‘I fell in love with the place:’ Smithfield’s Garland returns from climate research in Alaska

Published 5:01 pm Wednesday, February 8, 2023

An Alaskan legend tells of a time thousands of years ago when the state’s northwestern coast knew no winter.

The ancient Inupiat (pronounced in-oo-pee-at), whose tribal name translates to “real people,” are said to have worn no clothes and lived long, nomadic lives, many surviving to see five or even six generations come after them. That is, until disaster struck.

As the legend goes, a young Inupiat named Ekeuhnick encountered an old man while in a dreamlike state at a mountain spring, who warned him of three impending catastrophes Inupiat oral history now refers to collectively as the “First Disaster.” First, there would be an earthquake. Then the mountain would erupt. Finally, the earth would move away from the sun, bringing frigid temperatures.

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When Ekeuhnick returned to his people, he told them of the old man’s warning. On the third day after Ekeuhnick’s people had taken him at his word and moved away from the mountain, they heard a loud rumble, saw red hot coals explode from the mountaintop and knew he’d spoken true.

The story of Ekeuhnick is now transcribed in the 1973 book “People of Kauwerak: Legends of the Northern Eskimo,” by Inupiat descendant William Oquilluk and educator Laurel Bland.

Enter Anne Garland of Smithfield, who’s been an officer of the nonprofit Applied Research in Environmental Sciences Inc., or ARIES, since its founding in 2008.

Garland recently returned from a monthlong excursion to the Alaskan city of Utqiagvik (pronounced ut-kee-ah-vik), where she used the Ekeuhnick story to teach youth and local governments to prepare for the latest disaster afflicting the Inupiat ancestral homeland: melting polar ice caps.

Utqiagvik is the northernmost incorporated city in the United States and the administrative seat of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, a county-equivalent that spans nearly 89,000 square miles. The borough was home to an estimated 11,000 residents as of the 2020 Census, 55% of whom are Alaska Natives.

When Garland first traveled with a colleague to Utqiagvik in 2007 on a risk-management assignment from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “CREATE” Center of Excellence, the city was called Barrow. In 2016, Barrow’s residents voted to change it to its traditional Inupiat name, which translates to “place where snowy owls are hunted.” Garland has returned annually since 2013, except for 2020 and 2021 due to pandemic restrictions.

“I fell in love with the place,” Garland said. “It’s like this little microcosm.”

The North Slope Borough, she noted, is home to Asians, Russians, African Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives and caucasians.

Over 15 years, she’s had the opportunity to witness climatological shifts first-hand, which have included more rain and snow, and more frequent storm surges as near-shore sea ice that would ordinarily block the powerful waves has melted, leaving shorelines exposed to long fetches of open water.

For example, there was a surge on Oct. 7, Garland said, from a storm that lasted roughly three days. The wave reached at least 10 feet and tore down many of the city’s coastal berm barriers.

“They have to keep rebuilding them every time they have one of these surges,” Garland said.

Garland’s most recent trip spanned Oct. 26 through Dec. 2.

The surges also threaten the city’s drinking water, which comes from a series of lagoons: an upper lagoon containing fresh water, a middle lagoon with a dam, and a lower lagoon with a dam. Repeated and increasingly severe surges have already contaminated the middle and lower lagoons with seawater. If seawater were to get into the upper lagoon, the people of Utqiagvik will have no water, Garland said.

Garland holds a doctoral degree in anthropology with a specialty in archeology from the University of Hawaii. Over the years, she’s developed an interest in historical ecology, or the study of how people interact with their environments over time. She now applies historical ecology to arctic disaster risk reduction.

ARIES has partnered with the North Slope Borough’s Office of Emergency Management to assist with the research aspect of disaster preparedness. Since 2015, ARIES has continued the Coastal Observers of Barrow Community-based Monitoring program, which tracks temperatures, rainfall, wave heights, wind speed and soil grain sizes. ARIES is federally funded through 2024 via the National Science Foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic program, grant award No. 1927785.

But coordinating everyone’s efforts isn’t easy. The North Slope Borough is home to eight federally-recognized tribes, each with its own sovereign tribal government, as well as the regional Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Alaska Native corporation established from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement of 1971. The ASRC spans six industries, including oil refining.

“Jurisdictions and land ownership are diverse and complex, including the state and federal land ownership,” Garland said.

Many North Slope residents rely on hunting and fishing for their food. In Virginia, oyster reefs have become a popular solution for preventing algae blooms. The oysters eat the algae that would otherwise cause oxygen levels in water to drop below the levels needed to provide a natural habitat for fish.

Alaska has historically been immune to this particular environmental issue because its water used to be too cold for toxic species of phytoplankton to survive. Now it’s not. Days after Garland returned to Smithfield, NPR affiliate Alaska Public Media reported Utqiagvik air temperatures had reached a record high of 40ºF for the ordinarily icy month of December.

Despite Alaska Natives’ reliance on local wildlife, the regional economy is also very dependent on the oil industry, which for decades has sown doubt about the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System transports crude oil from the North Slope to Valdez, a city on Alaska’s southern coast.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, crude oil production in Alaska averaged 448,000 barrels per day in 2020, the lowest level of production since 1976. In January 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order imposing a temporary moratorium on federal oil and natural gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska’s northeastern region.

“I don’t use the word ‘climate change,’” Garland said. “It’s so politically charged.”

That’s where the Ekeuhnick story comes in. Garland leads a guided script reading of a North Slope Borough disaster legend in her risk assessment workshops to, in her words, “get everybody on the same page” for community mitigation strategies.

While Ekeuhnick’s people ultimately heeded his warnings, “people don’t want to get ready for something that’s bad,” Garland said. “It’s the hardest thing to get people to do.”

In addition to working with the borough and tribal governments, Garland also works remotely with youth and teachers all year long – and even in-person when she can’t do fieldwork outdoors due to Utqiagvik’s unique “polar night” phenomenon caused by the city’s proximity to the North Pole.

Utqiagvik saw its last sunset of 2022 on Nov. 19 during Garland’s most recent trip. For the next two months, through late January, the city was plunged into 24 hours per day of darkness.

“You can’t drive into Utqiagvik,” Garland said, noting the city is only accessible by plane. It took her a six-hour flight from Virginia to Utkiagvik and three separate three-hour flights to return.

When not in or traveling to and from Utqiagvik, Garland can often be found at the Victorian-era Nelms House on Main Street in Smithfield, hosting art shows or afternoon tea in a town that rarely sees snow.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add that ARIES is federally-funded.