Writing about the earth’s wild places for twenty-five years led me to the Arctic. In 2004, Dr. Paul Shepson from Purdue University wrote me into his National Science Foundation grant—he was measuring various pollutants in the Arctic atmosphere using a big red helium balloon. Every spring “Shep,” as he’s known by friends and colleagues, takes a few graduate students to Barrow, Alaska, literally the top of the world and the most northerly town in the United States. The only way to get there is by boat or plane.
On my first trip, his students launched the big balloon during polar sunrise in March, and I captured the story in a kid’s book about climate change called Arctic Thaw. I soon returned on another NSF grant, this time to capture multimedia stories of native people, scientists, and local residents living and working on the North Slope. We presented a range of videos that capture the Arctic environment, how it is being studied, how it is changing, what the impacts might be, and, most importantly, what life in this beautiful part of the planet is all about.
Now, returning twice to Barrow this year on NSF grants, I’ve embarked on the most exciting work of all—helping Iñupiaq Eskimo students in the Barrow schools tell their stories and the stories of their elders using the tools they love: iPhones, GoPros, audio and video recorders. They are telling stories of the world they know, the world of whales, walrus, caribou, wolverine, polar bears, seals, and disappearing ice.
The Arctic, a bellwether for climate change, appears to be warming at a rate more than twice that of the planet as a whole. One of the main reasons is that as the sea ice melts, it impacts the reflectivity (“albedo”) of the surface and accelerates the warming. The impact of this warming is likely to be profound, including a loss of habitat for a wide range of species reliant on the nature of the ocean/sea ice interface, and changes to ocean circulation and climate.
The Iñupiat have lived in this part of the world for thousands of years. Their cultural knowledge is rich and deeply ingrained in their daily lives. In the long dark nights of winter as folk sit around coffee machines preparing for the spring hunt by sewing bearded seal-skin umiaks, people swap stories about animals and ancestors. They laugh and they cry about all the changes happening to their environment. Visiting scientists rely on this personal and cultural knowledge of the Iñupiaq guides and elders whom they enlist in their scientific work.
The beauty of the Arctic, its precious and fragile nature, its critical role in maintaining a stable climate for the planet, and its rapid rate of change must be conveyed to the general public. My project with Iñupiaq kids in Barrow will do just that. We’ll soon be launching a website to highlight the digital stories that Barrow students produce so they can put a human face on Arctic life.
Their locally produced stories will be tales from the heart of the Arctic. With any luck we’ll create a digital record that will be around for generations to come. And when there is much less sea ice and even some of the animals have disappeared, we’ll be able recall what it was like here since the beginning of the planet.
Peter Lourie has authored dozens of award-winning nonfiction titles to help young readers explore the world. A true adventurer, he has traveled to all kinds of wild places to research his books—from the cloud forest of Ecuador in search of Inca treasure , to Lake Turkana in northwestern Kenya on the Ethiopian border, to Tierra del Fuego, and the jungles of Rondonia, Brazil. Learn more at www.peterlourie.com.