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Weather's colder in Anchorage than Barrow, but at least the whales are safe

Craig Medred
Earl Finkler photo

The temperature was 26 degrees Friday morning for Barrow, Alaska, at the northern tip of the North American continent, some 4 degrees warmer than in the coastal port of Anchorage 670 miles to the south.

Geoff Carroll, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, was lamenting the fact it was messing up his fishing. Not because it was too cold in Barrow, but because it was too warm. Carroll is usually catching fish through the ice by now. Not this year, he said. The ice is so thin it is dangerous to venture onto local waters.

How odd is this? Well, consider one fact: Twenty-four years ago on about this date, national news network crews swarmed all over the ice outside of Barrow, caught up in a story about the plight of three gray whales trapped there. The so-called whale "rescue" -- there is no evidence the whales actually survived, though a Soviet icebreaker did eventually manage to lead them out of sight of Barrow -- eventually became the subject for a Hollywood movie, "Big Miracle," released just this year. 

The trapped whales were discovered Oct. 7 by Barrow hunter Roy Ahmaogok, who noticed them as he rode past on his snowmachine. The ice around them was so thick that chainsaws were needed to cut through when the first attempts were made to find the whales a path to open water still visible offshore.

By Oct. 15, word was out the whales were trapped in the ice, and the world beat feet to Barrow. Reporters from national television networks joined those from Anchorage and elsewhere in America's most northerly town. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration sent officials from Alaska's largest city and whale experts from the West Coast to the scene.

Greenpeace, the environmental organization, pushed the story nationally. Oil companies tried to bring a barge to break the ice, and grab some publicity, but the ice was too much. The U.S. Department of State finally asked for help from what was then the Soviet Union, in a sign of warming relations between the two countries as the Cold War sputtered to an end.

Off of Barrow, the ice was so thick small mobs of people sometimes gathered around the whales, which by then were confined to a couple breathing holes cut in the ice. The whales would surface, blow, inhale, submerge and then repeat the process all over again for hours -- until the hours became days and the days became weeks.

How times and temperatures have changed for Barrow

These days, Barrow has some snow on the ground, but there isn't much ice and no trapped whales. This year Arctic sea ice extent reached a record low, for at least as long as such records have been kept. New ice has been forming for more than a month, but it's not forming all that fast.

As Carroll noted, it has been strangely warm in Barrow. The National Weather Service reported the average maximum high temperature for September was 37.4 degrees -- only about a degree and a half above normal. But the average minimum was only 31.9. That's just a blink under the 32-degree temperature required to start changing water to ice. Nothing freezes very fast at 31.9 degrees.

The historic average September minimum for Barrow is 28.5 -- 3.4 degrees colder. The warm weather trend has continued into October. The conditions have some people wondering about the future.

The Los Angeles Times on Friday warned about what an ice-free Arctic could mean for the country. "In a warming Arctic, U.S. faces new security and safety concerns,'' the newspaper headlined. "Formerly ice-clogged Arctic waters are now navigable, opening a rush for oil and mineral resources -- and raising heretofore unknown security concerns in the U.S. Far North.''

Reporter Kim Murphy noted the dearth of national military assets in the region writing that "U.S. security forces are battling historically sketchy radio communications, vicious storms, shifting ice floes and huge distances from base: Coast Guard cutters must sail 1,200 miles south just to take on food and refuel."  

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com