The Summer Science Program in Kaktovik, Alaska, is in many respects your typical one-week marine biology camp. The kids learn about aquatic and coastal ecosystems. They go out on the water, collect samples, bring them back to the classroom, look at them through microscopes and classify them. They do art projects, go to the beach, hang out and finish up the week with an open house where they show off what they’ve done to their parents.
Then there are the ways in which it’s not such a typical camp.
The kids dissect small sharks and analyze seal blubber. They’re on the water in a hardcore scientific research vessel. They receive on-site lessons from Ken Dunton and Jim McClelland, two of the world’s leading experts on the marine ecosystems of the arctic. There are polar bears tromping around in the background. And when they learn about food webs, the kids — who are Iñupiat Eskimo — bring a rare perspective.
“They recognize, in a way most of us don’t, that they’re part of the foodweb,” says Dunton, professor of marine science in the College of Natural Sciences. “Seals eat fish. The polar bears eat the seals, and sometimes they eat the polar bears. They live it every day. It’s a reality for them.”
That blend, of the normal and the extreme, is characteristic of life in the City of Kaktovik (population 239), which sits on the northeast tip of Barter Island at the very top of Alaska, deep inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), hundreds of miles away from its closest neighbor.
Dunton has been going to Kaktovik since 1977 to study the coastal ecosystems of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and better understand their resilience to potential threats like climate change and industrial development. He started the camp to give back to the community that had hosted him so generously for so long, but also because he realized how profoundly his research intersects with the future of the Iñupiat, who depend on the local ecosystems for survival.
“They have TV, the Internet, cell phones, video games,” Dunton says. “But they also have to fish and hunt to feed themselves. Over 90 percent of the residents of Kaktovik practice a subsistence lifestyle. Hunting and fishing provide their main source of food, especially for the long winter period.”
Both the Iñupiat diet and Iñupiat culture depend on what choices are made about drilling. Vast reserves of oil sit underneath both the land in ANWR and the waters off the coast. To this point there’s been no drilling and very limited exploration in the eastern Alaska Beaufort Sea. But that could change very quickly, depending on the politics.
Oil companies regularly send representatives to town to talk to local citizens, sharing their concerns regarding drilling and the precautions they will take to minimize ecological disturbance and the benefits they can provide to the community.
Environmental groups also come and try to persuade the Iñupiat to oppose drilling, not just off the coast, which is what threatens their lifestyle most directly, but inland as well, where the ecological threat is more acute for other native groups who depend heavily on the caribou herds for subsistence.
On top of all that are the politicians, who are trying to negotiate the competing economic, environmental and social interests that swirl around ANWR.
The biggest issue for the Iñupiat is what impact drilling offshore would have on their annual bowhead whale hunt, a centuries-old tradition that they have a special exemption from whaling bans to pursue. They can take up to three whales a year.
The Summer Science Program doesn’t address these big issues. In some respects it’s a break from them. But the science that the kids are studying is precisely what they’ll need to know in order to make informed decisions about how to deal with drilling and exploration issues. And that underlying significance may be part of what drives the intense interest they’ve shown in the camp.
“When we first started,” says Susan Linn, a graduate student and Dunton’s director of outreach in Kaktovik, “we had planned on starting [the camp] at 10 in the morning. We’d been warned that everyone stays up late, because in the summer the sun is shining 24 hours a day, and in fact we worried that even 10 would be too early. Once we started, though, the kids demanded more time.” The camp runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Encouraged by this enthusiasm, Dunton began to employ students to help with his research. He recruited six high school students in Kaktovik, and he and McClelland trained them in how to use their scientific instruments, collect small invertebrate animals in traps and maintain a field notebook. The students work on the ice weekly from April to June, accompanied by a town elder, collecting data and placing water and biological samples in a freezer.
The goal is to teach them about scientific research. It’s also to give Dunton and his colleagues access to ecological data they simply can’t acquire themselves because they’re not there throughout the year. And it’s an extension, he says, of the collaborative nature of all of his interactions with the Iñupiat.
“Traditional native knowledge is also helping us understand how the system functions and especially provides us with a perspective on broad spatial and temporal scales that we simply can’t get over a two-year study period,” Dunton says. “It’s a two-way learning process, and we are learning from each other. The locals possess a basic and fundamental knowledge of the ecosystem—we just need to take the time to patiently listen.”
A version of this story originally appeared on Texas Science.