The location has been home to the Iñupiat, an indigenous Inuit ethnic group, for more than 1,500 years. The city's Iñupiaq name refers to a place for gathering wild roots. It is derived from the Iñupiat word utqiq, also used for Claytonia tuberosa ("Eskimo potato"). The name was first recorded, by European explorers, in 1853 as "Ot-ki-a-wing" by Commander Rochfort Maguire, Royal Navy. John Simpson's native map dated 1855, records the name "Otkiawik", which was misprinted on the subsequent British Admiralty chart as "Otkiovik." The former name Barrow was derived from Point Barrow, and was originally a general designation, because non-native Alaskan residents found it easier to pronounce than the Inupiat name. Point Barrow was named after Sir John Barrow of the British Admiralty by explorer Frederick William Beechey in 1825. A post office established in 1901 helped the name "Barrow" to become dominant. In an October 4, 2016, referendum, city voters narrowly approved to change its name to Utqiaġvik, which became official on December 1. City Council member Qaiyaan Harcharek described the name change as supporting use of the Iñupiaq language and being part of a process of decolonization. Another recorded Iñupiaq name is Ukpiaġvik (IPA: [ukpi.ɑʁvik]), which comes from ukpik "snowy owl" and translates to "the place where snowy owls are hunted". A spelling variant of this name was adopted by the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation when it was established in 1973.
Utqiagvik is roughly 1,300 mi (2,100 km) south of the North Pole. Only 2.6% of the Earth's surface lies as far or farther from the equator as Utqiagvik. Owing to its location 330 mi (530 km) north of the Arctic Circle, Utqiagvik's climate is cold and dry, classified as a tundra climate (Köppen ET). Winter weather can be extremely dangerous because of the combination of cold and wind, while summers are cool even at their warmest. Weather observations are available for Utqiagvik dating back to the late 19th century. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Monitoring Lab operates in Utqiagvik. The United States Department of Energy has a climate observation site in Utqiagvik as part of its Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility. Despite the extreme northern location, temperatures at Utqiagvik are moderated by the surrounding topography. The Arctic Ocean is on three sides, and flat tundra stretches some 200 mi (320 km) to the south. No wind barriers or protected valleys exist where dense cold air can settle or form temperature inversions in the lower atmosphere, as commonly happens in the interior between the Brooks and the Alaska ranges.
In addition to its low temperatures and polar night, Utqiagvik is one of the cloudiest places on Earth. Owing to the prevailing easterly winds off the Arctic Ocean, it is completely overcast slightly more than 50% of the year. It is at least 70% overcast some 62% of the time. Cloud types are mainly low stratus and fog; cumuli forms are rare. Peak cloudiness occurs in August and September when the ocean is ice-free. Dense fog occurs an average of 65 days per year, mostly in the summer months. Ice fog is very common during the winter months, especially when the temperature drops below −30 °F (−34 °C). The Arctic region is warming three times the global average, forcing major adjustments to life on the North Slope with regard to a prior millennium of hunting and whaling practices, as well as habitation. Thinner sea ice endangers the landing of bowhead whale strikes on offshore ice by springtime whalers. Caribou habitat is also affected, while thawing soil threatens homes and municipal and commercial structures. The city's infrastructure, particularly water, sanitation, power, and road stability, is endangered. The shoreline is rapidly eroding and has been encroaching on buildings for decades. According to Dr. Harold Wanless of the University of Miami, an anticipated rise in sea level attributed to greenhouse gas emissions and consequent global warming is inevitable, meaning the existence of Utqiagvik at its current location is doomed in the geological relatively short term. Smoothed data from NOAA show that Utqiagvik has warmed by more than 11 °F (6.1 °C) since 1976.
An ancient 5.0 mi-sized crater, Avak, is situated near Utqiagvik.