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Front-Row Exposure to Global Warming

Climate: Engineers say Alaskan village could be lost as sea encroaches.

July 08, 2001|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHISHMAREF, Alaska — 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.

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