Arctic Town Threatened by Erosion

This is a town perched atop the world and on an icy Arctic Ocean, a town whose very existence is being altered by a melting sea most argue Mother Nature never intended.

Barrow is the northernmost town in the United States, and in the winter is connected by the frozen ocean to the North Pole. The only way to and from the town for much of the year is by plane.

Watch the story on "Focus Earth" Saturday Dec. 27 on Discovery's "Planet Green" network.

Alaska Airlines flies in and out twice a day in converted Boeing 737s. The front half of the plane is given over completely to cargo, to allow for traveling Barrow residents to stock up on items that are hard to come by in this remote town, such as toilet paper and soup.

VIDEO: Melting arctic ice harms polar bears.Play

The one grocery store in town is well stocked, but the freight charges to ship everything into town send prices through the roof. A gallon of milk will set you back $10 and almost certainly arrives in the store on its expiration date.

These airplanes are so full of cargo that it takes airline employees almost two hours to empty the hold and get the items into the terminal. That's fine when October brings balmy temperatures that hover around zero, but in January when the mercury falls well below that, things can get tricky.

Not everyone in town depends on the Nabiscos and Krafts of the world for their food, however. Nearly two-thirds of Barrow's citizens are Inupiaq, an Eskimo tribe that has subsisted off the land and sea for generations, hunting and fishing to survive instead of driving to the market. But now, their way of life is at risk because of the warming of the planet.

The ocean that used to be frozen solid by mid-October now stays largely liquid until December or January. Erosion is chewing away at Barrow's borders, so much so that some in town imagine a day, not too far away, when they'll have to move the town further inland.

An Inupiaq elder named George Edwards, though, assured ABC News that he and his people would be just fine.

"We're ocean people, we'll stay on the ocean," he said. "We'll keep walking back."

It's not just the physical town that faces the dangers of a melting and encroaching ocean. Whaling, the chief industry here, is also in peril. The Inupiaq depend on the practice to survive Barrow's harsh winters.

"If half of your meal is not the whale, then you'll have chapped lips all the time and your skin will dry up," Edwards said. "The air [here] has no moisture in it because it already has frozen and dropped and when you live in the Arctic you cannot stay very long in the cold unless your body can generate the fat that can counteract the cold. ... As a human being, we don't have the ability to make this fat like this, so we have to borrow it from the animal."

Melting Ice Strands Polar Bears

The ice melt has changed the whale's migratory patterns, thus changing the timing and length of whaling season. It has also made the hunting area that much larger. All this makes whaling harder and less safe.

More than one Barrow resident has a story of being trapped on broken ice and waiting for the local search-and-rescue helicopter. It may take hours to rescue the whalers and days, if not more, to recover the boats and whaling equipment.

But it's not just whaling that is being affected by climate change in Barrow. Local polar bears normally live on sea ice as they hunt the ocean waters for seals.

With the ice (and, therefore, their home) melting, however, they have had to come ashore in search of food. This poses a threat not just to the starving animals but to the people of Barrow, where some bears have wandered looking for food scraps. Polar bears are an often aggressive species, and when they are hungry, humans can look a little too much like a meal.

Gilbert Leavitt, an Inupiaq whaler, and his son J.R. took us on a polar bear excursion. We traveled by snowmobile and sled past the last road in town, heading eight miles north to Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States. Each of our guides carried a rifle, in case any bears we happened to meet might give us any trouble.

After traveling about four miles out on the tundra we were fortunate enough to find one; an exhausted bear resting on the frozen beach. When he saw his human observers he began to wander away from us out towards the open water where he would hunt for his meal.

The only problem was this heavy bear could not make it out on the ocean slush that had yet to fully freeze. He fell through repeatedly and then struggled to regain his footing.

When he was too exhausted to fight through the muck anymore, he would sprawl out like a living bear skin rug; spreading his weight over as much area as possible so as not to fall through again. We watched helplessly for a little while before continuing our journey to Point Barrow.

Arctic's Accelerated Climate Change

At the northernmost point of the United States we found a large pile of whale carcasses. The local whalers stash the waste of the season's hunt here to feed the polar bears and keep them away from town. But the townspeople say that over the past several seasons they have seen a sharp decline in polar bears feeding at what is known simply as "the bone pile."

A few years ago, Gilbert said, he remembers seeing more than 20 bears feasting on the remains on his many trips out to the bone pile. When we arrived at the pile there was nothing but a few footprints and a giant flock of gulls.

From this point we looked out across the rolling sea.

"It's not freezing up like it used to," Gilbert said. "Right now this ice should be like two feet thick."

Gilbert said he can see the changes from season to season.

"It's getting worse every year," he said. "Ice is coming in late. It's not staying. ... We lost a whale in this because the ice wasn't so thick."

It may be hard for anyone but the locals to tell the difference between 20 below zero and 40 below zero, but the fact is that this ground zero of sorts is seeing climate change happen faster than just about anywhere else in the world: The people of this and similar villages along the Arctic coast may very well have to change their daily lives because of it.

It may mean buying more $10 milk from the market or even, as Edwards suggested, packing up the town and moving inland.

"We understand what the ocean does," he said. "We will keep moving back."