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Symptoms of Global Warming in Northern Alaska

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Symptoms of Global Warming in Northern Alaska

Symptoms of Global Warming in Northern Alaska

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Well, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host Melissa Block has been traveling throughout parts of Alaska as part of our Climate Connections series. She's working on some stories that we'll hear later this year. And she joins us now from Barrow, Alaska.

Melissa, you are pretty far north.

MELISSA BLOCK: We are pretty far north, Robert. This is the northernmost community in the United States, 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle. But if you want to get to the North Pole, you still got 1200 miles to go. I'm actually talking to you from the Top of the World Motel. And Barrow, of course, you know has huge extremes of weather. In the winter, you always hear that it's got the record lows, something like minus 50. It was 80 degrees here a few weeks ago. But today, it's settled back down somewhere in the 30s.

SIEGEL: And what's Barrow like?

BLOCK: Well, it's about 4,000 people, mostly native Eskimo, Inupiat. It's extremely dry and dusty. And we're right on the Arctic Ocean. There are no roads to bury. You fly in you come in over the thunder and you see hundreds of lakes stretching all around. And then you swoop down over the Arctic Ocean. And a lot of the people, the native Eskimos on the airplane, we're excited to look out over the ocean and see how far out the ice was. They figured it's about 25 miles or so out in the ocean.

And that's a theme you hear all over Alaska now - along the coastal area, is how ice is coming to shore later in the year, leaving earlier in the spring. And it's much thinner. And that has a lot of effects on subsistence hunting for whales and walrus. Barrow also is in the North Slope Borough. We're just west of the oil fields Prudhoe Bay. So oil tax revenues are important here. And, Robert, there is a public radio station in Barrow, Alaska.

SIEGEL: Hear hear. Hear hear. Well, now, when you talk about people talking about the ice, do they speak of climate change?

BLOCK: They absolutely speak of climate change, although they may not use that word. But they know the ice is changing. And there's a consciousness of climate change everywhere in the state. If you go farther to the south, there are beetles that have reproduced wildly in warmer weather. And that's destroying millions of acres of spruce forest and you can't ignore that. Up here in Barrow, you hear talk about mosquitoes that were never here before that are now, whales moving farther north as the temperatures warm.

Permafrost, the permanently frozen ground all over the state that is thawing. And when you drive down roads, we took a trip near Fairbanks, and there are huge dips. As you're driving along, the car will sink. And that's where the pavement has buckled because of this permafrost that's thawing as temperatures warm. Whole villages along the coast where there's a massive amount of coastal erosion because of rougher seas may have to move. And that would destroy thousands of years of tradition in those towns.

SIEGEL: Well, you're up above the Arctic Circle in late July. When is sunset?

BLOCK: There is no sunset, Robert, until August 2nd.

SIEGEL: Sunset is August 2nd, you say?

BLOCK: It is really 24 hours a day. Yes. If I stick around for a few more weeks, I'll get to see the sunset. But right now, it's quite something. At 3:40 in the morning, last - this morning, it was just as bright as it was at 3:00 in the afternoon.

SIEGEL: And what are you up to today?

BLOCK: We're heading off by helicopter, Robert, to a lake called the Lake of Death. It's the site of methane explosions. And methane is really important. As permafrost is thawing, more and more methane is being released into the atmosphere. These gases bubble out of the lakes, like the one we're going to today. And methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. It traps more heat than carbon dioxide. So we're going to go out by helicopter and raft and check out the Lake of Death.

SIEGEL: Okay. That's Melissa Block speaking to us from Barrow, Alaska. And we're going to be hearing on the program as well from your sports beat up there, yes?

BLOCK: That's right. The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, which we went to in Anchorage a few days ago.

SIEGEL: And we're looking forward to it. Bye-bye now.

BLOCK: See you next week, Robert.

SIEGEL: And at our Web site, you can see the latest episode in our animated climate change series. It's All About Carbon from NPR's Robert Krulwich. And public television's "Wild Chronicles" is at Search for climate connections.

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