Natural Resources Key to Alaska Town's Future

Richard Glenn i i

hide captionRichard Glenn, who is half Inupiat Eskimo, is a scientist and a whaling co-captain. He works on developing natural resources to benefit the Inupiat people in Barrow, Alaska.

Melissa Block, NPR
Richard Glenn

Richard Glenn, who is half Inupiat Eskimo, is a scientist and a whaling co-captain. He works on developing natural resources to benefit the Inupiat people in Barrow, Alaska.

Melissa Block, NPR
Map of Alaska i i

hide captionBarrow lies 340 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Alaska

Barrow lies 340 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
A small gray whale frolics about six feet off the shore in Barrow. i i

hide captionA small gray whale frolics about six feet off the shore in Barrow.

Melissa Block, NPR
A small gray whale frolics about six feet off the shore in Barrow.

A small gray whale frolics about six feet off the shore in Barrow.

Melissa Block, NPR

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Barrow, Alaska, is the northernmost community in the United States. Located on the Arctic Ocean, it is home to about 4,500 people.

The surrounding area is also home to huge natural gas deposits. While nearly all other Alaskan villages have to import diesel fuel, Barrow runs on locally produced natural gas. And the future of the community will depend largely on development of this and other natural resources.

Richard Glenn lives in Barrow and is a geologist by training. He helped develop a gas field in the tundra that brings gas into Barrow via a 12-mile pipeline.

"It's a very reassuring feeling to turn on the stove, see that blue flame and know you had a part in bringing a stable energy source to your community," Glenn says.

Glenn works with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents the business interests of Barrow's Inupiat Eskimos.

The Inupiat are shareholders. They own the land, and they are paid dividends from the vast mineral resources in this part of the state.

The oil fields keep Barrow running, says Glenn, who is half Inupiat.

"We have no significant tourism, no agriculture, no commercial fishing, no other local industry. Our future is tied with resource development," Glenn says.

The residents of Barrow are also feeling the effects of an eroding coastline, but Glenn isn't sure whether climate change has accelerated that process. He says the people of Barrow are just "rolling with the punches": reinforcing seawalls, relocating old communities, and moving new communities away from the coast.

But scientists who study whales are seeing migration patterns shifting as the result of climate change, as the ocean warms and food supplies change.

Jackie Grebmeier, a biological oceanographer, has studied animal populations in these Arctic waters for 25 years.

She says she's seeing more gray whales around Barrow in the summer — as the Arctic ice pulls back. But that influx is not sustainable.

"The animals are moving to where their food is ... [but] there's only so much open space. The water [here] ... is narrow relative to the rich shelf that they normally feed in. So these gray whales eventually will be limited by the space and the prey that they can find," Grebmeier says.

NPR's Art Silverman produced this story.

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