Climate changes threaten Western Alaska village

Global warming, rising sea waters could mean disaster for Shishmaref

Posted: Monday, July 09, 2001

SHISHMAREF - As world leaders debate the possibility of global warming and its uncertain threat to the future, the reality of climate change has closed in on this Western Alaska Eskimo village - to be precise, on a rusty fuel tank farm holding 80,000 gallons of gasoline and stove oil.

Several years ago, the tanks were more than 300 feet from the edge of a seaside bluff. But years of retreating sea ice have sent storm waters from the Chukchi Sea pounding, and today only 35 feet of fine sandy bluff stands between the tanks and disaster.

The airport runway - the only way to haul in wintertime food and supplies from Anchorage, 625 miles away - has seawater lapping near its flank. Seven houses have been relocated so far, three others have fallen into the swirling drink and engineers say the entire village of 600 residents could disappear into the sea within the next few decades.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican trying to get millions of dollars in federal aid to help, blames the problem on cyclical changes in ocean temperature. But in Alaska, where receding glaciers, melting permafrost and advancing forests have placed the state on the front lines of climate change, many people scoff at that.

Since the 1970s, Shishmaref residents have seen their drinking water inundated with advancing sea water, an ocean ice pack that melts earlier each year, unusual tides and difficulty hunting ice-bound sea creatures, such as seals and walruses.

"We've been here since before Jesus, and there was no global warming then. Everything was good. The tides were good. And now the sea level is coming up," Shishmaref Mayor Daniel Iyatunguk said. "You can't talk to the ocean and tell him, 'You're a loser.' Because it's got more power, I guess, than we've got in our heads."

Shishmaref is just one Alaska location dealing with what many observers believe are the early heralds of climate change.

The Malaspina and Seward glaciers, near Yakutat, shrank 15 cubic miles of water since the early 1970s - the equivalent of a month's worth of water from Canada's largest river system. The Harding Ice Field on the Kenai Peninsula has receded 85 feet over the last 40 years, along with many glaciers on Prince William Sound. The Juneau Icefield, which feeds the Mendenhall Glacier, is also losing mass.

In many areas of Interior Alaska, the permafrost has warmed to within 1 degree of freezing, which could threaten roads, houses and the trans-Alaska oil pipeline built atop it. Residents near the Arctic Circle say spruce forests and shrubs have been advancing north into the once-frozen tundra, apparently affecting caribou migration patterns.

Even the Northwest Passage - the long-sought Arctic sea route linking the Atlantic to the North Pacific - has become somewhat passable in recent years, so much so that occasional ice-breaker cruise ships have sailed through.

As the political debate over the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty unfolds in Washington, D.C., Europe and Asia, rural residents in Alaska are seeing the effects of a changing climate all around them.

Global warming is a phenomenon caused by increasing concentrations of certain gases in the Earth's atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and water vapor. The gases trap solar heat, causing surface temperatures to rise over time.

In Shishmaref and other villages along the Chukchi coast, the threat is substantial.

In these remote towns, where steak costs $22 a pound and villagers rely on sea mammals for survival, sea ice that is unstable all winter long and early to retreat in the spring means walrus and seal hunters no longer can rely on snowmobiles to hunt on the pack ice.

In Shishmaref this month, hunters are launching their 22-foot plywood-and-fiberglass boats 100 to 200 miles from town in search of walruses and have had to use boats even closer to shore for seal hunting that normally would be done more cheaply by snow machine.

"This year the ice was thinner, and most of the year at least part of the ice was open. We don't normally see open water in December," said Edwin Weyiouanna, an artist who has lived most of his life on the Chukchi Sea.

The biggest effect, however, has been the unusually brutal storms the Chukchi has been able to muster in the fall, when sea ice normally would halt wave action against the shore. Coastal villages up and down the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, including Barrow, Kivalina and Point Hope, are seeing serious erosion.

Shishmaref, built on a narrow barrier island off the Seward Peninsula, has been victimized by unusually high wave and tide action and the melting of permafrost that underlies its ocean bluffs. Now there is seawater within 8 feet of its main road and dangerously close to homes, utility lines, the fuel storage tanks and the town dump which, if inundated, could pollute the nearby marine environment for years.

A succession of sea walls has been demolished by the ocean, and town leaders say there is no longer any safe place to relocate threatened houses. Near the airport, the island is barely half a mile wide.

In the short term, town leaders are seeking help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a stronger sea wall. Next, they will seek help from the state to protect the runway.

But simply moving the town, at some point, seems inevitable.

Town leaders have identified a potential new site on the mainland about 22 miles away that would enable them to use what's left of the original town site as a base camp for seal hunting.

But such an enterprise could cost tens of millions of dollars. They fear they will be forced to move onto the outskirts of a large town, such as Nome or Kotzebue, a death knell for their culture as a community.

"We know this area. We know where to hunt, we know where to pick berries, we know where to fish. We can't move to another town," said Mayor Iyatunguk. "Nome told us, 'Move to Nome.' Well, no. The lifestyle of Nome is not for us."

So they wait for the next storm and try to figure out where they can move the next few houses most threatened by the ravenous waves.

"It looks like we're going to have to move a couple more real soon," said Wayne Mundy, director of the Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority. "The problem is, where do you move them to? Floats? Pontoons?"

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