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October 5, 2012

Arctic melt opens door for big oil's next boom

Born and raised the son of an Inupiaq Eskimo whaling captain in this small village on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, Hugh Patkotak knows the water and he knows ice.

There are almost one hundred words for ice in the language of the Eskimos, he says. Words that describe ice floes that are flattened, thick and safe for walking; packed, soft ice which is perilous; and snow that floats on the ocean which is difficult for a wooden boat to push through in the spring.

Patkotak, chairman of the village’s native corporation here, is also a search and rescue pilot. And he looks down on the tundra from his “bird’s eye view,” as he puts it, observing year after year as the ice begins to melt in the spring and summer and slowly returns in the autumn. And standing at the water’s edge in Wainwright in late August and staring out at the dark sea, he said this summer he has seen few of the familiar icebergs on the horizon and no floating sea ice for hundreds of miles offshore.

“We have never seen a melt like this in our history,” Patkotak said.

In these Alaskan waters of the High North, sea ice has melted at a record pace this summer, shattering a record set in 2007 and marking the greatest Arctic melt since scientists began monitoring it by satellite in 1979. Some scientists calculate it is the greatest melt in the history of humankind, and there is little disagreement that it poses a perilous development for the planet.

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