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In Arctic Alaska, the Warming Climate Threatens an Ancient Culture
Kigluaik Mountains south of Shishmaref
The village of Shishmaref
Most visitors come to Shishmaref on a small plane out of Nome, flying north across the Seward Peninsula, over rolling tundra dotted with ponds and the starkly beautiful Kigluaik Mountains. On a recent autumn Saturday, the flight chugged through dense rain clouds, and when the plane emerged just 1000 feet over the runway, the passengers had a clear view of just how precarious the village's location is.
Shishmaref sits on a thread of sand five kilometers long and a half-kilometer wide, a barrier island long known to the native Inupiaq people as Kigiktaq. The Arctic Circle is just 30 kilometers north, and Siberia 160 kilometers west. For hundreds of kilometers in every direction, it is surrounded by wilderness; the Chukchi Sea lies to the northwest and the mainland is five miles to the southeast across a deep lagoon. In the cold season—from October into June, until recently—the landscape is white and frozen.
The ancestors of the today's villagers have had homes and camps here for some 4000 years, living by the cycle of the seasons, subsisting off of the fish, birds, animals and plants that share this demanding environment. Today snow mobiles are as common as dog sleds, and some villagers are commercially successful artists, but the old ways prevail. There is electricity, but no modern sewage system. Poverty is common.
"Shishmaref is where it is because of what the ocean, rivers, streams, and the land provide to us," villager Luci Eningowuk told a U.S. Congressional committee in 2004. "If the land and water couldn't sustain us, we would have moved on long ago. Subsistence is our economic base—why do you work if not to feed your families? Our grocery store is out there, in the water and on the land."
On the ground at the airstrip, the village's vulnerability is palpable. To the west, on a bluff overlooking the sea, an old house undermined by erosion has collapsed onto the beach. To the east, the Shishmaref Inlet is just a couple hundred meters away. The site offers no protection from winds or storms. Everything is built on sand.
Tony Weyiouanna, Shishmaref transportation planner
In a battered pick-up truck, village transportation planner Tony Weyiouanna Sr. talks about the weather on a short drive to the village center. When he was a boy 30-some years ago, summers were short and cool, and winter's grip would be tight by October. Often in mid-winter, the temperature would hit -35C. Now that's more rare. These days, the sea doesn't begin to freeze until November. Permafrost, the icy glue that holds the sand together, is slowly melting.
In the old days, when the sea and the lagoon froze early, the ice protected the island from the lashing storms of autumn. Now, however, warming seas are melting the ice sheet north in the Arctic Ocean and water levels are rising. When storms come up before the freeze, waves tear at the softened permafrost. Village officials say that since 2001, the island has lost an average of nearly 23 feet of shoreline per year. A number of buildings have been moved back from the bluffs. Though millions of dollars have been spent on erosion control, every year more of Shishmaref washes into the sea.
The pattern is pervasive: According to a 2003 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, of 213 Alaska Native villages in the state, 186 are at risk of flooding and erosion related at least partly to the warming climate.
Here and in other villages, the challenges caused by the warming climate are felt at the foundation of daily Inupiaq life. Tocktoo, now 45, recalls learning as a youth that blue ice and white ice were thick and solid. In winter, when solid ice extended down from the northern Arctic Ocean, seals and walrus could come in close to shore. Hunting was good.
But these days, he said, "there is so much warm temperature in the ocean that the Chukchi Sea, it doesn't freeze right, or fast, anymore....We go out a couple of miles, and you have this creamy-looking ice, and dark-looking, which is very thin and unstable."
Thinner ice and earlier spring warming make the annual hunt for walrus and bearded seal, staples of the Inupiaq diet, shorter and more difficult. At the same time, Tocktoo said, the late freeze makes it difficult to cross the lagoon to mainland rivers in time for the November run of white fish and grayling, which also are essential foods. Berry-picking season comes earlier, now, and it doesn't last as long.