Environmental Disaster Redux?

Subhankar Banerjee's most recent work can be found in The Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics and A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History. This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Bear with me.  I'll get to the oil.  But first you have to understand where I've been and where you undoubtedly won't go, but Shell's drilling rigs surely will -- unless someone stops them.

Over the last decade, I've come to know Arctic Alaska about as intimately as a photographer can. I've been there many times, starting with the 14 months I spent back in 2001-2002 crisscrossing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- 4,000 miles in all seasons by foot, raft, kayak, and snowmobile, regularly accompanied by Inupiat hunter and conservationist Robert Thompson from Kaktovik, a community of about 300 on the Arctic coast, or with Gwich'in hunters and conservationists Charlie Swaney and Jimmy John from Arctic Village, a community of about 150 residents on the south side of the Brooks Range Mountains.

In the winter of 2002, Robert and I camped for 29 days at the Canning River delta along the Beaufort Sea coast to observe a polar bear den. It's hard even to describe the world we encountered.  Only four calm days out of that near-month.  The rest of the time a blizzard blew steadily, its winds reaching a top speed of 65 miles per hour, while the temperature hovered in the minus-40-degree range, bringing the wind-chill factor down to something you'll never hear on your local weather report: around minus 110 degrees.

If that's too cold for you, believe me, it was way too cold for someone who grew up in Kolkata, India, even if we did observe the bear and her two cubs playing outside the den.

During the summer months, you probably can't imagine the difficulty I had sleeping on the Alaskan Arctic tundra.  The sun is up 24 hours a day and a cacophony of calls from more than 180 species of birds converging there to nest and rear their young never ceases, day or "night." Those birds come from all 49 other American states and six continents. And what they conduct in those brief months is a planetary celebration on an unimaginably epic scale, one that connects the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to just about every other place on Earth.

When you hear the clicking sound of the hooves of the tens of thousands of caribou that also congregate on this great Arctic coastal plain to give birth to their young -- some not far from where my tent was set up -- you know that you are in a place that is a global resource and does not deserve to be despoiled.

Millions of Americans have come to know the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even if at a distance, thanks to the massive media attention it got when the Bush administration indicated that one of its top energy priorities was to open it up to oil and gas development. Thanks to the efforts of environmental organizations, the Gwich'in Steering Committee, and activists from around the country, George W. Bush fortunately failed in his attempt to turn the refuge into an industrial wasteland.

While significant numbers of Americans have indeed come to care for the Arctic Refuge, they know very little about the Alaskan Arctic Ocean regions -- the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea (which the refuge abuts).

I came to know these near-shore coastal areas better years later and discovered what the local Inupiats had known for millennia: these two Arctic seas are verdant ecological habitats for remarkable numbers of marine species, including endangered Bowhead whales and threatened polar bears, Beluga whales, walruses, various kinds of seals, and numerous species of fish and birds, not to mention the vast range of "non-charismatic" marine creatures we can't see right down to the krill -- tiny shrimp-like marine invertebrates -- that provide the food that makes much of this life possible.

The Kasegaluk lagoon, which I spent much time documenting as a photographer, along the Chukchi Sea is one of the most important coastal treasures of the entire circumpolar north. It is 125 miles long and only separated from the sea by a thin stretch of barrier islands.  Five icy rivers drain into the lagoon, creating a nutrient-rich habitat for a host of species. An estimated 4,000 Beluga whales are known to calve along its southern edge, and more than 2,000 spotted seals use the barrier islands as haul-out places in late summer, while 40,000 Black Brant goose use its northern reaches as feeding grounds in fall.

In July 2006, during a late evening walk, wildlife biologist Robert Suydam and I even spotted a couple of yellow wagtails -- not imposing whales, but tiny songbirds.  Still, the sight moved me.  "Did you know," I told my companion, "that some of them migrate to the Arctic from my home, India?"

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