Laboratories in Barrow a new hot spot for climate research

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2007

BARROW - A long-awaited research facility scientists hope will house the next generation of arctic research is perched above the table-flat tundra a few miles from downtown Barrow.

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A half-dozen immaculate laboratories wait, complete with big flat-screen monitors and powerful Internet connections. A necropsy room is across the hall from walk-in freezers, and an open rooftop offers room for monitoring equipment of all sorts.

"This was sorely needed," said Glenn Sheehan, executive director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, the nonprofit entity that will run the new facility.

The 18,000-square-foot center will dramatically improve the equipment available to researchers coming to Barrow from around the country, Sheehan told members of the Alaska Climate Impact Assessment Commission. The commission, which was created by the Alaska Legislature to study the effects of a warming climate, held a hearing in Barrow in late September and toured local research sites, including the new facility, last Thursday.

For now, BASC's offices are housed in a worn wing of an old Navy research laboratory, where faded scientific posters and pictures of the many researchers line the hallway. According to Sheehan, the hundreds of scientists and research assistants who arrive in Barrow each year top tourists in the number of person-days spent in town.

The new facility has been in the works for more than a decade and finally became a reality this year. Congress provided funding for the $19 million center with the understanding that maintenance and operations would be up to BASC. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony in June.

The building is called the Barrow Arctic Research Center, or BARC, but a working title labeled it the Global Climate Change Research Facility, and climate change provides an underlying thread to arctic research projects these days, according to Sheehan.

Before the building went up, nearly $1 million was spent traveling to various research entities to figure out what equipment researchers would need to study in the Arctic, he said. In the end, BASC tried to design something with general facilities that could be widely reconfigured on demand.

"We expect a lot more activity up here," he said.

Down the road, BASC hopes to increase the facility to 80,000 square feet, adding a dormitory, warehouse and other infrastructure. The 7,466-acre Barrow Environmental Observatory, a chunk of tundra set aside by the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp. to be used for research, is nearby. More than 400 scientific instruments are scattered across the landscape.

BARC has a hanging pulley system strong enough to handle a sizable chunk of a whale, and an Internet connection powerful enough to meet the demands of a host of researchers. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is helping provide technological support, and the facility is set up for teleconferences spanning the globe.

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