Natural Resources Key to Alaska Town's Future Barrow, Alaska, is the northernmost U.S. community and home to about 4,500 people. It's also home to huge natural gas deposits. The town's future will depend largely on development of natural resources, amid the uncertainties of climate change.
NPR logo

Natural Resources Key to Alaska Town's Future

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Natural Resources Key to Alaska Town's Future

Natural Resources Key to Alaska Town's Future

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We've been reporting this week from the Arctic as part of our series Climate Connections with National Geographic, talking about changes brought about by global warming. And today, we're going to hear about the future of the northernmost community in the United States - Barrow, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean. About 4,500 people live there.

Yesterday on the program, we heard about a fizzing geyser of gas, bubbling furiously out of a lake, about 70 miles south of Barrow.

(Soundbite of running water)

BLOCK: I went out in an inflatable raft with some scientists. We floated right over that geyser. It turns out those bubbles are coming from a natural gas seep, hundreds or thousands of feet under the tundra.

Dr. RICHARD GLENN (President, Barrow Arctic Science Consortium): I would love to put a funnel, an upside-down funnel on that seep.

BLOCK: That's Richard Glenn. He's a geologist by training, lives in Barrow. And he says why not try to tap that gushing power source.

Dr. GLENN: That's been one of my dreams, to see if it could be used locally for something, either a waste station, a little shelter. You can kill two birds with one stone. We will prevent this nasty methane from going in that atmosphere and you might do some good for the people who live nearby.

BLOCK: He's seen how that can work in Barrow. While nearly all the other Alaskan villages have to import diesel fuel, Barrow runs on locally produced natural gas. There are huge natural gas deposits all around here.

From a helicopter, you can see a 12-mile pipeline bringing gas out of the tundra into Barrow. Richard Glenn was part of the exploration team that developed that gas field.

Dr. GLENN: And it's a very reassuring feeling to turn on the stove, see the blue flame and know that you had a part in bringing a stable energy source to your community.

BLOCK: Stable and cheaper in an area where fuel prices are high. Richard Glenn works with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents the business interests of the Inupiat Eskimos here. The Inupiat are shareholders. They own the land. And they're paid dividends from the vast mineral resources in this part of the state. The oil fields keep Barrow running.

Dr. GLENN: Our people depend now on resource development for schools, health clinics, fire halls, runways, everything that you would expect larger governments to do elsewhere in America happens here because there's a tax base. And we have no significant tourism, no agriculture, no commercial fishing, no other local industry, and so our future is tied with resource development.

BLOCK: Richard Glenn would like to see a natural gas pipeline running south, alongside the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, bringing natural gas from the North Slope to the Lower 48, four to six billion cubic feet of gas a day. I talked with Richard Glenn as we looked out over the Arctic Ocean.

Dr. GLENN: Standing on the beach, right in front of a sea wall that was built to help protect against a moving shoreline.

BLOCK: Moving shoreline that would have been moving no matter what or moving because it's related to climate change.

Dr. GLENN: Our people have always been living on the coast and even when the first visitors came here from outside, they asked the elders at Point Barrow then at Nuvuk, they said, how is life here? And they said, well, our village used to be much further offshore. And this was in the mid-1800s. So our coastal villages have always been eroding. So the question is, is it happening faster now than it used to? And that there's really no information on that, we just know it's happening. And yet we try to roll with the punches. We are trying to buy some time by reinforcing the shoreline, and we know that we have to roll back and change.

BLOCK: Rollback what?

Dr. GLENN: Our communities, the ones that live on the edge have to move away from that edge. So houses have to be relocated, construction or some change has to happen a little bit further away for the coast.

BLOCK: Richard Glenn fills several roles here. Along with his work developing natural resources, he's also co-captain of a whaling crew. And you can tell he's impatient with all this gloom and doom talk about climate change.

Dr. GLENN: Our job is to know, study changes, day-to-day changes, month-to-month changes. And so we don't say that, for example, on November 15th, the ice should be 10 inches thick. We say, we should know how ice - thick is regardless of the day, and it's our knowledge that keeps our people safe. So, yeah, it's changing, but it's our job to know these changes. And so we live with change. There are other changes going on. Change is walking in two worlds, cultural lifestyle. I mean, if you ask me, sometimes I think MTV has more effect on us than global climate change.

BLOCK: With the outside influences and cultural effects that that brings.

Mr. GLENN: Right. You're speaking to a father of four daughters.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

BLOCK: Down the beach a bit in Barrow, I come upon a small gray whale, rolling around in the surf. It's scraping barnacles off its skin.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

BLOCK: Look, there it goes, it's spouting again and diving down. You could see its tail flicking back and forth. It is maybe just about six feet off the shore. You could, if you're really brave, step into Arctic Ocean and go out and touch it.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

BLOCK: With climate change, scientists who study whales see migration patterns shifting as the ocean warms and food supplies change. Jackie Grebmeier is a biological oceanographer. She's been studying animal populations in these Arctic waters for 25 years. She says they're seeing more gray whales now up here around Barrow in the summer as the Arctic ice pulls back. But that influx is not sustainable.

Dr. JACKIE GREBMEIER (Biological Oceanographer): The animals are moving to where their food is. But one thing about this region is there's a slope there, you know, there's only so much space. There's only so many patches in the wheat filed. And the slope - the water that we see behind us is very - 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 could find.

Unidentified Woman: Our climate is changing. (Inupiat spoken)

BLOCK: At the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, this kiosk is a permanent exhibit now.

Unidentified Woman: The migrations of caribou, whales and other animals are different. (Inupiat spoken)

BLOCK: Visitors can look at a chart of rising Arctic temperatures and listen in English and Inupiat to the results.

Unidentified Woman: There is less sea ice and the ice is thinner. (Inupiat spoken)

BLOCK: And at the end, this question hangs in the air.

Unidentified Woman: What will the future be like? (Inupiat spoken)

(Soundbite of people chanting)

BLOCK: Next Monday on the program, we'll go to an island that's almost all the way to Russia - St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. It's much closer to the Russian Far East than it is to the Alaskan Coast.

Unidentified Man: Fortunately, we ended up on the U.S. side of the International Date Line and we're thankful for that, of course.

BLOCK: The Yupik Eskimos on St. Lawrence Island hunt whales and walrus. The Yupik depend on ice. We'll hear their observations of climate change, of thinner ice, and unpredictable weather next Monday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.