What’s at stake?

I remember being out on a little spit of land on the far end of Point Hope, Alaska – an icy patch covering the sand that separates the Bering and Chukchi Seas and realizing how amazing it was being that far above the Arctic Circle.

Spring had just blossomed in the lower 48, but we were far removed from warmth. The temperature dipped to about 20 degrees Celsius, and we were shooting a time lapse of the sun setting over this frozen terrain.

While most news networks are covering the contentious issue of climate change with a series of talking heads and file video, we were at ground zero for this all-important story.

Point Hope is a Native Alaskan village in the northwestern part of the state. In Inupiat, they call the town Tikigaq. Translated, it literally means “pointed finger” and that’s what Point Hope looks like – a finger extending into the Arctic Ocean.

Map of Point Hope, Alaska.
Map of Point Hope, Alaska. In Inupiat, it’s called Tikigak – “pointed Finger.” Image: Sean Callebs. 

Why should people care about climate change, and a temperature rise of a couple of degrees in an environment this harsh? It’s a question we repeatedly asked as we sought to show what’s at stake up here.

I think it’s important to care about what happens to the indigenous population that has maintained a culture that dates back thousands of years. Point Hope proudly says it’s the oldest continually inhabited community in North America.

Whale bones mark Point Hope's cemetery. Photo: Sean Callebs
Whale bones mark Point Hope’s cemetery. Photo: Sean Callebs


The residents have survived cold, blizzards, wild animals, incursion from the first European whalers who brought diseases of all kinds. Today, the villagers are fighting a losing battle against warming temperatures.

Here’s why the community is threatened: Sea ice is melting at an alarming rate. Residents here depend on hunting for food and survival. Put simply, they eat what they kill, and they use animal skin and fur for shelter and clothing.

Thinning sea ice means they can’t kill and harvest bowhead whales. Bowheads weigh a lot; a 30-foot whale weighs 30 tons, a 50-foot whale 50 tons. The Inupiat head out in seal skin boats to harpoon whales. Afterwards, they must pull the whale up on to the ice to begin harvesting. But as ice thins, the weight of the massive mammals shatters the ice putting, the native Alaskans and their centuries-old custom at risk.

Whale n=bones marking the location of the annual whale ceremony. Photo: Sean Callebs.
Whale bones marking the location of the annual whale ceremony. Photo: Sean Callebs.

Bearded seals are thriving in the region, yet they are considered a threatened species. Why? Because their ice habitat is melting. Polar bears need thick ice to hunt and feed.

And consider this: The polar ice caps act as a refrigeration unit for the world. Since 1979, the University of Illinois has monitored the dramatic melting of ice in the Arctic.

ice ridges
Ice ridges on the frozen Chukchi Sea. Photo: Andrew Smith.

Researchers working near Barrow, Alaska — at the northern point of Alaska and about an hour and a half plane ride north east of Point Hope — keep track of the ice, snow, and air. They work in this brutal environment because it’s where they need to be. Most researchers either employ Native Alaskans, or work very closely with the elders. The reasons are simple. The people who live there – and grew up there– know the conditions better than outsiders will ever know. And the indigenous population has been concerned about the science of what’s happening much longer than most scientists have.

Even though there are no factories near Barrow, there are a lot of pollutants in the air – a phenomenon called Arctic Haze. It surprised scientists when they first discovered it a few decades ago.

Now, they know this is leading to global warming. In addition, black soot drifts out of the atmosphere, on to the snow and ice. Not much, flecks really. But on this massive blanket of white, it absorbs the sun’s heat instead of reflecting it.

The same circumstance is in place as sea ice melts, and more open water is exposed. It too absorbs heat, and leads to more melting ice.

It’s a critical time for the Arctic. I asked renowned ice scientist Hajo Eicken if we’re heading for disaster. He waited a good 10 seconds before answering. In short, Eicken says “No.” But unless we take steps to curb climate change in 50 years, he says the world will be coping with significant challenges. That‘s barely a tick of the evolutionary clock.

And it’s something we should all care about.