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> Living in Barrow, What's it like?
post Jun 26 2005, 02:33 AM
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What is it like living and teaching in Barrow, Alaska?

I moved to Barrow nine years ago to teach school. My two children spent much of their school years here and graduated from Barrow High School. Iíll try to give you an idea of what it is like living in Barrow. If there are any Barrow folks reading, Iím sure you have more things to add. Just hit ďAdd ReplyĒ and tell us your story! If you arenít from Barrow and have more questions, then hit ďAdd ReplyĒ, ask away, and Iíll try to answer them for you.

Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States. The population is about 4500 people including about 1300 school-aged children. Barrow is located in the high arctic tundra where there are no trees and the land is relatively flat. Being about 71 degrees north in latitude, it is well above the Arctic Circle on the coast of the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean. But, what is it like living here?

Daily life in Barrow is similar in many ways to anywhere else in the United States. We have phones, satellite TV and the internet to connect us to the world by way of technology. We have warm houses, cars, sewer systems, running water, and electricity to make living as comfortable as Kansas. But, there are a few things that make life different and that you might take for granted after you lived here for a while.

First, the temperatures in the winter make Barrow life interesting! Winter temperatures are typically around 20 degrees below zero and since itís often windy, temperatures are usually even lower. (See this website for the National Weather Service wind chill chart, formula, and more information: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/windchill/index.shtml.) Keeping your car plugged in so that your block heater, oil pan heater, and battery blanket heater can make it possible to start the car to get to work on 50 degrees below zero days is important. Otherwise, you call for a $5.00 taxi ride to take you less than a mile to work, or you dress very warmly and walk. Dressing warmly means arctic pack boots or Bunny boots, heavy down or synthetic coat and snow pants, very warm hat, gloves and face mask. Frostbite can happen very quickly so keeping everything covered is a must. Traditional options for clothing are Inupiat style parkas made with fur linings and fur ruffs around the hood to keep your face warm. By the time you get all of those warm things on youíre starting to sweat and must get outside quickly! Of course, not everyone dresses for the arctic. Most buildings in Barrow are kept nice and warm, so I often see my students jumping out of a car wearing a light jacket or sweatshirt over their baggy pants and sports jerseys and running into the school or the store or vice versa.

With gas wells located just outside of town, there is plenty of natural gas to keep the power plant going to provide electricity for the needs of all of the people. Some of the villages on the North Slope have generators that run on diesel fuel. Read a story about the town on the North Slope, Kaktovik, Alaska, and their loss of electricity for four days last winter at this site: http://www.ktuu.com/CMS/templates/alaska_news/master.asp?articleid=10276&zoneid=4. No one was injured during the power outage and the town pulled together to survive temperatures dropping to 65 below zero! This incident reminds all residents on the North Slope how important it is to keep our power plant operating and how close we are to serious problems if itís not running!

The second thing that makes life interesting in Barrow is the dryness. The arctic is considered to be a polar desert with less than 10 inches of precipitation per year. This makes for very dry air and lots of static electricity. Walking around a carpeted floor in your house can generate lots of shocks! Iíve heard stories of people blowing out their TVís and VCRís just by touching them. That hasnít happened to me, but on very dry days I do try to discharge the electricity from my finger onto a wooden surface before I touch anything metal, or human! Iíve had lots of good jolts!

Ah, the prices! Things are little more expensive in Barrow than in most places in the US. Estimates used for adjustment of cost of living are 142% over Anchorage values. However, the state is currently reevaluating those adjustments and they are probably, in actuality, much higher. A little reality check...a gallon of milk at the local grocery store is about $7.49. Gasoline prices are set once a year, when the ocean barge brings the new shipment. (Barges can only make it to Barrow once a year, usually mid to late August when the ocean is clear of ice.) This year gasoline costs $3.49 per gallon. Iím afraid to find out what the price will be in August of 2005! There is one store in town, the AC or Stuaqpak (Big Store in Inupiat), that you can get groceries, some clothing, guns, snow machines, four-wheelers, and other things. There are a couple of other small grocery stores and also a few specialty shops, selling videos, flowers, oriental foods, coffee, auto parts, and lumber. There are also about 8 restaurants serving anything from pizza, hamburgers, sushi, to Chinese, Korean, or Mexican food. You learn to adjust to the cost of living. Many people order food and other supplies by barge from Seattle or air cargo from Anchorage or Fairbanks. Internet and mail-order shopping are very popular in Barrow. Most places will ship to Barrow (for a price!). Itís interesting to talk to phone salespeople that donít realize that Alaska is actually a part of the United States!

Getting out of town is expensive, too. Leaving Barrow for a vacation, shopping or business trip means spending money on an airplane ticket. There are no roads leading to Barrow, although there are many cars in town! You can drive a few miles in several directions out of town, but thatís about it. So, you plan ahead to get the best deals on plane tickets that you can and make the most of your time out. One benefit of all of the air travel is getting lots of frequent flyer miles which can be used the next time you have cabin fever!

There are three schools in Barrow: Barrow High School (including the alternative high school, Kiita) with about 300 students, Hopson Middle School with roughly 250 students, and Ipalook Elementary School with about 685 students. Teaching in Barrow is wonderful. The North Slope Borough is highly invested in the education of their children and generously subsidizes the school budget. Consequently, class sizes are small and supplies are plentiful. The facilities are beautiful (you can see pictures of the schools at the NSBSD website: http://www.nsbsd.org/site/index.cfm) and very modern. Residents of Barrow did not have a high school until 1975 and had to send their high-schoolers to boarding schools in other parts of Alaska or other states! Thus, people in Barrow are very proud of their Barrow Whalers teams and basketball games fill the gymnasium to the brim with fans cheering them on. Finding ways to make science relevant to my students is fairly easy in the arctic. Plus, the constant influx of scientists coming into Barrow for various projects makes it easy to bring current research into my classroom.

Okay, what about the darkness? The sun sets in late November and doesnít rise again until late January, which means about 65 days with no sun. However, itís not pitch black all of the time. During the middle of the day the sky is dusky for a few hours. Once the sun does come back in January, the amount of sunshine each day increases rapidly until early May when the sun sets for the last time until early August. See attached sunrise/sunset time table for 2005. Attached File  sunrise_sunset_table.doc ( 32k ) Number of downloads: 132
This chart determines a sunrise as half or more of the sun rising above the horizon and the opposite for a sunset. So, really there is a little sun visible a few days before the actual sunrise. As far as dealing with the darkness goes, it doesnít really bother me; I stay pretty busy. The weekends sometimes leave you a little restless. Some people seem to experience some depression. Iíve got a full spectrum light bulb in my reading lamp but Iím not sure if it really makes a difference or not.

There really are lots of activities to keep people busy in Barrow in the winter. For instance, the city recreation center has a gym for basketball and volleyball, a climbing wall, racquetball courts, weight room and sauna. The ice rink is covered (but not really heated!) and is used for hockey, open skating, and curling in the winter months (donít need a freezer under the sheet of ice!). The old school gym is used for roller skating, indoor soccer, and citywide dances and potlucks. On evenings and weekends, the high school gym, running track, weight room and swimming pool are open to the public. As the temperatures warm up, there are more people outside snow machining and some cross-country skiers as well. The summer brings out the bicycles, boats and softball players.

There are at least seven churches and many clubs for those people interested in being actively involved in the community. The city library has internet access and a childrenís reading room and the Inupiat Heritage Language and Culture Center has a museum and provides workspace for native artists and craftsmen. There is a Boys and Girls Club and a Teen Center for the youth of Barrow. Ilisagvik Community College offers a variety of classes ranging from programs leading to Associate Degrees, vocational education, and community education. We have no movie theater but there are several places in town that rent movies plus the high school band and other clubs show movies on many weekends in the auditorium as a fundraiser.

Many people like to get out of town on their snow machines to go hunting caribou or geese (depending on the time of year) and trapping animals for the fur parkas that are needed to keep warm. The Alaska Native population (the Inupiat people on the North Slope) can also hunt marine mammals which are very important to their subsistence lifestyle and the continuation of their culture. Seals, walruses, and polar bears are taken for food and many other uses. The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) is hunted in Barrow twice during their migration cycle. Once in April and May as they migrate towards Canadian waters for the summer, and again as they pass by Barrow on their way back to the Bering Sea in September and October. Taking of the whales is a community effort and, thus, the community shares in the harvest. The bowhead is used throughout the year in Inupiat cultural ceremonies and festivities.

Living in Barrow, Iíve learned a lot about the Inupiat culture and I continue to do so. As a biology teacher, the cultural connection with the land and the animals and plants of the region is a natural fit and has been exciting to incorporate into my classroom. My students are teaching me what they know and what they have learned from their elders, the original ďscientistsĒ from this region. The traditional knowledge of the Inupiat people has been valuable to western scientists as they conduct research in this harsh environment and try to make sense of their data and understand the processes that occur in the arctic. The Inupiat people have a wealth of information, especially in connection with climate change in their homeland. (More on that in a future journal entry!)

Websites for Barrow:

Check the weather in Barrow

North Slope Borough website

North Slope Borough School District website

City of Barrow website

Inupiat History Language and Culture Center

KBRW radio station

Barrow Arctic Science Consortium

Barrow Web Cam
Webcam of tundra project sponsored by Global Change Research Group, SDSU

Barrow Sea Ice Cam,
Webcam of sea ice just offshore sponsored by Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory, Point Barrow Observatory

Planning a trip to Barrow?

Information from Wikipedia encyclopedia

More Barrow info

Online pictures of Barrow
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post Jun 26 2005, 03:43 AM
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Thanks for posting this super interesting information about living and working in Barrow, Alaska. I found it fascinating. Thanks for posting!

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post Jun 26 2005, 02:14 PM
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Thanks a lot for the Barrow post. My students will love it.
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post Jun 28 2005, 09:06 PM
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This is great Leslie! Thanks for sharing!
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post Jun 29 2005, 04:52 PM
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Thanks that was very interesting and very useful.

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