There is no more evocative image of the Arctic than the polar bear. We all know it as the symbol of our thirst for fossil fuels. As the sea ice melts and nanook's habitat disappears, the world cries "save the polar bear". But hardly anyone says "save the local people".

That is because Arctic communities are largely faceless. They are small, isolated and underrepresented. Outsiders know more about northern wildlife than the people living side-by-side with it.

The irony is locals are facing the same problems as their wilder neighbours, but no one seems to care.

Nowhere is that feeling so haunting as in the town of Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States. 330 miles (530km) north of the Arctic Circle and about 1,000 miles (1,600km) south of the North Pole, the town's 4,500 residents are hemmed in on all sides by ocean and tundra. The only access is by airplane or snowmobile. Barrow is a world unto itself.

In May 2016, I spent almost two weeks in Barrow. Temperatures there regularly hover below zero. From November through January, the Sun does not rise. The rest of the year, it is like perpetual twilight as the Sun never really sets. The days merge and melt together. To me, it felt like there was no time, no before or after, forever now.

The big unspoken worry in the north is that large deposits of chemical pollutants are trapped within the ice.

For decades that was not a problem. But now rising temperatures are causing the ice to melt faster than ever. The area of summer sea ice has shrunk by 10% per decade since 1979, and in May 2016 the ice extent was the smallest in 38 years.

While levels of older banned contaminants are dropping, modern pollutants are rising

That means trapped chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are escaping and infecting animals like seals, the prey of choice for everything from polar bears to people.

Many of these chemicals have been banned for decades. They have been confined deep in the ice all this time and are perfectly preserved, like the sap-stuck mosquitos in Jurassic Park.

A study published in 2015 followed subsistence hunts from 1987 to 2007 and found significant amounts of PCBs in the internal organs and blubber of locally-harvested seals. The researchers concluded that, while levels of older banned contaminants are dropping, modern pollutants are rising.

That is problematic, because native Alaskans' diets are largely comprised of seal.

Arctic peoples still eat marine mammal meat because it is high in essential minerals and vitamins, which they would struggle to get any other way.

With so many people consuming potentially contaminated meat, surely there is a risk of sickness?

Alaska's North Slope Borough stretches over 88,000 square miles (227,920 sq km) and is home to around 10,000 people, living in eight remote communities. You cannot grow anything here, and grocery shopping is difficult.

In Barrow, the North Slope Borough's capital, there is one supermarket: the cavernous AC Value Center. Thanks to high shipping costs, everything here is marked up heavily: twice, sometimes three times the cost down south. A gallon of milk sets you back $10, condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise are about $7, and avocado is almost $5 a piece.

This helps explain why so many Iñupiaq eat what they hunt. Seals are so abundant, you often spot a dead one in someone's front yard, literally on ice until it is time to skin and eat it.

But with so many people consuming potentially contaminated meat, surely there is a risk of sickness?

We do not know for sure, says Jessica Reiner, a research chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland and a co-author of the PCB study.

The problem is a lack of evidence. Because Barrow is so isolated, and there are so few people here, there is as yet no smoking-gun research.

During my visit to Barrow I found signs of a problem everywhere

Reiner says her study should be treated with caution, because some of her most PCB-laden samples came from seal blubber. "I assume people eat meat over blubber," she says.

However, a few minutes at an Arctic dining table suggests otherwise. When game is harvested here, all of it is consumed. That includes seal blubber, which produces an oil that is a prized commodity. Alaskans dip meats in seal oil to make them more palatable.

One piece of circumstantial evidence comes from a 2015 study of polar bears in Greenland. The researchers found an apparent link between high pollutant levels and alterations in the bears' brain chemistry. It is conceivable that the same process affects people.

Certainly, during my visit to Barrow I found signs of a problem everywhere.

Fliers were strewn around in community centres, restaurants and the library. They advertised meetings sponsored by the borough's Health Center, organised to tackle mental health issues and "an epidemic of domestic violence, sexual assault, and substance abuse".

Alaskans would be deeply reluctant to change their diets

At any rate, people are asking the question.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a non-profit organisation based in Anchorage, has been tracking toxicity in subsistence foods since 2014. They have found parasites like toxoplasmosis that cause birth defects in about 10% of sampled caribou, and in 50% of harbour seals harvested by native communities – including some from the North Slope Borough.

The trouble is, even if scientists did definitely establish a link between eating PCB-laced seal products and illness, Alaskans would be deeply reluctant to change their diets.

Alaskans are by nature individualists, Arctic Alaskans even more so. Their habits have been established by thousands of years of tradition.

Bowhead whales have the largest mouth of any known animal

What's more, the combination of limited store-bought options and an abundance of available game means that harvested meat is integral to locals' diet. About 44 million pounds of wild foods are taken annually, according to Alaska's Division of Subsistence. That is about 375 pounds per person.

A sizeable fraction of this meat comes from a different source. One that, unlike the seals, may well pose minimal risks to health.

But this meat has different problems associated with it. In the wider world it is deeply controversial, because it comes from bowhead whales. And the threat of climate change may mean it will soon be much harder to obtain.

Bowhead whales are the pinnacle of subsistence hunting in Alaska. The second largest living animals after blue whales, they can grow to almost 60 feet long and weigh over 70 tonnes. They have the largest mouth of any known animal.

Alaskans hunt bowheads twice a year, in spring and fall, going out in the same sealskin boats they have used for centuries. The hunt is part of the rhythm of the seasons. It gives meaning to people's lives, and food to last them through lean winters.

The captain doesn't derive anything but prestige

Everyone in the north is associated with the hunt one way or another. During the hunting season, people on land keep their CB radios on at all times, listening for updates from the whalers.

It is easy to demonise from afar, but the Alaskan bowhead hunt is a long way from large-scale commercial whaling. Biologists say it takes less than 1% of the total population. It is legal, sanctioned by both the federal government and the International Whaling Commission.

It is also not about killing for sport, and no money changes hands. "The captain doesn't derive anything but prestige," says Barrow's mayor, Mike Aamodt.

What's more, the costs run to tens of thousands of dollars for the fuel, oil, and food for the ship's crew and the work is dangerous. "Whale captains can even deduct it on their IRS form, for their expenses for outfitting the boat," Aamodt says.

When people first started telling me about the bowhead hunt, my head was filled with questions. But the more I asked, the more locals bristled. They do not trust journalists.

Anthropologists tell us the whole society structure, everything was organised around this hunt

In 1988, a media circus descended on Barrow when three grey whales became stuck in the ice, triggering a desperate rescue operation. Aamodt and his son, who was eight years old, were interviewed on-camera. "My son commented 'this is a waste of time'," says Aamodt. "'It's a waste of time and we should just kill the whale, bring it up, and cut it up and pass it out,' he said. I have letters from people that said my family should be cut up."

Aamodt, a former whaler himself, tells stories of whale captains burned by journalists who helicoptered in and sensationalised their culture. The list of culprits includes The New York Times, LA Times and National Geographic: all outlets with sterling reputations.

In a meeting with Aamodt and senior staff from the North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife Management, I learned that everyone in the room had had a bad experience with the press. "That's why I'm hesitant to direct media to anybody," Aamodt goes on.

Craig George, the borough's senior whale biologist, says whaling has shaped everything about the Barrow community, going back centuries.

The only way to get close to bowhead whales is to shadow whaling crews

"Anthropologists tell us the whole society structure, everything was organised around this hunt," he says. "It had to be. The probability of one of the same captains getting a whale each year was low, so it had to be shared. Then you had fuel for the year, food for the year, you had light, you had heat. You had transportation for dog teams. All this."

George belongs to the third generation of a biologist family, the Craigheads. They are famous for their work with grizzly bears and have dominated National Geographic covers for decades. George came north, in part, to make his name doing something slightly different. His nickname is umingmaq, or "musk ox" – literally, "one with the beard" – because of his flowing facial hair.

While George is a scientist, counter-intuitively he is also intimately connected to the men hunting the species he studies. The only way to get close to bowhead whales is to shadow whaling crews, because their culture is so closely intertwined with the whales' movements. Every time a whale is taken, George and his colleagues are called on site to collect data.

George says the hunt is closely monitored by his department, and the bowheads are more numerous now than they were in the time of commercial whaling. "The population is going up dramatically," he says. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as "least concern".

There is no movie theatre, no mall, no alcohol sold in stores, and nothing to do

His work has also shown that, unlike seals, bowheads do not pick up many contaminants like PCBs. This is because they feed lower on the food chain, a good sign for both the whales and the community that depends on them.

For these reasons, George respects the local approach to whaling, and the customs that have grown up around it.

In Barrow, there are only eight restaurants and three convenience stores. There is no movie theatre, no mall, no alcohol sold in stores, and nothing to do. This is why subsistence whaling is so vital.

But this lifestyle, even though it may seem sustainable, is under threat. The biggest problem facing Barrow, and indeed the entire Arctic, is the warming climate. This one issue could overwhelm everything else.

For Barrow climate change means coastal erosion, punishing waves, and severe annual storms, a trifecta many say could literally wipe it off the map.

As long as they have whales to hunt, they will never leave

As the ice melts, the distance between the shore and the ice pack grows, creating a "fetch". This sends monster waves smashing into the coast, and the constant battering eats away at the earth itself. At the same time, the warmer temperatures are melting the permafrost.

As a result, the land is physically shifting and deteriorating. In some places, as much as 66ft (20m) of coast is lost every year.

Nevertheless, tradition seems to trump everything else here. As long as they have whales to hunt, the people of Barrow will never leave.

But they are on the horns of a dilemma. Aamodt says the only way to keep the North Slope alive is to move towns inland, away from the erosion. But that would imperil the whale hunt.

In order to take the bowheads, whaling crews need to live, camp and hunt by the shore. That means permanent settlement on the coast. Bowheads regularly swim close to shore ice, a behaviour many here describe as whales "giving themselves" in tribute.

Once the sea ice is gone the whales could leave the area altogether

But as the ice diminishes, it becomes harder to get those whales before they move to open water. Worse, once hunters snag a whale, pulling it ashore becomes even more challenging when there is no ice to go out on.

Ironically, the breakup of the ice might actually be good for bowheads, according to a 2015 study by George and his colleagues. The retreating ice allows more light to penetrate the ocean, which means more plankton and crustaceans for the whales to eat.

In theory, this could mean the community can safely harvest more whales – but not if the retreating ice and eroding land prevents them from reaching the animals.

Alternatively, once the sea ice is gone the whales could leave the area altogether. If they do, it could have an even worse impact than the most severe climate change. After all, what is a whaling community without whales?

Arctic towns can look and feel eerie. The front yards are littered with wrecked trucks, ice-frozen shacks, antlers, polar bear skins and bowhead bones. To the uninitiated, it can look like a scene straight out of a horror film.

But Barrow only looks like this because locals do not have garages, and never know what they might need. When there is no Home Depot or Autozone to zip to, having a spare part sitting in your yard can be a godsend.

As soon as you understand the reasons, it stops being sinister and starts being simple common sense.

Scientists have been coming to study here from around the world, ever since the US Navy built a base in the 1960s, and they will keep coming as long as there is a town to host them.

But while the local flora and fauna receive international headlines, local people rarely get a mention. Wracked by unemployment, alcoholism, tragic incidents and a misunderstood lifestyle, it is not clear what future they have at civilisation's edge.

If they cannot hunt the animals they have relied on for generations, and if harvesting them makes them sick, it may not even matter if the ice eventually melts. By then it will be too late, and we will only read about this culture in history books.

The feeling of timelessness brought on by the midnight Sun is an illusion. Time does exist in the Arctic. But it is an hourglass, one that is down to the last few grains.

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