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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Alaska’s Changing Climate

Air Date: Week of April 10, 2009

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The ocean takes a 25-foot deep bite out of Shishmaref’s west end. (Photo: Gabriel Spitzer)

Gabriel Spitzer’s report from Shishmaref continues, as a storm blows in and causes more erosion. Host Steve Curwood talks with Bruce Eningowuk, a resident of Shishmaref, about conditions on the island today, and the plans for relocation.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Compared to the relatively gradual pace of warming in the Antarctic, the Arctic is warming rapidly - faster than any other place on earth.

As part of our observance of Earth Day this month, we revisit some memorable stories from the Living on Earth archives, and check out what’s happened since. Today – a report from 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle – Shishmaref on Alaska’s north-west coast. Inupiat families have lived in the region for at least a thousand years – but visitors can only get in by boat or small plane. Both the Native Alaskan way of life, and Shishmaref itself are now threatened. And now no ice protects the island from erosion caused by fall storms and vicious waves.

Reporter Gabriel Spitzer visited the island community in 2004.

SPITZER: Tony Weyiouanna is loading up his boat, a rickety, plywood tub powered by a potent 115 horsepower outboard motor.

[MOTOR STARTS UP]

WEYIOUANNA: We got about 18 miles to go, but we gotta cross the bay first. But I gotta go this way then I'll shoot back up that way.

[MOTOR CRANKS INTO GEAR]

SPITZER: Tony is heading across the inlet with his wife Fannie and eight-year-old son Clarence, on the hunt for something to eat.

WEYIOUANNA: I'm hoping we'll see a caribou today!

SPITZER: He picks his way across the shallow inlet, using a route honed by scores of generations through the channels and underwater obstacles. He skirts sandbars that lurk just a foot or two below the surface. Clarence is the first to spot the antenna of a sunken boat poking out of the waves.

On the other side, Tony pilots his boat up a small river to his hunting camp, near several of the sites Shishmaref is considering for a new village.

[CABIN SOUNDS]

SPITZER: Inside his cabin, Tony marvels at being out on the water today at all. Near the Arctic Circle everything freezes solid in the fall and stays that way for as long as six months. But now, the late freeze-up has become almost routine. Tony has bright eyes and often finishes sentences with a sly, "I jokes." But his face darkens a little as talks about it. It reminds him of old stories from the elders.


This photo was taken on February 16, 2006. It shows open water in front of
Shishmaref’s teacher housing. The lagoon froze over but the ocean did not.

  

WEYIOUANNA: They used to tell us that our seasons are going to change, the climate's going to change, you know, the weather patterns are going to change. Like right now, it's October 9. Fifteen years ago it was frozen this time of the year, you know? Right now we're boating.

SPITZER: Though Tony, Fannie and Clarence are hunting caribou on land today, the people of Shishmaref mainly look to the ocean for sustenance. That's where they find seals, walrus and oogruk, or bearded seal.

Harvesting, preparing and preserving ocean-caught food are what bind this community together. It's more than just survival: it's relationships and a link with their ancestors.

Moving farther from the ocean or dispersing into surrounding communities could upend that lifestyle. It makes people here nervous.

WEYIOUANNA: I guess you could say I'm a little bit worried about what kind of effect it'll have on our way of life, you know? It's gonna make it harder for us to access the coast.

SPITZER: For people here, every bend in the river has a name.

[RIVER BOAT SOUNDS]

SPITZER: And so it's with a sure hand that Tony turns his boat upriver, stopping periodically to scan the tundra. The searches are fruitless, and in the dimming light Tony decides to turn back.

Then, in an instant, the speeding boat slows to a crawl. Tony stands up and sets his rifle, while his wife and son tense in anticipation.

[GUN BLAST]

CLARENCE: Dad shot one!

[GUN BLAST, SCRAMBLE OUT OF BOAT]

SPITZER: Clarence leaps ashore to investigate his father's kill. Perhaps 75 yards away, a gray form lies sprawled on the lichens.

CLARENCE: (Tromping across tundra) Caribou! (breathless) ... Caribooooou! (yells)

SPITZER: Clarence sprints across the tundra, his red Harley Davidson cap flopping in the wind. Tony wastes no time.

[SOUND OF SLICING KILL]

SPITZER: He sinks to his knees and begins to skin the caribou.

CLARENCE: OK, Ma, are you trying to tear off the skin or what?

FANNIE: Yep. Now I'm just holding the skin for your dad.

CLARENCE: OK, Dad, you gonna take out the stomach?

WEYIOUANNA: Yep. Thanks for reminding me. (LAUGHS).

SPITZER: Tony opens its belly and picks among the organs, saving some and discarding others.

[SOUND OF SLICING]

SPITZER: Shishmaref people know exactly where and when to harvest the animals and plants that feed them, and how much can be taken each year.

[BOAT SOUNDS]

SPITZER: They drag the animal to the boat, and head back to the village that's slowly flaking off into the ocean.

[MOTOR SOUNDS, THEN VILLAGE DOGS BARKING ON LAND]

SPITZER: Back on the island, teams of huskies bark restlessly in the midday sun, tethered to squat wooden dog houses. Teenagers speed by in ATVs, over dunes covered in yellowing beach grass.

[MOTOR SOUNDS]

SPITZER: The people here remember the parts of their island that have plunged into the waves: the long beach, the two rows of sand dunes, the children's playground. Shishmaref has already lost one home, and 18 more have been moved away from the bluffs.

Elder Morris Kiyutelluk remembers when it was his turn to move.

KIYUTELLUK: Well, it came suddenly, it was ... we got that storm. And during the night they said, well, we gotta move your house. And all the people got together, and I couldn't control 'em really, they just started going inside my house and taking everything out. Wrapped two big rope around it and them got together and just dragged it across the ground. [LAUGHS] That was the first time I've seen erosion that fast.

SPITZER: About 500 miles away, scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are trying to figure out what's happening to the village and others like it.

SPITZER: John Walsh, director of the University's Center for Global Change, pulls up a graphic showing a new 500 mile swath of open water between the sea ice and the coast.

  

Climate change has melted the permafrost in Shishmaref. The land is now softer and more vulnerable to erosion. Notice the placement of the trashcan before the storm.(Courtesy of NOAA)

WALSH: If someone had seen this back in the '60s or '70s, they'd think they were looking at a different planet. Because in the past the ice was essentially up against the coast down here.

SPITZER: That sea ice used to protect coastal villages from the battering waves that storms bring each fall. Now that freeze-up doesn't happen until later, they're exposed to erosion during storm season.


After the storm the trashcan is much closer to the shore. (Courtesy of NOAA)

  

WALSH: I think it's an interesting sentinel, in a sense. The population of Shishmaref is obviously small, yet this is an area where climate change is starting to show itself.

SPITZER: The reason the arctic is warming so much more quickly than the rest of the world has to do with something called the Albedo effect.

WALSH: When the sea ice and snow retreat, they're revealing a much darker surface underneath. And the darker surfaces are much more effective at warming in response to incoming radiation. And then this enhanced warming will in turn contribute to a greater retreat of the sea ice and the snow cover. So you have a feedback loop.

SPITZER: Arctic warming triggers other feedbacks as well, like melting permafrost. The permanently frozen ground stores huge quantities of carbon and trace greenhouse gases. As it thaws, the carbon is released into the atmosphere and amplifies the warming.

Ecology Professor, Terry Chapin.

CHAPIN: Most of the effects on Arctic warming originate from activities that occur outside the Arctic. So it's people burning fossil fuels, changing patterns of land use. The biggest disconnect is that the impacts that are occurring in the Arctic are not widely appreciated by people that don't live here.

[WEYIOUANNA TOURING AREA]

WEYIOUANNA: Didn't realize it collapsed this far. You can see along here the permafrost eroded, so all this ground just collapsed, see?

SPITZER: Tony Weyiouanna is taking a look at what's changed since the last time he toured Shishmaref's coast. In front of the bluffs sit crumbled piles of sand. Further out into the shallows, the remnants of several failed seawalls are decaying.

Shishmaref is made entirely of fine sand and permafrost. As the waves erode the bluffs, the permafrost emerges, melts, and collapses the cliffs above it. Whole sections of beachfront here can fail catastrophically.

WEYIOUANNA: The National Guard armory that's out by the airport, the two buildings, one was here, and one was here, right where we're standing.

[HAMMERING SOUNDS]

SPITZER: On his way home, Tony runs into his cousin Clifford, who is hammering a new oonok, or seal hook. His old one was lost during last year's storm.

CLIFFORD: I lost my oonok when we lost our boat.

WEYIOUANNA: Oh yeah.

CLIFFORD: My harpoon, my oars, my good oonok.

WEYIOUANNA: Oh.

SPITZER: Storms like that one have forced the federal government to pay attention to this village. The government is studying Shishmaref's preferred plan – moving to the nearby mainland. But it's also looking into another plan, one that would be a far bigger change: moving the villagers into a town. Tony and Clifford's conversation turns to a recent newspaper article.

CLIFFORD: Hey, you see that last Nome Nugget?

WEYIOUANNA: Oh.

CLIFFORD: And here you know there are discussions about moving us to Nome or Kotzebue?

WEYIOUANNA: Uh huh.

CLIFFORD: And look, they're already even talking about their non-shareholders not using the land that live in Nome or Kotzebue. How they gonna treat us?

[HAMMER BLOWS]

WEYIOUANNA: If we have to co-locate to another community, we won't get no choice, nothing. We won't have any choices.

SPITZER: In Shishmaref, the so-called "co-location," or city option, is usually greeted with horror. They say that instead of being close to the seals and walrus, in town it would be alcohol and drugs within easy reach. They fear it would push an already-endangered culture over the brink.

[SOUND OF CASH REGISTER, CUSTOMER BANTER]

SPITZER: The Nayokpuk general store is a little like a tiny Wal-Mart. Here, villagers can buy Fritos, heavy rope and gasoline. A gallon of milk costs about $14. There is no plumbing or running water in Shishmaref, so people buy bottled water at the store, as well as 10-gallon buckets for going to the bathroom.

Behind the counter stands owner Percy Nayokpuk. He says throughout history, Eskimos in this area have guarded their tribal boundaries jealously. Being forced into town, on someone else's land, would amount to trespassing. So he couldn't move to Nome or Kotzebue.

NAYOKPUK: It isn't an option. No one will move. There may be some. But for the most part I think people would prefer to stay here or would move back to their ancestral camps.

SPITZER: You just don't think people would go along with ...

NAYOKPUK: No. No one will move.

SPITZER: How about you?

NAYOKPUK: I'm not moving. Not to Nome or Kotzebue – I've seen 'em both. For one thing, there's not enough resources for the village and their own populations. We're a subsistence group, and wherever we go we're gonna take our needs with us.

CURWOOD: Just ahead – The rest of the story from Shishmaref – and an update on the island and its people - Stay with us - on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Sunny Island Freaks “Arctic Sunrise” from Arctic Sunrise (Sunrise Mix) (Ultimate House Records 2007)]
ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

In the first part of Gabriel Spitzer’s 2004 report from Shishmaref, we met some of the Alaskan islanders and heard their reluctance to leave their home – even though the sea is eroding their land so rapidly they may have no choice. We return to the story now – just as a storm blows in.

[CRASHING WAVES]

SPITZER: October 19. Winds have begun gusting to 60 miles an hour. People are hauling boats inland and moving their meat-drying racks. Shishmaref is bracing for another fall storm.

[CRASHING WAVES]

SPITZER: I watch the waves devour the beach and begin pounding the bluffs, cutting deep notches into the base. Then, one by one, the bluff faces slide off in whole sheets.

[SOUND OF BLUFF COLLAPSING]

DAVIS: Just eatin' it, you see that? Just throwin' stuff.

SPITZER: People with a job to do, like village police officer Dennis Davis, spring into action.

DAVIS: You see that tank farm back there?

MAN: Huh?

DAVIS: You see that tank farm back here? It's starting to eat that away pretty good, might have to ask your dad to put something down there, something.

  

The ocean takes a 25-foot deep bite out of Shishmaref’s west end. (Photo: Gabriel Spitzer)

MAN: He's already trying to take care of the blue school. That thing's real bad right now, even that telephone pole fell down.

SPITZER: After years of storms, people here know exactly what's in their power to change, and what's beyond their reach. It's an ordeal so familiar they're even able to find its humor.

SHARON: Last year was worse, uh?

WOMAN: It was worse. This is...

SHARON: This is the sister! [LAUGHTER]

SPITZER: This year the winds are coming at an angle, while last year's storm was a direct hit. But that storm was later, just before Thanksgiving.

MAN: We were lucky last year, the ground was frozen, in November. It's not frozen, it's soft. Just like taking powder and throwing water on it right now.

MAN (on megaphone): Everybody that's got a boat floating out there on the lagoon side, it has to be pulled in. It's a directive from the city and SES.

MAN: Well, I wish, you know, them people with all the money would be here when it's like this! They're always here when it's real nice and calm, tee-shirt weather.

SPITZER: A building that houses three teachers and their families is in serious trouble. This morning it had a 15-foot wide backyard. Now, it has none. By early afternoon, teacher Floyd Baldry and the other families are loading their belongings into a pickup truck.

[SOUNDS OF TRUCK BEING LOADED UP]

BALDRY: See we're already right up to the corner of the house there, so, I'd say we're destined to lose that building.

SPITZER: Where are you gonna sleep tonight, you think?

BALDRY: I'm not sure. Probably across the street over there at our neighbor's. They said I could stay with them.

DAVIS: Tell you the truth, I mean, it's just scary. There's just no words for it, it's just scary.

SPITZER: By day's end, nearly 50 feet of land has eroded on the village's east side. To the west, waves have taken an enormous bite out of the coast, 25 feet deep. Moving this village is more urgent than ever.

But enormous hurdles remain before Shishmaref can relocate. Creating a new village, as people here prefer, could cost over 150 million dollars – that's for fewer than 700 people. Moving them to Nome, as the government has suggested, would cost significantly less.

Luci Eningowuk, chair of Shishmaref's Erosion and Relocation Coalition, says she hopes the government will look at more than just dollar figures.

ENINGOWUK: I don't think you can put a price tag on saving people. And we're indigenous, too. We're all Inupiaq, and I think it's worth saving us.

SPITZER: The huge price tag will force Americans to ask difficult questions about what our responsibility is to this remote Eskimo village.

ENINGOWUK: We just need a little help to find a more safer place to live. It's not our fault that the permafrost is melting, or that there's global warming that's causing us to go farther away from our home in Shishmaref. But we'll survive ... with everybody's help.

SPITZER: For Living on Earth, I'm Gabriel Spitzer in Shishmaref, Alaska.

CURWOOD: Joining me now on the phone from Shishmaref, Alaska, is Brice Eningowuk. Brice is the son of Luci Eningowuk, the former chair of Shishmaref's Erosion and Relocation Coalition - whom we just heard in our report from 2004. Brice works as a technical support person for the Coalition, and he says since our report the community got a new sea wall to help protect it from storms. But environmental change is still taking its toll on the island.

ENINGOWUK: We don’t have a beach anymore. In 2006 we had open water. Now this year we’ve gotten a lot of storms this winter, so it’s gonna be interesting this fall, I think. Like, in the clip, fifteen years ago we had on October 3rd, I think it was, he said, there was ice. The ocean was protecting us, but now we don’t have ice until mid-November maybe. In 2007, early 2008, we had a young man die. With his snow machine, he feel through the ice and hit his head. And that was early May. That’s when our ice starts to go now. In the past it used to be June or July when our ice would be gone. Now that’s happening early May.

  

Brice Eningowuk provides technical support to the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Committee. (Courtesy of Brice Eningowuk)

CURWOOD: What’s the state of life in Shishmaref there these days? How many folks are still living there?

ENINGOWUK: Pretty close to six hundred people.

CURWOOD: Where do they live with all those houses falling into the water? You’re on a small island.

ENINGOWUK: There’s a 143 homes in Shishmaref. About 126 are occupied. So each house has about two or three families in one house, in a two to four bedroom house.

CURWOOD: That’s a crowd.

ENINGOWUK: Oh yeah. We’re just one big family here, so.

CURWOOD: Back in 2004, Brice, when Gabe Spitzer did his story, there was a lot of talk about moving your whole community to another location. What’s happened to that suggestion, to that plan?

ENINGOWUK: Well, since 2006 we have been researching an area called Tin Creek. Right now we’re waiting on that final report, and that should be out some time in May. Now, when I heard that little clip you had, that was a discussion about moving to another community, not moving to another location. Like moving to Nome, or moving to Kotzebue. We don’t want to do that. That’s not what we want to do. What we want to do is move to our own land here. Not going into someone else’s lands and trying to occupy that.

CURWOOD: Now, what’s the mood like in town? How do people feel about Shishmaref and its prospects?

ENINGOWUK: In terms of the relocation, I keep getting asked, when are we gonna move, are we gonna move here pretty soon? And right now we’re trying to find a site.

CURWOOD: What are your hopes for your grandchildren, Brice?

ENINGOWUK: I just hope that they have the chance to learn what I’ve learned from my grandparents. Telling somebody how we used to live is different from actually living the way we used to live. I could tell you how it is to be out on the ocean, hunting oogruk, or I could tell you how it is to be out in the country, but if you don’t experience it, it doesn’t affect you as it’s affected me. I just hope that when I have grandchildren, I have the option to teach them what I’ve learned, know our culture, know our way of life.

CURWOOD: Brice Eningowuk has been speaking to us from Shishmaref, Alaska. Thank you so much, sir.

ENINGOWUK: Oh, you’re welcome.

CURWOOD: Brice Eningowuk delivers technical support to Shishmaref's Erosion and Relocation Coalition – and struggles with the phone lines there.

 

Links

Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Committee

 

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