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The Top of the World

The Alaskan town of Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, is the northernmost city in the United States and one of the northernmost communities in the world. Covering the tip of a flat peninsula covered in creeks and hundreds of lakes, the town is literally at the top of the world. With climate change having an amplified effect on Arctic regions, the people, flora and fauna in and around Utqiagvik are feeling the brunt of the global phenomenon, disrupting fragile ecosystems and forcing changes to centuries-old traditions of the indigenous community. Some smaller communities nearby have abandoned their villages in the past years as life has become unsustainable - a fate that the people of Utqiagvik are determined to avoid.

The immediate impact of climate change on communities like Utqiagvik are manifold and complex. Since most of the town's food needs to be shipped in from the South, groceries in the shops are expensive and many of the roughly 4,500 inhabitants supplement their shopping with fishing and hunting. Whaling and sea lion hunting are an integral part of indigenous life and hunters search out large ice floes where sea lion rest. As ice floes have started to shrink and melt, hunters are having to travel further from their bases to find their prey. Whalers use the floes to butcher the huge animals to take back to port. Without sufficiently large ice floes, this part of the hunt is becoming difficult.

The changes in Arctic ice are also affecting the habitats of sea lions and polar bears. Both use the ice cover to migrate and search for food but as the ice starts to break up, they find themselves having to swim longer distances between rests and often fail to find enough food to continue. Further south in Alaska, huge numbers of walruses and sea lions have ended up gathering on beaches due to lack of ice while polar bears are being pushed closer to human settlements, causing potential conflict with locals who are struggling to hold onto their small patches of arctic tundra.

As temperatures rise, the ground below previously frozen solid all year round, is starting to melt. Buildings are sagging and slowly sinking in the softening earth, causing pipes to crack and sewage systems to clog up. Rising temperatures also put the sustainability of coastal settlements in question as melting ice causes sea levels to rise which combines with coastal erosion to consume some 10-12 metres of coastal land per year.

Scientists at the Barrow Climate Observatory have been examining levels of carbon dioxide and continue to register dramatic rises. Climate change in these parts is playing havoc with highly fragile ecosystems that ultimately effect humans as the disruption feeds up the food chain.

As tourists look for ever more remote and unusual holiday destinations, Utqiagvik has become a popular spot for those wanting to witness the Nalukataq festival, an annual event to mark the spring whaling season, where locals from surrounding villages come to join townspeople around the time of the summer solstice to celebrate the season's catch and the umialiks, or whaling captains.

Umialiks are thrown into the air by members of the community using a blanket made out of walrus or seal hide and are expected to throw gifts to members of the community. A show of generosity by the umialiks enhances their standing in the community. After Nalukataq the city hosts the annual Arctic Games where people compete in disciplines like Eskimo basketball, egg balancing, nail pounding and rock juggling.

On the 4th of July, the USA's Independence Day, a "Miss Top of the World" contest is held where participants actively promote an alcohol and drug free life to younger people amongst whom substance abuse and addiction is a massive problem.

Utqiagvik's name change from Barrow is part of a larger decolonisation effort among American and Canadian indigenous people who are reclaiming their culture, language and history. The new name means "The place where snowy owls are hunted". Local people are now hoping that they will be able to stay in this place and that there will be snowy owls and other wildlife to hunt.
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