GEORGE NEOKAK, a 48-year-old Inupiat Eskimo whale hunter, is getting worried. Where are the whales? He stands on the prow of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, three days out of Barrow, Alaska, cruising 30 miles offshore in the Beaufort Sea. It's early August, and at 11:30 P.M. the sun is low and the sky a glorious, tropical-looking array of pinks and lavenders. The Arctic water is as calm as an Everglades pond.
Bowhead whales are a food staple for George and his people back in Barrow. The Inupiat fall hunt normally starts soon, timed to the bowheads' migration, when the whales move west from summer feeding grounds off the coast of Canada. But so far, George hasn't seen any whales. The small, green leather-bound notebook he records them in is mostly empty.
The passenger list of the Healy is unusual on this trip, too. The first night, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff coptered out to the icebreaker; he flew 3,500 miles from Washington, D.C., and spent 15 hours on the ship. Homeland Security runs the Coast Guard, but Chertoff had never spent a night aboard a cutter before. Rapid changes in the Arctic brought him north, he said.
And then there's the Coast Guard commandant, Admiral Thad Allen, who came with Chertoff and awarded the crew an unusual commendation at least compared with standard military ones. The admiral and Chertoff, wearing crisp blue uniforms with their names stitched in white, stood proudly in the hangar as an officer read the citation. It was for work furthering U.S. economic and strategic interests in the face of climate change, "as the ice edge recedes further each spring."
The top of the earth is changing fast, and the ceremony is one indicator of the sudden political importance of the Healy. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 5.5 million square miles of sea and land above the Arctic Circle are warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet. "We've never seen [ice melt] like this in history," said Canadian Ice Service forecaster Luc Desjardins.
First launched in 1999, the Healy has spent most of the past decade cruising Alaskan waters while loaded with scientists. This week's group will study sea conditions and marine life. But next week's mission involves mapping the 10,000-foot-deep sea bottom beyond the previously iced-over Chukchi Cap. The findings could increase the size of the U.S. and bring in billions of dollars in oil and natural-gas revenues. At the commendation ceremony, Secretary Chertoff was clear about one big role the Healy will be playing in the coming days and years. "We want to determine what our national boundary is," he said. Next week's mission is sensitive; no print journalists are being allowed on board.
Now, standing with George on the prow, I look out at ice that's vanilla white on top and candy blue below the waterline. George, in his blue sweatpants and hooded sweatshirt, tries searching for whales from the starboard side for a while. He tries the stern, where scientists scramble to prepare equipment. He tries the bridge, which is soothingly dark except for the glow of computer screens. He gazes at a sea he's hunted on since he was eight years old but which, in some ways, seems new to him in 2008.
"No whales," George says.
LESS ICE ACCELERATES global warming, but it also brings opportunity. The sea around the Healy is clear of ships at the moment, but beyond the horizon, every nation with Arctic seabed the U.S., Canada, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway is racing to secure undersea territory. According to some reports, an estimated 25 percent of all undiscovered oil and gas reserves are believed to lie under the Arctic, and with vast expanses of the region suddenly accessible, a massive land grab is afoot. Under the United Nations' Law of the Sea Treaty, any ocean nation can claim the exclusive right to the seabed up to 402 miles offshore if it can prove that the land is an extension of its continental shelf. Last winter, Russia made headlines by dropping a titanium flag at the North Pole. They've claimed an area as big as Spain and France combined. "The Arctic is ours," Russian legislator Arthur Chilingarov said. Norway has filed for a chunk of territory off its coast. Denmark has already spent a quarter of a billion dollars in support of its Arctic claims off Greenland. "This will be the greatest distribution of lands on earth possibly ever to occur," says Paul Kelly, a member of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.
Despite currently cordial relations between Arctic countries, some experts worry that fighting may erupt if the process breaks down. Certainly, world leaders have started talking tough. According to a 2008 Coast Guard report, the Russians have "resumed strategic bomber flights over the Arctic for the first time since the Cold War." In June, right after the Arctic countries agreed to tone down their combative rhetoric, Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, head of Russia's combat-training directorate, announced that his country would expand military activities in the North. Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, has said, "Use the Arctic or lose it," and has promised to increase the country's Arctic military presence.
As the Healy cruises off the Alaska coast, the midnight sun glows down on another security headache to our east. It's the Northwest Passage, the fabled shortcut between Europe and Asia. Though the route has been impassable because of ice for centuries, some experts predict that in as little as four years it may be completely ice-free during the summer. Canada claims the passage as national waters, but the U.S. wants it open for use by all. Even as we sail, the Canadians are setting up a new laser-imaging device to detect rogue ships slipping into the passage. They began interdiction exercises in 2006; during one maneuver, they fired a 57-millimeter cannon over the bow of a mock American ship trying to sail through.
"A quarter of the world's shipping may go through the Northwest Passage within 15 years," says Scott Borgerson, Arctic expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. A single Chinese container ship, after all, could save millions of dollars on fuel and tolls traveling to New York via the passage instead of the Panama Canal. Borgerson predicts that Alaska's Arctic coast may come to look like offshore Louisiana, illuminated by thousands of oil-platform lights, and an Alaska port like Dutch Harbor may become a global hub for shipping, as busy as Singapore.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider that in 2007 more than 200 tourist ships circled Greenland, up from 27 in 2004. Last year, three German cruise ships sailed through the Northwest Passage. One showed up at Barrow, the Healy's launch point. "We had no idea they were coming," said Coast Guard rear admiral Gene Brooks, head of Arctic operations. Suddenly hundreds of tourists were wandering around, asking, "Vere are zee polar bears?"
POLITICS AND SCIENCE on the Healy are serious, but life on board is nice, a far cry from conditions that existed when European sailors conducted their centuries-long search for the Northwest Passage. Back then crews even in summer died of cold or starvation, or ate each other after abandoning ship and walking off.
In the 19th century, one British sailor wrote that each time his cabin door opened, frigid air flooded in, "causing condensation we slept in a miniature ice palace the outer side of my bunk was a sheet of ice which melted when I got into bed the upper part of my blanket was sodden while the bottom half was like a small ice floe."
My cabin, however, is temperature-controlled, with a shared bathroom and ample room for three. The Healy weighs 16,000 tons and stretches 420 feet, carrying a crew of 80 and up to 51 passengers, usually scientists or tech-support staff. One morning I take a walk around its decks. Up on the bridge, overhead screens show our location, water depth, route, and the shape of the sea bottom. Below, in the mess, I enjoy a tasty breakfast: bacon, eggs to order, cereal, fresh fruit, and coffee. I check out the library, workout area, coffee bar. On flat-screen TVs, I watch the Olympics.
The Healy is so pleasant that Coast Guard sailors walk around in logo T-shirts that depict cute polar bears eyeing the ship, and most sailors I speak to want to remain on the ship during their next tour of duty. Still, newcomers must undergo hazing after crossing the Arctic Circle for the first time. The "bluenoses" (their noses are literally painted blue) do push-ups on command and put on a goofy show in the hangar. Ceremonies culminate at 5 a.m. one day when the bluenoses parade around singing "YMCA," get blindfolded, and one by one are pushed into a vat of ice water.
"One of them tried to sneak up on me with a black mask on," says George Neokak. "I was gonna kick him, but he went away."
Five days out, George still hasn't seen a bowhead whale, and he's getting bored. He suspects that the warm temperatures have caused them to stay put in their summer feeding grounds. If the bowheads start their migration too late, winter ice could form off Barrow and block the Inupiat's hunting boats from reaching the whales, forcing the hunters to seek game inland. But inland temperatures are warmer, too, and in some places the ice isn't solid enough to walk on. George predicts that some inexperienced Inupiat will fall through freshwater ice and die of exposure.
The warm temperatures have created plenty of other dangers for Alaskans. Without sea ice to protect the shoreline, waves are crashing harder into coastal villages. Several Inupiat died this year when their boats were capsized by unprecedented swells. Alaska officials say they need to invest millions of dollars to shore up roads, airports, and bridges built on melting permafrost. Residents of Kivalina, a village on Alaska's northwest coast, filed suit in U.S. District Court in February against ExxonMobil and 23 other energy companies. They're attempting to link the conglomerates to the damage caused by global warming in the same way some cancer victims convinced juries that the tobacco giants were responsible for their health problems.
George once worked in the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. He started college but quit to be with his father, who was dying of cancer in an Anchorage hospital. While there, says George, switching the subject to food, he ate in restaurants and got horrible stomach pains from eggplant parmigiana. He stopped experimenting with food after downing a jalapeño pepper in clam chowder. He prefers wild fare. He tells me you can cut fresh clams from a walrus's stomach, up to five gallons' worth, and eat them raw. He tells me about uraq, a delicacy made from seal flippers, and says the blubber of bearded seals makes an excellent dipping sauce. "On the ice, if you're hungry," he says, lifting binoculars to resume his search for bowheads, "you can eat the liver, brains, or kidneys of a seal raw."
BARROW, GEORGE'S HOME, probably has more scientists per square foot these days than any other town in America. "It's ground zero for climate change," one researcher told me. From the air, the town of 4,500 seems a muddy collection of ramshackle homes, most built on wooden blocks to keep them from melting the permafrost below. No roads lead to Barrow, and the vista south is of endless brown tundra.
But the town boasts the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, where, year-round, researchers study carbon-dioxide emissions, Arctic animals, and sea conditions. They bunk, up to 150 at a time, on BASC grounds in an old Navy research laboratory. Spillover scientists sleep as many as ten to a room in "the Polar Bear Theater," a saggy, cold house in town. One night, when I was in Barrow, so many scientists were in town that they slept in cots laid out in a community gym between the basketball scoreboard and the climbing wall.
I ran into them in the cultural center and in the general store, where you can buy a snowmobile for sale in aisle three, or a $9 box of chocolate-chip cookies. In Pepe's Mexican restaurant, I overheard dinner conversations concerning "arctic winches" and lemmings. Like George Neokak, the scientists I met were trying to figure out conditions by counting things in different ways. Joe von Fischer, a friendly biologist from Colorado State University, drove me out to the tundra to meet his colleagues, who were measuring methane emissions. Dr. Matthew Sturm, a bearded, weathered glaciologist, told me at breakfast that he measured snow melt for the Army Corps of Engineers. Janet Clarke, a biologist who works for the Science Applications International Corporation, was counting marine mammals.
On the Healy, as in Barrow, the fortunate scientists ones who get funding have passions that dovetail with national interests. Matthew Alford is a 38-year-old oceanographer from the applied-physics lab at the University of Washington whose deep-sea research on the Healy is funded by the Navy. Alford, an acoustic-guitar player and surfer, is fascinated by undersea waves, immense masses of water moving separately from waves above. Beneath the sea, he says, "a breaking wave can scatter sound, which has implications for hiding submarines. The Navy wants to make better models of the ocean, to predict conditions under which their ships will operate." Today, Alford is working in a 20-mile-per-hour wind on the aft deck in his zip-up, blaze-orange mustang suit, blue hard hat, and steel-toed boots. If he falls in the water, the suit will protect him. If the 2,800-pound anchor that's about to drag the project's equipment under the water where it will spend a year collecting data falls the wrong way, the boots won't help much.
Chief cruise scientist Dr. Bob Pickart, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is here to deploy mooring devices that measure ocean temperature, current, and salinity. Pickart's passion is the way in which ice and ocean interact, particularly during storms, and this part of the Arctic Ocean is stormy 50 percent of the time. Kate Stafford, a small, intense 41-year-old oceanographer from the University of Washington, will spend the next year "listening to sound below, like whales, ships, or guns from oil and gas exploration," she says. "When the water is ice-covered, it's pretty quiet. If the ice gets thinner or goes away, it will become more difficult for animals to communicate."
All three scientists say they aren't here to support or disprove global warming. All three feel challenged by how little is known about the Arctic. Ten years ago, the region was too inaccessible for research. Now, conditions are changing so fast that they might be different by the time the research is done. "In a way, it's like we started too late," says Stafford.
ON MY FINAL DAY ABOARD the Healy, as I don a flight suit and wait for the helicopter to take me ashore before the ship heads north for its next mission, the government is still wrestling with what to do about the Arctic. In Washington, a top-level policy review is almost complete. Since the Healy is one of only three U.S.-owned polar icebreakers, Congress is considering funding two new vessels. (Russia has 18.) And no matter what the Healy discovers next week, making claims will be a complicated process. The U.S. is the only Arctic country that has not yet acceded to the Law of the Sea Treaty, despite the odd alliance of environmentalists (who like its ecological protections) and the Bush administration (which likes its provisions for territorial claims). That means no American scientists sit on the treaty board to analyze claims. And it means the claims made by other Arctic nations may be granted before the U.S. even joins. "If this were a ballgame," says Rear Admiral Brooks, "the United States wouldn't even be on the field."
Underlying the worries over the treaty and the rapid melting is a question I asked everyone I met in Washington and Alaska who was connected with the Bush administration: Does the White House finally believe global warming is real? Chertoff told me he was "agnostic" about what caused the warming. "The reality is there's less ice. The larger question is what to do about it." Then he and Commandant Allen listed concerns about the consequences. How will the Coast Guard monitor the expected flood of vessels? How will the U.S. and Russia cooperate to prevent oil spills or collisions as ships back up, waiting to get through the Bering Strait? Who will represent U.S. interests up north? The U.S. does not have a permanent Arctic base yet. At the moment, Allen said, the Healy is the eyes and ears of the U.S. in the Arctic.
A few hours after the helicopter ride, I leave on the 8 P.M. Alaska Airlines flight out of Barrow. The Healy, out at sea, has turned toward the pole. Gray clouds obscure land, but after a while I see the green peaks of the Brooks Range below, the winding rivers around Fairbanks, swelled by melted ice, and rows of floatplanes at the airport. I turn to my row companion, a Frenchman wearing an earring. Xavier Mouy works for a Canadian firm, Jasco Research.
"I was on the Beaufort Sea, doing a marine-mammal survey," he says good-naturedly.
"For whom?" I ask, and once again the answer conjures the warming Arctic, the rush for a new world.