If you've never been to Barrow, Alaska, it is, quite literally, on top of the world. It is the northernmost city in the United States and the ninth most northern city in the world, situated on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean.
Despite its remoteness, Barrow is among the oldest permanent settlements in the United States, existing long before the arrival of European explorers in the Arctic. And for its residents, the majority of whom are Inupiat, ties to the land and water date back thousands of years.
Ever mindful of that past, many Inupiat gathered with their fellow Alaskans in Barrow to celebrate the present while looking forward, with an eye on the future they want to see for their kids and grandkids. We're proud to say that our very own Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Alaska Wilderness League's tribal liaison and Barrow resident, was a driving force alongside the Sierra Club in bringing everyone together at a recent vigil celebrating the Arctic Ocean and calling for an end to drilling in the Arctic.
Even though I couldn't make it to Barrow for the vigil, Rosemary shared with me highlights of the moving events that took place throughout the day. Performance artist Allison Warden, a resident of Kaktovik, AK, performed a number of songs and presented selections from her one-woman show "Calling All Polar Bears," demonstrating the changes the bears are facing due to climate change, and calling for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which provides important denning habitat for mother polar bears. Later in the evening the crowd made its way to the water's edge, and Allison's mother, Mary Ann Warden, led everyone in a prayer for the ocean's health. They joined voices to ask for protection of the waters that have sustained their families for generations.
Alaska's early residents were hunter-gatherers, and the Inupiat of the Alaskan Arctic have relied on the bounty of the Arctic Ocean for thousands of years. Today the Inupiat continue to rely heavily on subsistence hunting and fishing to feed themselves and their families. To them, the ocean is their "garden," and today they continue to live in harmony with the animals that call the Arctic home -- polar bears, bowhead and beluga whales, seals, sea birds and walrus.
In June, President Obama said, "we can't just drill our way out of the energy and climate challenge that we face." I am hopeful that the president will heed his own advice, and keep our Arctic Ocean safe from dirty and dangerous oil drilling. A major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean poses extraordinary risks to fragile Arctic marine ecosystems and the coastline -- in fact, an oil spill of any size would threaten those who live in the Arctic and depend on the ocean for subsistence.
Any major spill would occur hundreds of miles from the nearest Coast Guard station, and recovery would be hampered by the harsh and often chaotic conditions in the Arctic including the constant threat of encroaching sea ice, low temperatures, high winds, fog and long periods of darkness. In 2012, Shell Oil - through a litany of setbacks and failures -- provided overwhelming evidence that the oil and gas industry is not prepared to operate safely in the Arctic Ocean. There is no proven technology to clean up a spill in Arctic conditions, which is why tribal leaders from Alaska's Arctic communities stand opposed to offshore drilling.
We must not turn our backs on the Inupiat or the wildlife -- polar bears, walrus and other species -- that they depend on. At the vigil, those gathered stood together for the safety of our ocean, and celebrated the lives of those that depend on the lands and waters of the Arctic, both now and into the future. And we will continue to stand with them, because risking this remote and beautiful place to further our addiction to oil is not the right choice.