Ooh! It's Hot Up Here

melting ice cap, global warming iceberg CBS/AP

Summer is very short at the top of the world.

So any really warm day sends the people of Barrow, Alaska racing outdoors to go seal hunting, drag the dusty town streets or just hang out on the playground until midnight under the 24-hour sun.

Normally, Barrow has ice floes right on the beach, even during the height of summer. But a few weeks ago, as CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen reports, it almost looked like southern California, right down to the heat waves.

Barrow is not just the northern-most city in the United States; it may be the first city in the country to feel the effects of climate change. This normally very cold place is warming up in ways few people imagined.

"I saw the first person in a bathing suit in Barrow today – girl running around in a black bathing suit," says one resident. "First time I'd ever seen that."

People are used to seeing chicks here - the snowy owl kind – and Arctic foxes. But now jellyfish are washing ashore in unprecedented numbers and village elders are really buzzing about another newcomer.

"We never seen no mosquitoes, but right now there's mosquitoes around at the top of the world," says Simeon Patkotak.

Ice cellars carved out of the permafrost are thawing, forcing native Inupiat to borrow modern freezer space to store their whale meat.

"That is my grocery store," says whaling captain and Barrow fire chief Eugene Brower. "That is my garden out there. That ocean is very precious to us."

And more dangerous now, Brower says, is the unstable sea ice, which has trapped spring whaling crews on drifting floes.

"You get a lot more heat (and) early break-up is really noticeable," he says.

Temperatures in Barrow have risen 4 degrees over the past 30 years. The Arctic ice pack has retreated 15 percent and is only half as thick as it used to be.

"When there's no ice out there, (and) if there's a big wind, we get waves," says Glenn Sheehan, of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium. "If we get big enough waves, we get erosion – so more waves, more erosion."

And that may be Barrow's biggest problem: A shoreline and city that's being eroded away. Just last month, the Island village of Shishmaref, Alaska voted to move to higher safer ground for the same reason. The 4,000 people of Barrow may face the same choice.

"If the village has to be moved, it will be virtually impossible," says Sheenan. "Imagine moving all that."

Barrow is a window on climate change; a change that is indisputable. The question is the cause. Is it man, nature or some combination? This summer, scientists have been cruising the frigid waters off barrow in search of clues.



Part Two: Looking For Answers On Top Of The World
  • Jaime Holguin

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