved for the future. It is a barren wasteland, frozen wasteland and no caribou there during that period of time at all…. The porcupine caribou herd uses the coastal plain for only six to eight weeks. This is what it looks like in the summertime. [Presumably showing a photo.] With one well drilled, there’s a six-foot pipe sticking up, the rest of it is just constant, constant, constant tundra, no trees, no beauty at all.” (Source: A program on drilling with Gwen Ifill on the PSB News Hour, Nov. 2, 2005)

We can’t have visited the same place.


For more information about The Nature Conservancy’s work in Alaska, visit their website at www.nature.org/Alaska.  For more information on the Nature Conservancy trips, contact Jason Seivers at jseivers@tnc.org or go to www.nature.org/oregon.

For our outfitters, see Wilderness Birding Adventures, go to www.wildernessbirding.com or contact wildbird@alaska.net.

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