Webcam helps Barrow hunters find whales

Federally funded technology could save lives, whalers say

Posted: Monday, May 01, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Whalers in Barrow still hunt bowheads from skin boats and lean on the wisdom of elders to decode the treacherous whims of the frozen Arctic Ocean.

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But they've got a new ally for interpreting the ice - the Internet.

Thanks to a federally funded project to make the oceans safer, scientists recently installed a radar and Web camera on Barrow's tallest building (three stories), and sounding probes at sites above and below the ice.

Now high-tech whalers can download near-real-time data charting such things as ice thickness and strength as well as the location of leads where whales surface.

The information could save lives, whalers say, preventing near tragedies such as the one four years ago when rescue helicopters plucked 90 whalers and helpers from drifting ice sheets broken from shore by strong winds and currents.

The data will be especially vital this year, said Eugene Brower, head of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association. Unexpectedly low temperatures and winds from the north have shoved the ocean's pack ice toward shore, building a frozen shelf that extends out for eight miles.

The few open paths of water through the pack ice keep slamming shut, delaying the season, he said Thursday. When whaling does begin - with a quota of 22 whales - dozens of support camps for 41 crews may have to wait near the forward edge of that shorefast ice, far from the safety of land.

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"I'm a little leery with (the lead) that far out," Brower said.

A combination of fierce currents and unfavorable winds and tides could rip the ice from shore and send the waiting hunters, perhaps hundreds of them, on a surprise float.

It happened in May 1997 and twice in 2002. More than 100 people had to be rescued from the Chukchi Sea that year.

The new instruments could be especially helpful because higher temperatures in recent years have made subsistence whaling more precarious, Crosby said.

The summer ice cap in the Arctic Ocean has dwindled steadily in the face of higher temperatures, 8 percent a decade over the past 26 years, said Hajo Eicken, an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The ice is 40 percent thinner than it was 40 years ago, he said. The shorefast ice is about 4.5 feet thick now.

Eicken installed the equipment in Barrow last fall with the help of several assistants as part of Alaska Ocean Observing System, a fledgling nationwide initiative to monitor climate-change effects on the oceans and sea ice.

The plan in Alaska calls for cameras and radar in coastal communities around the state, Eicken said. Barrow is the first.

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