Moving a village

Global warming, eroding coastline force townspeople to find a new home

Posted: Sunday, September 15, 2002

Stripped to his shirt sleeves on a desolate subpolar beach, the Inupiat Eskimo hunter gazes over his Arctic world. The midnight sun glitters on navy waves surrounding his island village. The town of Shishmaref sits amid the ruins of dugouts his ancestors chipped from the permafrost when Pharaohs were erecting pyramids in the hot sands of Egypt.

His children and their cousins play tag on a hummock where his wife's parents and their parents are buried.

Thousands of years ago, hungry nomads chased caribou here across a now-lost land bridge from Siberia, just 100 miles away. Many scientists believe those nomads became the first Americans.

Now their descendants are about to become global warming refugees. Their village is about to be swallowed up by the sea.

"We have no room left here," says 43-year-old Tony Weyiouanna. "I have to think about my grandchildren. We need to move."

Weather dictates survival in the Arctic. Always it has been the fearsome cold that meant life or death. Now, Alaska Natives are alarmed by a noticeable warming trend.

Average temperatures in the Arctic have risen more than 4 degrees since 1971 - about the same time, coincidentally, that the first snowmobile made an appearance.

Weyiouanna still remembers, "It was mind-boggling to see a sled move without dogs pulling it."

Snowmobiles aside, this is still a very rustic village. Its forlorn breakwater of sandbags, tires and rusting vehicles is often breached by storms. Recently, four homes tumbled into the sea as villagers huddled in the Lutheran Church.

Fuel and water tanks teeter just a few strides from the brink. Another gale or two and the entire island - a half-mile at its widest, 10 feet at its highest - could be inundated.

Weyiouanna's ancestors simply would have loaded their dogsleds and mushed inland across the winter ice. But in modern times, moving a town means Shishmaref's 600 residents must vote.

It will cost at least $100 million, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says.

It's a staggering sum even by Shishmaref standards where a light bulb costs $10 at the Nayokpuk Trading Co. (They're down the aisle from the Pringles and the wolf pelts.)

Residents figure the government will pay, although state and federal officials say no relocation fund exists.

It's an upheaval many Americans might face in coming decades.

In June, the Bush administration submitted a report to the United Nations acknowledging for the first time that climate change is real and unavoidable. The administration recommends adapting.

Still unresolved is whether rising temperatures are caused by smokestacks and traffic jams pumping more heat-trapping emissions into the atmosphere. Or, natural variations in the complex relationship between the oceans, the atmosphere and the sun. Maybe it's a little of each.

In Alaska, signs of warming are everywhere. In some spots above the Arctic Circle, average winter temperatures have spiked 10 degrees since 1971.

Sea ice volume has declined 15 percent and thinned from 10 to 6 feet in places. With the ice go staple foods - whale, walrus, seal and waterfowl, even polar bear.

Glaciers are retreating by 15 percent and losing half their thickness every decade. Alaska meltwater accounts for half of the worldwide sea level rise of 7.8 inches in the past 100 years. Disease and insects encouraged by warmer weather are savaging millions of acres of Alaska evergreens. Melting permafrost is buckling roadways and utility poles. The aging 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline needs buttressing.

Not that a little global warming would be entirely bad.

An ice-free Arctic would offer new fisheries and faster shipping. Oil exploration would be easier and farmers could grow more crops.

Barrow, population 4,500, the crossroads of the Eskimo world, enjoys conveniences made possible from oil revenues. Its niceties include running water, indoor plumbing, paved roads, jet service and tourist hotels. But even with the continent's northernmost Mexican restaurant, Pepe's, Barrow remains a subsistence community at heart. Bowhead whale skulls the size of delivery trucks stand in silent shoreline tribute to the sea and lost crews.

This year, hunters complain of having to travel 30 miles to find prey. The longer trips burn more fuel and expose them to more danger as the ice melts and drifts offshore. Rescue aircraft already have plucked 100 stranded hunters this year.

The spring whale hunt yielded just three bowhead, and one of those kills was catapulted into the sea when the ice snapped.

One summer morning, rumors of nearby seal and walrus ricochet through town. Men hustle from their offices to haul boats to the water's edge. Schoolchildren bicycle along the beach, cradling rifles.

Offshore, the concussion of what locals call "combat hunting" thumps for hours as the ghostly shadows of outboard launches swerve between shimmering icebergs. Then the real work begins.

In his gravel yard, Eugene Brower unfolds a table padded with layers of grease-soaked cardboard and duct tape.

He is surrounded by four walrus shot that morning, their whiskered heads still sporting ivory tusks.

Gripping a long knife, he carves out slabs of purple meat.

Then he saws the glistening tan blubber. Each fist-sized chunk - fat, skin and brown furry hide - is tossed into plastic pails for rendering.

"In this heat it should go fast," Brower explains, his knife never pausing. "We eat it all. It's good for you. I've got 11 grandkids. I need to put meat on their tables."

Brower, 56, attended Indian school and worked at a national laboratory in Idaho handling radioactive material before returning to raise his first set of sons, now grown.

He mops his round face and bristly mustache with his T-shirt. "When it hit 70 this week, my neighbor bought a fan," he chortles.

His 3-year-old adopted son, Andrew, frolics next to a boat Brower made with sealskins. When Andrew raps the boat with his knuckles, it vibrates like a drum.

A skin boat called an umiak should be seaworthy for a decade. In this heat, it may not last until Andrew's first hunt five years hence.

The wisdom Brower shares with Andrew will be different from what he taught his older sons.

"The ice is thinner. The air is warmer," Brower said. "When you are out on the ice, you can see the steam rising. And that's something you don't want to see behind you."

Back in Shishmaref, the danger stares Tony Weyiouanna in the face.

The sea constantly gnaws at the sandbar community's underbelly. At low tide, children play on the sandbag wall shoring up their jungle gym. Growling bulldozers keep pushing more sand into the tide's path.

The Army has a $3 million plan to rebuild the island's leading edge with bargeloads of rock. But the money can only be used for erosion control, not relocation. The Corps offers to design a breakwater that is more effective. More progressive.

The other option is to move.

On a July morning, three village women open the Bingo Hall and stretch the Stars and Stripes across the wall. They unfold two portable metal voting booths and tack a sample ballot to the door.

It reads: "Do you want to relocate the Community of Shishmaref?" To vote, "Mark an X to the right of Yes or No."

No dangling chads here.

An hour ticks by. Winfred Obruk, who runs the village generator, wanders in. He drops his ballot into the locked box, tapping the lid twice for emphasis.

At 63, he says he is ready to abandon the only home he's known.

"There's nothing else we can do," Obruk said. "The storms make you feel kind of small. It feels odd to move, but that's nature."

For a valid referendum, Shishmaref needs 40 percent of its 341 registered voters to cast ballots.

The village's median age is about 20. Most youths stay up late hunting, playing video games or cruising the beach on ATVs. By midafternoon, some were rousted to vote. They want to go anywhere, it seems.

"I went to school on the mainland," said Leona Goodhope, 19, "and when I came back, my house was gone. They moved it to the other side of the village, or it would've fallen in."

A new village probably would have indoor plumbing, trash collection and upgraded telecommunications for better e-mail and television, in addition to protection from surly climate change.

Not everyone is eager. Clifford Weyiouanna, 60, pointed to recent improvements - a school addition, a tannery, an automated laundry.

And what about the cemetery?

"My mother and grandmother are in there," he said. "This is where they were born and lived. I think maybe they should stay here."

At 8 p.m., the election judges put down their copy of the National Enquirer to hand-count the ballots. Outside, a crowd gathered for Bingo.

The vote: 161-20. Shishmaref will move.

Nobody cheered.

The island still could be used as a summer fishing camp, said Tony Weyiouanna. He will become a bureaucrat and coordinate relocation planning.

"We will be putting money into the move," he said, "and not pouring it into the sea."

The vote means the release of $1 million in federal funds to examine the relocation's impact on potential mainland sites.

How the $100 million relocation itself would be funded is a question for the state and Congress.

The favored spot for this expensive move?

Five miles east.

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