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As Sea Levels Rise, Way of Life Retreats

Environment: Inupiat hunters' island home faces inundation, forcing a debate on relocation.

September 15, 2002|JOSEPH B. VERRENGIA | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

SHISHMAREF, Alaska — Stripped to his shirt sleeves on a desolate polar beach, the Inupiat Eskimo hunter gazes over his Arctic world.

The midnight sun glitters on navy waves surrounding his island village. The town sits amid the ruins of dugouts that his ancestors chipped from the permafrost when pharaohs were erecting pyramids in the hot sands of Egypt.

His children and their cousins play tag on a hummock where his wife's parents and their parents are buried.

Thousands of years ago, hungry nomads chased caribou here across a now-lost land bridge from Siberia, just 100 miles away. Many scientists believe that those nomads became the first Americans.

Now their descendants are about to become global warming refugees. Their village is about to be swallowed up by the sea.

"We have no room left here," said Tony Weyiouanna, 43. "I have to think about my grandchildren. We need to move."

Weather dictates survival in the Arctic. Always it has been the fearsome cold that meant life or death. Now, Native Alaskans are alarmed by a noticeable warming trend.

Average temperatures in the Arctic have risen more than 4 degrees since 1971 -- about the same time, coincidentally, that the first snowmobile made an appearance.

Weyiouanna still remembers: "It was mind-boggling to see a sled move without dogs pulling it."

Snowmobile aside, this is still a very rustic village. Its forlorn breakwater of sandbags, tires and rusting vehicles is often breached by storms. Recently, four homes tumbled into the sea as villagers huddled in the Lutheran church.

Fuel and water tanks teeter just a few strides from the brink. Another gale or two and the entire island -- half a mile at its widest, 10 feet at its highest -- could be inundated.

Weyiouanna's ancestors simply would have loaded their dogsleds and mushed inland. But in modern times, moving a town means that Shishmaref's 600 residents must vote.

It will cost at least $100 million, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says.

It's a staggering sum even by standards of Shishmaref, where a light bulb costs $10 at the Nayokpuk Trading Co. (They're down the aisle from the Pringles and the wolf pelts.)

Residents figure that the government will pay, although state and federal officials say no relocation fund exists.

It's an upheaval many Americans might face in coming decades.

In June, the Bush administration submitted a report to the United Nations acknowledging for the first time that climate change is real and unavoidable. The administration recommends adapting.

Still unresolved is whether rising temperatures are caused by smokestacks and traffic jams pumping more heat-trapping emissions into the atmosphere. Or, maybe it's natural variations in the complex relationship between the oceans, the atmosphere and the sun. Maybe it's a little of each.

In Alaska, signs of warming are everywhere. In some spots above the Arctic Circle, average winter temperatures have spiked 10 degrees since 1971.

Sea ice volume has declined 15% and thinned from 10 feet to 6 feet in places. With the ice go staple foods -- whale, walrus, seal and waterfowl, even polar bear.

Glaciers are retreating by 15% and losing half their thickness every decade. Alaska meltwater accounts for half the worldwide sea level rise of 7.8 inches in the last 100 years.

Disease and insects encouraged by warmer weather are savaging millions of acres of Alaskan evergreens.

Melting permafrost is buckling roadways and utility poles. The aging 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline needs buttressing.

Not that a little global warming would be entirely bad.

An ice-free Arctic would offer new fisheries and faster shipping. Oil exploration would be easier and farmers could grow more crops.

Barrow, population 4,500, the crossroads of the Eskimo world, enjoys conveniences made possible from oil revenues. Its niceties include running water, indoor plumbing, paved roads, jet service and tourist hotels.

But even with the continent's northernmost Mexican restaurant, Pepe's, Barrow remains a subsistence community at heart.

Bowhead whale skulls the size of delivery trucks stand in silent shoreline tribute to the sea and lost crews.

This year, hunters complain of having to travel 30 miles to find prey. The longer trips burn more fuel and expose them to more danger as the ice melts and drifts offshore. Rescue aircraft have already plucked 100 stranded hunters this year.

The spring whale hunt yielded just three bowhead, and one of those kills was catapulted into the sea when the ice snapped.

One summer morning, rumors of nearby seal and walrus ricochet through town.

Men hustle from their offices to haul boats to the water's edge. Schoolchildren bicycle along the beach, cradling rifles.

Offshore, the concussion of what locals call "combat hunting" thumps for hours as the ghostly shadows of outboard launches swerve between shimmering icebergs. Then the real work begins.

In his gravel yard, Eugene Brower unfolds a table padded with layers of grease-soaked cardboard and duct tape.

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