Arctic Science center in the works

Posted: Tuesday, August 21, 2001

BARROW -- Plans are in the works to replace Barrow's aging Arctic Research Facility with a new state-of-the-art science center.

The current research facility is located in the former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory near Barrow -- a building that dates back to the 1940s. Through the years the North Slope Borough has provided it as residential and laboratory space for visiting research scientists. With the resurgence of Arctic research, the old facility is falling far short of those needs.

''We need lots more lab space, better communication facilities, conference areas and sleeping facilities,'' said Glenn Sheehan, director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.

A new 31,000-foot structure, called the Barrow Arctic Research Facility, has been proposed by Barrow's science organizations along with the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Recently, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has asked for a cost analysis of the project to be included in the funding bill for the National Science Foundation next April.

The estimated cost of the new building is about $21 million. If the federal funding is granted, the facility could be built within the next two years.

Dr. Tom Albert, who has headed up the bowhead whale research project for the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management for more than 20 years, said the new building is essential to keep pace in Arctic research and global warming studies.

''Since World War II, and up until 1980, the United States was on the cutting edge of Arctic research. With the closure of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in 1980, we lost that edge,'' Albert said. ''Now with worries about global climate change and the need for a global model to predict the effects that change may have, Arctic research has come to the forefront again.

Scientists have said the effects of global warming will be felt first and most dramatically in the Arctic regions.

''We are already doing massive research in the Antarctic. It is time to get a similar facility in the Arctic, and Barrow is the ideal location for those facilities, Albert said.

Albert points down the hundreds of feet of hallway where his office is in the old naval laboratory.

''Most of those doorways used to lead to laboratories. Now they are all offices,'' he said. ''Now the laboratory facilities at the high school are superior to anything we have out here.''

Preliminary plans for the new facility include dozens of new laboratories, as well as 24 double sleeping rooms and several large conference rooms. The conference rooms will also double as classrooms where Barrow students can come out and learn about the ongoing research, Sheehan said.

Along with the proposed building, scientists working in the Arctic need the proper equipment and clothing.

''Scientists need snowmachines, four-wheelers and boats to get around and do their research. They need to have an airplane available to them if they need it. They need Arctic-weight clothing, even laundry facilities,'' Albert said.

The North Slope Borough has provided much of the equipment needed in the past, but Albert said such borrowing taxes the borough's budget.

''It is time that scientists pulled their own weight, and this facility will make it so they can do that,'' he said.

If the new facility is built, it will mean new jobs in Barrow. The center will need everything from polar bear guards, mechanics and kitchen help to technical assistants.

The facility would require improved communications infrastructure. Fiber-optic cable from Prudhoe Bay may be brought in, Sheehan said.

''We already have scientists up here who have to send out large quantities of data on a daily basis'', Sheehan said. ''This taxes and often overloads the existing system we have now.''

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