Point Barrow, Elson Lagoon

Point Barrow, Elson Lagoon

by | Mar 10, 2021

Point Barrow is a narrow point of land between Elson Lagoon and the Arctic Ocean, about 150 miles (242 km) northwest of Nuiqsut and 9.8 miles (16 km) northeast of Utqiaġvik, Alaska. The point is a spit formed by sediments deposited by ice shoving at the convergence of a northward-flowing current in the Chukchi Sea and a westward flowing current in the Beaufort Sea. This is the northernmost point in Alaska and was named by Captain Frederick William Beechey of the Royal Navy in September 1826, for Sir John Barrow of the British Admiralty, “to mark the progress of northern discovery”. The point was discovered by Thomas Elson, William Smyth, and the crew of an open boat that Beechey sent to explore the coast northeast from Icy Cape when the HMS Blossom was unable to proceed farther due to sea ice. The Iñupiat name for the point is “Nuwak” or “Nuwuk” meaning ”point of land”.

Archaeological evidence indicates that Point Barrow was occupied by the ancestors of the Iñupiat for almost 1,000 years prior to the arrival of the first Europeans. The peninsula is an important archaeological site, yielding burials and artifacts associated with the Thule culture, including uluit and bola. There are also burial mounds nearby associated with the earlier Birnirk culture, a pre-Thule culture first identified in 1912 by Vilhjalmur Stefansson while excavating in the area. In 1853, a village called Nuwuk, consisting of 54 inhabited houses, was located on the point presumably to be near the migration path of bowhead whales.

Point Barrow is an important geographical landmark and has been a jumping-off point for many Arctic expeditions. The water around the point is now ice-free for two or three months a year, but this was not the experience of early explorers. For example in 1826, Frederick Beechey could not reach it by ship from the west and had to send a ship’s boat ahead. That same year, Sir John Franklin tried to reach it from the east and was blocked by ice. In 1837, Thomas Simpson walked 50 miles (81 km) west to Point Barrow after his boats were stopped by ice. In 1849, William Pullen rounded it in two whaleboats after sending two larger boats back west because of the ice. The Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1916 was a scientific expedition organized and led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The expedition was to be sponsored by the U.S. but Canada took over the funding because of the potential for the discovery of new land. The principal vessel of the expedition, the Karluk, was carried off by ice and eventually crushed, leading to the loss of eleven lives before a famous rescue. Read more here and here. Explore more of Point Barrow here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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