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Warming up for a move

Sunday, September 15, 2002

In Alaska, an ancestral island home falls victim to global warming

By Joseph B. Verrengia

The Associated Press

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.

Thousands of years ago, hungry nomads chased caribou here across a now-lost land bridge from Siberia, just 100 miles away. Many scientists believe 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," says 43-year-old Tony Weyiouanna. "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 -- a half-mile at its widest, 10 feet at its highest -- could be inundated.

Cost of moving

Weyiouanna's ancestors simply would have loaded their dogsleds and mushed inland. But in modern times, moving a town means 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 Shishmaref standards where a light bulb costs $10 at the Nayokpuk Trading Co.

Residents figure 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 a real and unavoidable event. 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, natural variations in the complex relationship between the oceans, the atmosphere and the sun. Maybe it's a little of each.

Heat is on

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 percent 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 percent and losing half their thickness every decade. Alaskan meltwater accounts for half of the worldwide sea level rise of 7.8 inches in the past 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.

Back in Shishmaref, the danger stares Tony Weyiouanna in the face.

The sea constantly gnaws at the sandbar's underbelly. At low tide, children play on the sandbag wall shoring up their jungle gym. Growling bulldozers keep pushing more sand into the tide's path.

The Army has a $3 million plan to rebuild the island's leading edge with bargeloads of rock. But the money can only be used for erosion control, not relocation. The Corps offers to design a breakwater that is more effective. More progressive.

The other option is to move.

Voting day

On a July morning, three village women open the Bingo Hall and stretch the Stars and Stripes across the wall. They unfold two portable metal voting booths and tack a sample ballot to the door.

It reads: "Do you want to relocate the Community of Shishmaref?"

To vote, "Mark an X to the right of Yes or No."

No dangling chads here.

An hour ticks by. Winfred Obruk, who runs the village generator, wanders in. He drops his ballot into the locked box, tapping the lid twice for emphasis.

At 63, he says he is ready to abandon the only home he's known.

"There's nothing else we can do," Obruk said. "The storms make you feel kind of small. It feels odd to move, but that's nature."

For a valid referendum, Shishmaref needs 40 percent of its 341 registered voters to cast ballots.

The village's median age is about 20. Most youths stay up late hunting, playing video games or cruising the beach on ATVs. By midafternoon, some were rousted to vote. They want to go anywhere, it seems.

"I went to school on the mainland," said Leona Goodhope, 19, "and when I came back, my house was gone. They moved it to the other side of the village, or it would've fallen in."

A new village probably would have indoor plumbing, trash collection and upgraded telecommunications for better e-mail and television, in addition to protection from surly climate change.

Not everyone is eager. Sixty-year-old Clifford Weyiouanna pointed to recent improvements -- a school addition, a tannery, an automated laundry.

And what about the cemetery?

"My mother and grandmother are in there," he said. "This is where they were born and lived. I think maybe they should stay here."

At 8 p.m., the election judges put down their copy of the National Enquirer to hand-count the ballots. Outside, a crowd gathered for bingo.

The vote: 161-20. Shishmaref will move.

Nobody cheered.

The island still could be used as a summer fishing camp, said Tony Weyiouanna. He will become a bureaucrat and coordinate relocation planning.

"We will be putting money into the move," he said, "and not pouring it into the sea."

The vote means the release of $1 million in federal funds to examine the relocation's impact on potential mainland sites.

How the $100 million relocation itself would be funded is a question for the state and Congress.

The favored spot for this expensive move?

Five miles east.


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