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Rural Alaska grapples with erosion

Rising temperatures bring some dramatic changes to villages

Posted: Monday, December 25, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Perhaps the plight of rural Alaska can be summed up in the story of the beaver.

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Patricia Cochran never saw the web-footed rodent during her childhood in Nome, an old gold-rush town halfway up the western coast. No one ever saw trees there either, that is, until residents began planting aspens and birch, and those and other alien plant-life firmly took hold in the warming region. Also multiplying along streams and lakes were brush willows and alders, choice fare for the beavers that followed.

"Before, there were no beavers there because there was no source of food for them," said Cochran, 57, executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission. "Now there are trees in people's front yards. The treeline has moved so much farther north that the beavers are now moving into the area. That has so much to do with everything that's going on in the environment."

Cochran and others believe the beaver's expansion is but a symptom of rising temperatures that have brought other dramatic changes, including the pervasive erosion eating away at Native communities.

With change comes complications, as aptly manifested by the beaver. The animal is blamed for bringing disease, interrupting fish migration patterns and blocking navigation routes in areas it was never seen before. This voracious rodent is known to abandon overforaged or dried up sites.

Now, ecological shifts have given it more space, said Dave Klein, a biology professor emeritus with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But there are many factors in the dispersion of the beaver, he said. Climate change could be one them and so could a sharp decrease in trapping.

"The beaver is a great illustration of the complexities in the environment and at the same time it complicates our understanding on the effects on climate change," he said. "Then toss in humans and you realize there are all of these interconnections. Climate change is not affecting just part of the world. It's a global phenomenon."

The repercussions, however, are drastic closer to the Arctic. This is where effects of warming have appeared with mounting intensity, partly because as snow and ice shrink, the terrain absorbs more heat instead of reflecting it.

In Alaska, warming climate is melting permanent sea ice, leaving coastal villages vulnerable to stronger storms and flooding, their shorelines and riverbanks washing away. Native subsistence hunters are traveling farther for seals and other icebound prey. Ancient graves are surfacing in village cemeteries. A handful of threatened communities are even planning expensive relocations.

Other regions also are prone to erosion and flooding, but Alaska is unlike any other place in the nation, said Bruce Sexauer, a senior planner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps investigates erosion and designs and builds solutions such as sea walls and breakwaters.

"The uniqueness is in the remoteness and high reliance upon natural resources for survival," Sexauer said. "The communities are hundreds of miles away from Anchorage, have no connection by road, rely heavily upon hunting and fishing for their food, and do not have the financial-based economies often needed to participate as cost sharing partners in federal programs."

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Almost as widespread as erosion, the beaver's range has inched up the state over the past two decades. State wildlife officials say reports have placed the animals as far north as 140 miles above the Arctic Circle.

"Climate change might be part of it," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jim Dau. "Or it may just be part of the cycles in wildlife populations affected by predators and people hunting them for food and hides."

A drop in beaver trapping over the past two decades is likely the greater cause for the beaver's extended range than climate change, said Mike Rearden, a longtime biologist and manger of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge 100 miles south of Nome. Rearden said sleds loaded with beaver pelts were a common sight 25 years ago. No longer.

The change, he said, could have allowed the animal to flourish in a natural expansion that would have occurred anyway.

Rural Alaska is crumbling

Winds and water continually wear away at scores of native communities. Every year whole chunks of land simply float away.

And this vast place is eroding in other ways, too.

Dwindling funds have nudged some small governments to the brink of extinction. They couldn't afford to pay their workers or keep up with the skyrocketing cost of fuel.

Native languages are fading. Youngsters in even the most remote villages weigh their lives against the hype and glamour blasting from their TVs and computers.

But Alaska's most remote residents - many of them indigenous peoples - are looking for new solutions. And they are clinging to past traditions for their survival and a measure of independence from Western civilization.

This is one in a series of stories by The Associated Press examining the impact of erosion in its various forms as well as the strengths of Alaska natives who have endured some of the harshest conditions on Earth for thousands of years.

Beavers may clog salmon migration routes, but they also create pools of still water, good habitat for juvenile fish, according to Rearden. The beaver's influence on salmon productivity has been studied on the Kwethluk River by scientists in the refuge.

"The beaver giveth and the beaver taketh away," Rearden said.

Whatever the reason for its boom, the beaver is a nuisance, said Ralph Ramoth, a lifelong resident of the Inupiat Eskimo village of Selawik, 670 miles northwest of Anchorage.

Ramoth, 74, said he didn't even know what North America's largest rodent looked like when he was growing up. Then beavers began showing up in surrounding wetlands, choking up waterways for whitefish, an important traditional food. Villagers have adjusted to that change, but they're powerless against a more insidious effect: Giardia, an intestinal parasite carried by the beaver that can be transmitted to humans.

"Beavers are all around us now," Ramoth said. "We have to warn people about drinking from the creeks."

Farther south in the Seward Peninsula, beavers have caused similar upheaval, building dams and lodges in streams where salmon travel and spawn, said Charlie Johnson, an Inupiat subsistence hunter who lives in Nome. Beavers also have congested river routes long traveled by people in the region, he said.

The animals have tainted the water there, too. Johnson, 67, once lost 25 pounds on his slight frame after he was exposed to Giardia by drinking from the Noatak River during a caribou hunting trip.

"It's not a fun way to lose weight," he said.

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Along with the beaver's expanding range, trees also have moved north and west during Johnson's lifetime. In the Arctic, shrubs have grown larger and taken root in previously barren areas.

Near Council, a seasonal fish camp 60 miles northeast of Nome, spruce trees have gradually spread to higher elevations, according to a two-year study concluded in 2000. Researcher Andrea Lloyd, a plant ecologist at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., found that trees at the highest elevations studied were much younger - only a few decades old - than trees at lower elevations. Researchers found no sign of dead trees in the vicinity and concluded that spruce were moving into new territory.

"Alaska has clearly warmed over the last several decades, and there is good evidence that the treeline is determined by temperature," Lloyd said. "So it makes sense that as it gets warmer trees would be able to expand to regions they couldn't in the past."

Johnson said winters certainly are nothing like the brutal cold of his youth, the greater coastal ice melt exposing communities to relentless erosion. It's an observation that scientists have documented in numerous weather and climate studies, said Larry Hinzman with UAF's International Arctic Research Center.

"After a decade of cooling (in the region) in the late '60s and early '70s, there was a dramatic four degree warming in the late '70s," he said. "Although there has been a slight warming over the last century, the people of the Seward Peninsula who feel current weather is warmer than it was in their younger days are probably comparing today to the colder conditions prior to 1975."

Historically, the weather was predictable for Alaska natives with an intimate understanding of their surroundings. The weather is no longer predictable, Johnson said.

"It's all part of the change in the environment that allows things like the beaver to move out farther north and west," he said. "It's all interconnected. You can't put the cause of environmental change on just one factor. But climate warming is at the root of all the changes going on."



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