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In Arctic Alaska, the Warming Climate Threatens an Ancient Culture
A Shishmaref house undermined by coastal erosion
View a slideshow of larger images of Alaska
SHISHMAREF, Alaska—Over the past 10 years, while much of the United States has debated the potential threat of global climate change, nearly 600 residents of this remote island village have seen its effects creep into every aspect of their daily lives. Rising seas have eroded the sand bluffs beneath their simple houses. Winter ice on the Chukchi Sea is softer and less stable, creating travel hazards. That makes hunting and fishing more difficult, and puts their food supply in jeopardy.
Now the impacts of climate change have become so acute that residents are planning to move their entire village to a safer, more solid site on Alaska's mainland. But even if they can persuade state and federal government officials to finance the move—the cost is estimated at $180 million—many villagers here fear that life will never be the same.
Shishmaref Mayor Stanley Tocktoo
"It has started to worry us," says Stanley Tocktoo, the slight, soft-spoken mayor of Shishmaref. "This is a very unique place to live. We all respect our people, Mother Nature, the land. This is just why we're here. We need to take care of our youngsters growing up....We would like to just keep our traditional values, our customs, the way they have been for thousands of years."
The impact of climate change extends far beyond this island to much of Arctic. A U.S. government report in late 2003 found that three other villages in coastal Alaska—Kivalina, Koyukuk, and Newtok—are in "imminent danger from flooding and erosion" that is at least partly related to the warming climate, and like Shishmaref, they may have to move. Thousands of miles away, on the Arctic island of Svalbard, north of Norway, temperatures have risen sharply in the past 30 years. In Siberia, melting tundra permafrost is releasing tons of methane into the atmosphere, further adding to the greenhouse effect blamed for warming. In Greenland, a new study by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has found "dramatic" melting of ice mass.
"One of the characteristics of global climate change is that the climate changes more rapidly in the far North," said AAAS President John P. Holdren, an influential environmental scholar. "These regions around the Arctic are like the coal miner's canary, the early warning to the rest of us of the extent to which the Earth's climate is changing."
Shishmaref will play a central role in a video presentation on climate change set to debut on 18 February 2007 during a special half-day town hall event on climate change to be held at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Holdren and a number of other top researchers also will be featured in the video. [See Holdren interviewed on climate change (Windows Media | RealVideo; 23 MB)].
Alaska may be feeling the impact of warming more than just about any place on Earth, NASA reported last year. The Alaska Climate Research Center in Fairbanks reports that average temperatures in the state have increased by 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last five decades, and by 6.3 degrees in winter. Sophisticated climate models forecast continued warming.
The impact on ecosystems and human communities has made the state a laboratory for scientists and destination for U.S. politicians, including Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, both considered 2008 presidential candidates. Scientists and lawmakers have warned that what's happening in Alaska today may augur things to come for other communities in the United States and worldwide.