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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Alaska’s Changing Climate

Air Date: Week of

The Eskimo village of Shishmaref is on the northwest coast of Alaska. It’s about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and villagers have witnessed its shores eroding as each year gets warmer. Reporter Gabriel Spitzer reports on how this society is choosing to deal with the real effects of a warming climate.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. A recent international study shows that the Arctic is getting more than its fair share of the impact from global warming. Temperatures in Alaska have risen an average of four degrees since the 1950s – more than three times what the rest of the earth has experienced.

One such place is Shishmaref, a village on Alaska’s northwest coast where Inuit have lived for at least a thousand years. It’s about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and the only easy way to get there is by small plane. As storms blow in each fall, the waves are eating away at the village. The erosion, driven by a warming climate, is forcing villagers to leave the barrier island. And they don’t know where they’ll go.

What happens to Shishmaref could be a window into how global warming affects the far north, and how our society chooses to deal with it. Gabriel Spitzer begins our story on the island’s south side, on the edge of the Shishmaref Inlet.


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


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.


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.


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.

WEYIOUANNA: They used to tell us that our seasons are going to change, the climate’s going to change, our 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.


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.


CLARENCE: Dad shot one!


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


WALSH: Ah, get the right file, yeah this one has 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.

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.

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 Albido 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: 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.

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

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.


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.


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


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?


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


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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: Our story on global warming and the Inupiaq village Shishmaref was made possible in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum.

[MUSIC: Maggie Sansone “Miss Patterson’s/Johnny’s Gone to France” TRADITIONS (Maggie’s Music, Inc. – 1996)]



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