Cathy Middlecamp: Lessons in climate change on Alaska's northern coast

July 27, 2012

Cathy Middlecamp, a UW-Madison associate professor of environmental studies and Howe Bascom Professor of Integrated Liberal Studies, traveled to Barrow, Alaska, in July to teach students from native villages above the Arctic Circle about climate change. She prepared the following report about her experience.

View of Barrow Alaska
Barrow, Alaska. Ilisaġvik College is on the Arctic
shoreline, upper right. Photo by Middlecamp. 

Because the sun doesn’t set this time of year above the Arctic Circle, my “day” at Ilisaġvik College lasted more than 70 hours. 

Meaning “a place to learn” in the Inupiaq language, Ilisaġvik is Alaska’s only tribal college and lies but a few hundred feet from the Arctic Ocean; more precisely, from the Chukchi Sea.

Although the sea ice lay too far from shore for my students and me to see, icebergs were always in view from our classroom window. This seemed fitting, as climate change was the topic that had brought us together.

As a frequent visitor to the north, I was well versed in whaling culture. Even so, it took me by surprise when one of the students listed whaling as a hobby on the camp application form. Later, when I met the student, I learned that indeed one day he hoped to be a whaling captain.

Others shared this interest but also had hopes to be teachers and perhaps even a scientist or an athlete. All currently were high school students either from Barrow or the villages that dotted the northern coast of Alaska.

UW-Madison professor Cathy Middlecamp with other camp instructors
Camp instructors Larry Duffy, University of Alaska
Fairbanks (UAF); Linda Nicholas-Figueroa, Ilisagvik
College; Middlecamp and Rebekah Hare, UAF.

When we picked up a group of students from the airport (no roads cross the tundra to the villages), I again was given a glimpse of the world in which they lived.

One student was chatting not to us but rather to his family on his cell phone. We couldn’t help but hear the information he was transmitting: “The caribou are in the pass, about 20 belugas are offshore, and look out for the brown bear. I saw several.”  Ah, the hunting report, courtesy of his jet prop flight to Barrow.

As the first instructor and guest scientist to the camp, my task was to introduce the students to climate change, focusing on the carbon cycle and greenhouse gases. 

I was team-teaching with Larry Duffy, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and interim dean of the graduate school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a long-time colleague and friend. Like me, Larry is a chemist who is passionate about developing undergraduate science courses that connect students to real-world issues.

Together, we led the students in chasing carbon around the planet, tracing its pathways from fossil fuels (think Alaska’s North Slope) into the atmosphere (the nearby Barrow station reported 400 parts per million carbon dioxide this spring), and then to a variety of places, including the oceans. As one student exclaimed after completing her carbon journey, “I started in the ocean and I ended back up in the ocean.”    

Cathy Middlecamp at the Arctic Ocean
Middlecamp at the Arctic Ocean.

As I quickly learned from those living in Barrow, their concern with climate change centered more on the erosion of their shoreline than it did with temperature changes. Barrow is a mere 10 feet above sea level!

Point Barrow, just a few miles down one of the unpaved roads, is the northernmost tip of Alaska and is threatened with rising seas. Furthermore, with less sea ice and more days of open water, their shoreline is more vulnerable to wave action. 

Even so, I knew that weather and climate would be topics of discussion at the camp. Right after I left, camp instructors would have the students outside collecting daily weather data. They also would span the tundra looking at changes in the permafrost.

When not working with students, I couldn’t stay away from the shoreline. The water was clear, calm and icy to the touch. Although easy to reach, the beach was always empty and only the floating chunks of ice kept me company.

Ilisagvik Alaska billboard
An Ilisagvik billboard reads “Honor your past,
train for your future.” Photo by Middlecamp. 

Perhaps its pea-sized gravel that made for aching calf muscles was a deterrent. Or perhaps the mosquitoes kept hikers away. (Their presence was a surprise, as I had been told to expect few insects so far north.)

In July in Barrow, days are foggy and typically in the 40s, dropping into the 30s for what passes as night. However, the city experienced a heat wave while I was there, with two sunny days in the 60s that brought the first hatch of mosquitoes. Although in swarms everywhere, these insects were slow and had yet to acquire the aerial warfare skills of their Wisconsin cousins.

As I left campus to start the long trek home (a flight to Fairbanks, then on to Minneapolis and Madison), I once again passed the sign that welcomes all who come to Ilisaġvik. “Honor your past, train for your future,” it read.

Seems like good advice to me.