Front-Row Exposure to Global Warming


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 small Eskimo village on the Chukchi Sea--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 pounding, and today just 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 now say the entire village of 600 residents could disappear into the sea within the next few decades.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is 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 scoff at that.

Since the 1970s, Shishmaref residents have seen their drinking water inundated with advancing seawater, 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."

At a time when the issue of global warming is sparking international conflicts for the Bush administration, towns such as Shishmaref and others on Alaska's coast are dealing with what many believe are the early heralds of climate change.

The Malaspina and Seward glaciers, at the top of the Alaskan panhandle, shrank 15 cubic miles of water since the early '70s--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.

In many areas of interior Alaska, the permafrost has warmed to within 1 degree of freezing--a phenomenon that could threaten everything from roads and houses to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline built atop it--and residents near the Arctic Circle say spruce forests and shrubs have been steadily advancing northward into the once-frozen tundra, apparently affecting such things as caribou migration patterns.

Even the Northwest Passage--the fabled Arctic sea route linking the Atlantic to the North Pacific across the top of Canada and Alaska--has become somewhat passable in recent years, so much so that occasional ice-breaker cruise ships have made the transit over the last few summers.

Temperatures Up Over Last 30 Years

Gunter Weller, director of the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, said mean temperatures in the state have increased by 5 degrees in the summer and 10 degrees in the winter over the last 30 years. Moreover, the Arctic ice field has shrunk by 40% to 50% over the last few decades and lost 10% of its thickness, studies show.

"These are pretty large signals, and they've had an effect on the entire physical environment," Weller said.

"The only question is, is it man-made? Is it the greenhouse effect? Or is it natural variability? I think the consensus in the scientific community almost certainly is that it is both," Weller said. "Certainly, we can't ignore factors like solar variability. But there is no question, I think, in anybody's mind left that there's an anthropogenic effect due to the greenhouse effect. How much is it? Is it 50%? More? We don't know, but it's significant."

As the political debate over the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty unfolds in Washington, D.C., Europe and Asia, rural residents in Alaska already 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 1998, former Greenpeace climate campaigner Dan Ritzman traveled to eight native villages on the Bering and Chukchi seas to interview residents about what they saw happening to the weather.

"The western Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet, so we wanted to look at the impacts. The feeling is that the people who live out there are the canary in the coal mine for global warming," Ritzman said.

"In each village, I'd say between 40 and 60 people would come to these meetings. We'd give our presentation and ask for more information. They were a little leery at first, and things would start out slow. And then people would start raising their hands. They all reported changes in the sea ice, that it would come later and leave sooner and be more unstable all winter," he said.

"One of the funny things was, in the first village, we went to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, and somebody raised their hand and said, 'The bumblebees are a lot bigger.' We all kind of chuckled and looked at each other. Then we went to Savoonga and partway through that meeting, somebody said, 'Oh, and the bumblebees are bigger.' Probably in seven of the eight villages we heard something about the bumblebees being larger."

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

In these remote towns, where steak costs $22 a pound at the market 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 can no longer 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 would normally 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 would normally halt wave action against the shore. Coastal villages up and down the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, including Barrow, Kivalina and Point Hope, all are experiencing serious erosion.

8 Feet of Bluff Lost to High Tide

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 sea, and town leaders say there is no longer any safe place to relocate threatened houses. Near the airport, the island is now barely half a mile wide.

"This fall we had 28-mile-an-hour winds, which is normal for us during the fall. But during a high tide we lost 8 feet of bluff," said Richard Kuzuguk. "And every full moon is a high tide."

Iyatunguk, the mayor, is resigned. "I guess the whole town will have to go. They figure we shouldn't last more than 30 to 50 years. They figure most of it will be underwater by then."

In the short term, town leaders are seeking help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a stronger sea wall and, perhaps, a groin field that would help replenish sand. Next, they will seek help from the state transportation department to protect the runway.

Not Enough Space for Full Relocation

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

"If a good, strong wave action were to hit Shishmaref, and I think we're due for a major storm, Shishmaref is in imminent danger. It could really flood the whole community," said Robert Iyatunguk, co-coordinator of the local erosion commission. "If the weather service gives us advance warning, we might have time enough to move some of the high-risk houses. But it's just like playing Monopoly. You're juggling houses around, and we don't have enough ground to move them to."

Town leaders don't mind moving the town--as long as it's not far. They have identified a potential site on the mainland about 22 miles away that would still allow them to use what's left of the original town site as a base camp for seal hunting.

But such an enterprise could easily 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 Daniel Iyatunguk, the mayor. "Nome told us, 'Move to Nome.' Well, no. The lifestyle of Nome is not for us."

"Personally, I'm scared to death about moving to Nome or Kotzebue. I'd hate to see that happen to my kids," Kuzuguk said.

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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