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Last Updated: Monday, 10 July 2006, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
Living with Arctic climate change
People in the Arctic are living at the front line of climate change. Our reporter Doreen Walton spent two months living and hunting with an Inupiat family in Barrow, Alaska, to see how the changes affect their daily lives. Here's her three-part diary.

LIFE IN BARROW

Barrow is the northernmost settlement in the US. In winter, the Arctic Ocean freezes right up to the coast.

Doreen Walton (L) and  Julia Kaleak (R) (BBC)
At home on the North Slope; the author with Julia Kaleak

When I got off the plane I was shocked by the extreme cold. I arrived in April. A blanket of snow covered everything in sight and the water in a plastic bottle I was holding started to freeze within minutes.

I wanted to hear how climate change is affecting people's daily lives in the Arctic.

The majority of the people who live in Barrow are Inupiat, native coastal Alaskans. They hunt whales, seals, walrus, caribou and other game for food so they watch the weather and the changes in seasons closely.

Map of Barrow (BBC)
I moved in with the Kaleak family who helped me get used to the cold. They lent me a fur parka and introduced me to native foods, including maktak, which is whale blubber and skin.

They also told me about the ice cellars melting. Many families have ice cellars, natural freezers down below the ground. As the climate in the North Slope warms, it is becoming more difficult to store food.

ON WHALE HUNT

In spring, people in Barrow start to get excited. It's whaling season.

Edge of the ice (BBC)
The weather tells the Inupiat when to go whaling

The subsistence hunters get ready to travel out on the sea ice. Living with the Kaleaks, I learned that a huge amount of work goes into whaling preparations.

Snow machines must be serviced and fuelled up, sleds have to be packed and the umiak has to be ready. The umiak is the small boat, traditionally covered in sealskin, which the hunters use when harpooning the whale.

We broke trail, cutting a path with pickaxes through ice boulders across the frozen sea. Then we had to wait.

As summer approaches and the ocean ice starts to melt, cracks appear. When the wind and current are right, the ice starts to move and the cracks open forming a channel along which the whales migrate.

I was warned the ice could move at any time so we had to be ready to pack up camp quickly and head back to land. We also had to watch out for polar bears.

The weather is boss and, as I discovered, sometimes you have to wait for weeks before conditions are right to go out.

Some people in Barrow are worried the changing climate will mean their children and grandchildren will not be able to continue their traditions and lifestyle.

COMMUNITY FUTURE

The frozen Arctic Ocean is spectacularly beautiful but it's dangerous.

Whale sculpture (BBC)
Whale bone: Barrow has a whaling culture

You have to watch for cracks and keep an eye on the wind and current at all times.

The Inupiat are experts on weather and ice conditions. The crews work together and communicate by radio during the whale hunt to stay safe. I waited with the Kaleak crew for days at the edge of the channel of water, called a lead, for whales to come.

We collected ice for water by breaking it off the ice-hills with a pickaxe. When there is old ice in the ice pack the salt has drained out of it and it's possible to melt it for drinking and cooking.

The crew told me about the spiritual and ethical side of the hunt. Whales are hunted for food for the community, not for pleasure. You can't kill anything that will not be eaten; there is no waste in this harsh environment.

The Inupiat believe that the whales give themselves to deserving crews and the spirit of the whale will be reborn.

Ice hut (BBC)

The Mayor of the North Slope borough, Edward Sagaan Itta, himself a whaling captain, says climate change is very real for the Inupiat.

"We see shorter winters, less harsh winters, earlier snow melts jeopardising our whaling, our way of life, [and] thinner ice in the ice pack.

"We live it, we experience it as whalers which is the core of our culture here in Barrow and has been for thousands of years."

Doreen Walton's Arctic diary is featured this week on The World Today on the BBC World Service

Doreen.Walton@bbc.co.uk


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